As President Obama and Middle Eastern leaders gather this week at the United Nations in New York, a banner will be unveiled on the facade of the General Assembly building with a message that lies at the heart of the United Nations and its global mission.
That banner will feature dozens of young faces, a vision of the next generation, and will carry the words, "Peace Starts Here." It will embody a simple but irresistible humanitarian imperative that informs the work of the United Nations today, just as it has throughout our history. Peace must start with people.
The banner's unveiling is an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which was brought into being by the General Assembly to assist hundreds of thousands of refugees who had fled the 1948 Middle East war. During this week of commemorative events in New York, world leaders will gather in a special session of the General Assembly to pay tribute to UNRWA and the capacity of its human-development work to bring about refugee self-reliance in its fullest sense and hence to contribute to stability and peace in a volatile region. It will be an occasion to look back at what the refugees and this unique agency have achieved together, to celebrate "success the UNRWA way" and looking forward, to identify UNRWA's role in the gathering momentum of Middle East peace.
Looking back, UNRWA's achievement has always been agenda-setting. As early as the 1960s, the agency achieved near parity for girls and boys in its schools across the Middle East, an astonishing feat bearing in mind the record on gender equality of many institutions in the region at that time and still today. In 1962, UNRWA opened the Ramallah Women's Training Centre, the first training center for women in the Arab World - since replicated many times - which would see thousands of well-qualified women enter the workplace around the Middle East.
Today, UNRWA educates half a million children each day, using curricula of host countries, but enriched with course material devised specifically by UNRWA on human rights, tolerance and conflict resolution. Conveying to the next generation a sense of universal values in a region beset by radicalism is an incalculably valuable contribution. In health, between the 1960s and 2006, a drop in infant mortality was achieved, exceeding World Health Organization targets for middle-income countries. The agency's award-winning Micro Finance department has granted some 150,000 loans with a value of about $160 million - wealth generation being one of the essential foundations of sustainable peace.
So how has UNRWA achieved this? From its very inception, the Agency was an inextricable part of the communities it served. UNRWA's uniqueness lies partly in the fact that rather than work through local partners as most international development agencies do, it employs a small number of international staff - 150 - but nearly 30,000 local or "area" staff.
An UNRWA school is built and maintained by UNRWA workers, run by UNRWA teachers who educate the children of UNRWA refugee families in their own communities. The refugees are served by refugees, people who by definition are intimately acquainted with the needs and aspirations of the communities they assist.
While grounded in the culture and history of its beneficiaries, UNRWA is also a U.N. organization, founded on universal values that inform the United Nations' work wherever it has a presence - values enshrined in the U.N. Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In its humanitarian and human-development programs as well as its advocacy for the rights of Palestine refugees, UNRWA has a credibility, built on community trust. It has an authority borne of a 60-year track record of listening to the authentic voice of the community it serves. It has a self-belief engendered by a robust adherence to universal U.N. values and principles in all it strives to do.
Thus in the recent Gaza fighting, UNRWA continued to work quite literally under fire standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinian people just as it has done through 60 years of conflict, exile and dispossession. In the most fraught of circumstances, UNRWA staff in Gaza continued food distributions and emergency health care provision to a million refugees, a fact that has done much to shore up the credibility of the United Nations on the Arab street and in the Middle East region more widely.
Moreover, just a week after the guns fell silent, UNRWA opened all its schools in Gaza to 200,000 refugee children. Human development work was resumed immediately after the fighting - a pattern that has been repeated by the agency many times during its 60-year presence amid the turbulence of the Middle East.
So what does UNRWA have to offer a world that many believe is on the cusp of genuine progress in the Middle East peace process? Our answer is clear and simple: stability and dignity, a sense of hope for the next generation and a belief that the future lies in peace. This message is breathtaking in its ambition, but humbling in its simplicity if we adhere to the message that "peace starts with people."
Karen AbuZayd is commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency bringing human development to Palestine refugees across the Middle East.
By Elaine Donnelly
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