Turtle Bay

Qatar’s Past Due Palestine Pledges

In the weeks following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s air and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009, the rich oil sheikdom of Qatar and other Persian Gulf governments vowed to dig deep into their desert robes to help Palestinians rebuild. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, pledged $40 million in ...

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In the weeks following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s air and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in 2008 and 2009, the rich oil sheikdom of Qatar and other Persian Gulf governments vowed to dig deep into their desert robes to help Palestinians rebuild. Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, pledged $40 million in February, 2009, to fund humanitarian relief operations by five U.N. agencies, including $30 million for U.N. humanitarian operations in Gaza and an additional $10 million for a U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) set up to respond to humanitarian emergencies anywhere in the world. The office of U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon greeted the pledge with effusive praise.

But the money has never arrived.

U.N. officials say that their repeated requests to Qatar to honor its commitment have been met with vague responses indicating that it is facing what it has described as “unforeseen circumstances.” Steve O’Malley, the chief of the CERF secretariat, said simply: “We followed up with the Qataris and they are following up back in Doha.”

The Qatari mission to the United Nations did not respond to a request for comment.

The funding shortfall comes as Qatar — which pledged millions in relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2006 – is both seeking to carve out a leadership role in the international relief field and mounting a campaign for presidency of the General Assembly. Last month, Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani, hosted a ministerial dinner at the International Peace Institute in New York to promote a proposal to integrate the world’s militaries for disaster relief efforts. 

The Qatari initiative — called HOPEFOR — would, Al-Thani said, “marry two distinct cultures: military and humanitarian. It’s time to adapt our military to deal with the forces of nature, not just the force of arms.”

The proposal received a cool response from the United Nations, which already has an agency – the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — that oversees humanitarian relief efforts. But officials said that no one wants to offend Qatar’s royal family by shooting by shooting down its proposal.

Qatar’s Gaza pledge illustrates one of the truisms about international aid: Faced with conflicts or natural disasters that capture the world’s attention, states make generous pledges. But getting them to actual cut a check requires a sustained diplomatic effort by the United Nations. The problem has been particularly acute in the Arab world, where governments have consistently fallen short of their commitments to the Palestinians, according to U.N. officials.

The U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which is responsible for assisting more than 4.7 million Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, has been hit especially hard as a result of a global financial crisis.

The agency is facing an $80 million funding shortfall, and will not be able to pay salaries beyond November, according to UNRWA officials. The agency’s largest donors — the United States, Britain and the European Commission — have continued to fund UNRWA, providing 95 percent of its operating budget, according to agency officials.

But they say efforts to convince Arab governments to meet their commitments have fallen short.  “UNRWA faces an unprecedentedly serious financial situation this year,” Andrew Whitley, the director of UNRWA’s New York office, told Turtle Bay. “Certain donors have not kept up with their promises while others have been pressured to cut back because of the financial crisis.”

“Our biggest donors have maintained, and in some cases increased, their contributions slightly,” Whitley added. “But our efforts to broaden the donor base to non-traditional donors, particularly Arab governments, have not borne fruit.”

In September, at a conference of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo, Filippo Grandi, UNRWA’s commissioner general, said that Arab countries needed to address the crisis or they would face the prospect of greater political insecurity in the region.

But some observers say that it is not fair to single out the Arabs.

They note that Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia, have a long tradition of giving generously to worthy causes, investing massive amounts in schools, health program in poor countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and in Africa. But most of that money is channeled either directly to government ministries or to religious charities, rather than the U.N.

In recent years, at the urging of the United Nations, Arab countries have begun for the first time to channel some of their donations through international agencies. In January 2010, Riyadh offered $50 million for relief efforts in Haiti and in May 2008, it pledged $500 million to the World Food Program to respond to the global food crisis. But U.N. donations from Arab countries generally have been sporadic.

Qatar’s 2009 pledge included $10 million for UNRWA, $10 million for the World Food Program, and $10 million for other U.N. agencies. While the failure to pay up on time will not have a direct impact on UNRWA’s ability to run its core operations, it will place an additional strain on its ability to meet its mandate to provide emergency relief efforts in Gaza and to enable the U.N. to respond quickly to disasters in places like Haiti and Pakistan.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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