Alex Weinreb

Who funds UNRWA, and who doesn’t?

Many of UNRWA’s leading donors have been getting bad press for suspending their donations. Let’s put aside the debates about whether UNRWA should still exist and, if so, in what form. Instead, let’s focus on some simpler empirical questions: which countries fund UNRWA and how much do they give?

I’m going to use 2022 data since 2023 data are not yet complete.

UNRWA received 1.175 billion USD in donations in 2022. The chart shows amounts given by the top seven and bottom seven donors, measured in “millions of USD.” (The full data are available here).

The top of the table is no surprise. The USA gave 343 million USD to UNRWA in 2022. Germany gave 202 million, in addition to its indirect contributions through the EU’s collective 114 million. Several other European countries, alongside Japan and Canada, gave in the tens of millions. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are also deep inside this eight-figure club.

Now look at the bottom of the list. South Africa, leading the charge at the ICJ, managed 171,600 USD (less than a third of what ex-President Ramaphosa stashed in his sofa!). Indonesia, the largest Muslim majority country in the world gave 200,000 USD: that’s about 1 dollar from every 1,300 Indonesians, compared to roughly 1 USD from every person in the US or 2.4 USD from every person in Germany.

The Palestinian national movement’s superheavyweight geopolitical allies hardly did better. Russia contributed 2 million USD, China 1 million, and Brazil a mere 75,000 USD (“Dear Lula, I’m writing from Gaza, thank you for the pencils.”) Contrast that with India, the remaining original founding member-state of BRICS: despite its open alliance with Israel, it gave 5 million.

Even more important than those at the bottom of the list are the countries that don’t even make it onto the list. They gave nothing or next to nothing.

Pakistan, with a population of 236 million, including tens of thousands calling for jihad against Israel, contributed a mere 8,746 USD. And among those who gave nothing: Algeria, Iraq, Tunisia, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran. Yes, all these centers of “resistance” to Zionism, whose leaders plume their pro-Palestinian feathers at every opportunity, gave zero dollars to UNRWA.

These competing legacies, countries that actually give to UNRWA versus countries that merely demand that others give, is surely the context within which any debate about UNRWA funding needs to be placed. Among the former, ten of the largest donors in 2022 have now suspended their funding for 2024. They accounted for 798 million of UNRWA’s total 1.175 billion in donations.

That’s a big hit for UNRWA. But isn’t the solution obvious? If countries that don’t currently fund UNRWA, or fund it minimally, don’t like donor countries’ decision to suspend funding; and if they think that UNRWA is truly important; and if they really care about the well-being of Palestinians serviced by UNRWA, why don’t they just step up and plug the hole?

Some of the countries that claim to care (e.g., Pakistan, Algeria, Tunisia) are presumably too poor to do much. But Indonesia, Brazil, and South Africa could certainly up their game. Their publics would surely support a little sacrifice for the good of UNRWA. One dollar per person from each of these countries would amount to 550 million USD, plugging two-thirds of the threatened hole in funding.

Likewise, Norway could redirect a small portion of its Sovereign Wealth Fund (aka whitewashed oil money); Ireland could redirect a tiny portion of the corporate tax it “earns” as a tax haven; and Qatar could redirect the suitcases full of cash that it’s been giving to Hamas.

Turkey could also do more. It currently gives only 0.30 USD for every resident of Turkey. If, as a small downpayment on its imagined Ottoman reprise, it gave the same per capita amount as Germany (2.40 USD), its contribution to UNRWA’s budget would top 200 million USD!

And Iran? Imagine if it redirected even half of its spending on Hamas, not to mention the enormous sums it devotes to nuclear weapons, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and regional destabilization in general.

Or – now I’m really thinking outside the box – imagine what the billionaires in the Hamas leadership council could do. They made a large part of their money profiteering from smuggling stuff into Gaza. Time to give a little back?

Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen. On the contrary, the money will shortly flow back into UNRWA’s coffers as the US, Germany and others, having initially demonstrated resolve by suspending funding, fall back into old habits and, mumbling a quiet mea culpa, reopen the taps. Meanwhile, the South Africas and Indonesias of this world will resume their positions as global moral guardians, ready to unleash a torrent of outrage the next time that truly liberal countries – or the Zionists who supposedly pull the strings behind them – dare suggest that just this once, perhaps, others should pick up the tab.

About the Author
Trained in demography (PhD from U. Pennsylvania), I was on the faculty of Hebrew University for 5 years, then Professor of Sociology and Director of Health and Society at the University of Texas at Austin. I'm now Research Director and head of demography at the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies.
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