Tobias Buck
The Financial Times
June 17, 2010 - 12:00am

Arab countries have been urged to use more of their oil wealth to help the Palestinians after figures showed they contributed only 1.5 per cent of the general budget for the United Nations agency charged with supporting the Palestinian refugee community.

The UN Relief and Works Agency provides education, healthcare and financial help for millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Faced with a budget shortfall of $90m (€73.5m, £61m) this year, the agency is seeking more funds. "The oil boom has seen the coffers of many Arab states swell to the tune of billions of dollars. Surely it is now payback time to help fund education and healthcare for some of the most disadvantaged people living on their own doorstep," said Chris Gunness, the UNRWA representative.

The Arab League passed a resolution in 1987 saying that its 22 member states should provide at least 7.7 per cent of the UNRWA's general budget. However, their contributions currently stand at only 1.5 per cent. Based on the 1987 pledge - which was repeated as recently as last September - Arab League states are about $450m in arrears to the UNRWA, with Saudi Arabia alone accounting for $150m of that shortfall. "We have 22,000 teachers on our books and we don't know whether come October we will have enough money to pay all of them," said Mr Gunness. The agency's financial problems would have a particularly damaging impact in Gaza, where more than half the population of 1.5m depend on some form of UNRWA aid.

Mr Gunness added that Arab states had been "very generous" in funding "high-visibility" projects, such as emergency programmes or the "adopt-a-school" scheme in Gaza. When these special programmes are taken into account, the Arab share of funding for the UNRWA's overall spending rises to about 6 per cent. Arab states also fund projects in Gaza through other organisations such as the Red Crescent.

Since Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, took power in Gaza three years ago, Israel has only allowed basic humanitarian supplies to enter the territory. Despite international appeals, Israel has also blocked construction materials from entering Gaza.

Without the materials, residents of the territory have found it impossible to rebuild most of the thousands of homes destroyed in the conflict last year.


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