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Guterres: UNRWA vital in ability to underpay Gazans

Avi Abraham Benlolo, founding chair and CEO of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative, wrote that the United Nations exploits its Gazan staff.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in Saint Petersburg during an interview with Russian TV, June 1, 2017. Credit: Truba7113/Shutterstock.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in Saint Petersburg during an interview with Russian TV, June 1, 2017. Credit: Truba7113/Shutterstock.

Every year on Sept. 18, the United Nations celebrates International Equal Pay Day. The rest of the year, it hires Gazans because they are cheaper than other U.N. staff.

António Guterres, U.N. secretary-general, said on Thursday that the international body’s scandal-plagued, Palestinian-only aid agency cannot be disbanded, in part because of the relatively low wages it pays Gazan staffers at the U.N. Relief and Works Agency.

“The costs with UNRWA are much lower than the costs with the other agencies for historical reasons,” Guterres told reporters at a press conference.

He cited the U.N. Children’s Fund and World Food Programme in particular.

“The salaries paid by UNRWA are one-third of the salaries paid by UNICEF or WFP or other U.N. organizations,” Guterres said. “So any attempt of replacement—that is not possible. If it would be possible, it would mean a huge multiplication of the resources needed for humanitarian action.”

Many countries, including the United States, have frozen payments to UNRWA pending an investigation of allegations that a dozen employees of the agency participated in the Oct. 7 terror attacks.

Some 10% of UNRWA’s staff has ties to Palestinian terror groups, per media reports. Many, including lawmakers in Congress, have called for UNRWA to be dissolved and for other U.N. agencies to inherit its portfolio. 

At the Thursday press conference, Guterres repeated what has become a common refrain among U.N. leaders.

“UNRWA does not only work in Gaza. UNRWA works in Jordan, in Lebanon, in Syria, in the West Bank, where the school system for the Palestinians is guaranteed by UNRWA, where the health system is guaranteed by UNRWA, where vital conditions are guaranteed by UNRWA,” he said. “I don’t see any other organization that would be able to do all these, in all these countries, all of a sudden.”

Guterres called the U.N. agency with a reported terrorism problem the “backbone of the humanitarian distribution in Gaza.” 

Separate but unequal

UNRWA is an oddity among U.N. agencies in its structure and the manner in which it carries out its mandates, largely due to its political nature and the length of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A 1949 U.N. General Assembly resolution directs the UNRWA commissioner-general to “select and appoint his staff in accordance with general arrangements made in agreement with the secretary-general,” rather than under normal U.N. staff rules. That has meant UNRWA could create a distinct system of rules and regulations for its staff.

The International Civil Service Commission, an independent body that the U.N. General Assembly created in 1974, typically sets the salaries of international U.N. staff. Most U.N. agencies have a limited number of locally-based workers, or “area staff,” but UNRWA, uniquely in the U.N. suite of agencies, has some 13,000 Palestinian workers in Gaza and limited international staff.

UNRWA pegs salaries for its Palestinian works, as it does for those in Judea and Samaria, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, to local markets. That means that an UNRWA health worker in Gaza would have a similar salary to a Gazan health worker who doesn’t work for the United Nations, rather than to that of a U.N. international staff health worker in Africa.

If an “area” UNRWA teacher was paid an international staff-level salary, “it would kill the local market for teachers,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman to the U.N. secretary-general, told JNS. “Everyone would apply to be an UNRWA teacher.”

UNRWA staff have cited other considerations, beyond economic and budget ones. 

“Under a political solution, it was hoped that UNRWA staff would transition into Palestinian public institutions,” Phillipe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, said in April 2023. (There are U.S. and international calls for Lazzarini to resign as well.)

The UNRWA head’s view, it seems, would make UNRWA a kind of jobs bank to fill the responsibilities of Palestinian governing authorities, including education, health and social services.

Avi Abraham Benlolo, founding chairman and CEO of the Abraham Global Peace Initiative, a Toronto nonprofit, accused UNRWA of exploiting its staff with the 66%-lower salaries for Gazans. “How bad can a single agency be?” he wrote.

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