Middle East peace starts with development

Peace Starts Here - UNRWA campaign poster15 November 2010
The Guardian

by Chris Gunness

"Peace Starts Here" is more than a slogan. It raises challenging questions about peace itself at a time when the very notion of a just and durable peace is under threat and when the Middle East peace process needs all the support it can get from us, the humanitarian actors working on the ground.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) is using this powerful phrase as the basis for an outreach campaign that explains who we are, but more importantly who are the 4.8 million Palestine refugees we serve and why our human development work with them, in the Arab countries and territories around Israel, provides a starting point on which peace – one day – can and will be built.

Peace Starts Here also raises some very practical questions about what you need to do to establish and nurture peace: it might begin with a signature on a piece of paper, but what next? Education? Opportunity? Prosperity? Security? Justice? And after all that, what next?

These are simple but highly complex questions and UNRWA has a simple, but highly complex response; a response grounded in our work for over six decades, with and for some of the most marginalised communities in the world’s most troubled region. For us, peace starts with human development, in its many manifestations.

Peace starts with education, which is why more than half of UNRWA’s budget is spent on the education of 500,000 children each day in 700 schools across the Middle East: in Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank. It is why UNRWA teaches human rights and conflict resolution, based on universal values, encouraging young minds to believe in a peaceful, stable and dignified future.

We run youth opportunity schemes in places such as Syria, preparing young people for the rigours of the job market. We maintain 10 vocational training centres in the region, equipping graduates with the wherewithal to secure employment, opportunity and prosperity. Peace starts with education.

But peace also starts with health, with the dignity of a long and healthy life, which is why UNRWA runs nearly 150 primary health facilities across the Middle East, staffed by nearly 5,000 healthcare professionals and which conduct over 11m patient visits each year. UNRWA maintains 135 family planning and maternal health clinics and provides mobile health services in the West Bank, where the Israeli occupation prevents our beneficiaries, the elderly, the sick, the dying from accessing our regular health services.

Peace starts with prosperity, innovation and opportunity, which is why UNRWA runs more than 20 micro-finance offices across the region, that have awarded over a quarter of a billion dollars worth of loans in the last 20 years. With its emphasis on female participation, our micro-finance department is set to double the number of its offices in the next five years, bringing a sense of hope and dignity through employment, a sense of achievement and prosperity to thousands of clients and their families.

Peace starts with assistance and development to the most disadvantaged and socially marginalised. To this end, UNRWA gives aid to more than 250,000 special hardship cases, people living on less than one dollar a day. In Gaza we have food assistance programmes to 750,000 people. We maintain over 100 community rehabilitation and women’s centres in the Middle East and we are piloting initiatives to protect women from domestic violence and empower them in their communities.

Peace starts with the protection of human rights. Through all its services, UNRWA is protecting a wide range of rights: the right to education, the right to health, the right to a decent standard of living and the right to life itself. But our protection of rights does not end with service provision; we advocate for the rights of our refugees, for the protection of the full range of civil and political, cultural, social and economic rights. We also advocate for a just resolution of their plight, after more than 60 years of dispossession, exile and statelessness, in accordance with international law and UN resolutions.

I end where I began, with some answers to those profound existential questions. UNRWA is a humanitarian actor, promoting human development amid a highly charged and unstable political environment and one in which the prospects for peace sometimes seem to be a cause for despair.

But the Peace Starts Here message is a cause for hope. Not only can peace start here, but it does start here, it has already started here, through the work of humanitarian actors like UNRWA. It gives those on whose shoulders will rest the task of delivering peace a solid basis on which to begin that onerous task. It gives to the next generation a sense of who they are, of what they can achieve and it empowers them through education and opportunity to believe in a prosperous, dignified, stable and peaceful future, a future in which they and their children can attain their full potential as human beings. Peace starts here.