Degree Name

MA in Conflict Transformation

First Advisor

John Ungerleider


Created over 67 years ago, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has stood the test of time, but perhaps not in the best of ways. It is one of the largest UN agencies, boasting an annual budget that typically exceeds 1.3 Billion US$ and a staff of over 30,000, but it is not a commonly known entity. UNRWA’s mandate is dedicated to one refugee populace from one ongoing conflict: to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine Refugees, and by default their descendants, fleeing from the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict (Appendix C). With decades of failed peace attempts, and the agency’s mandate continually renewed by the UN General Assembly, UNRWA has continued to serve this population as they have gone from tented refugee camps to urban slums. This agency, built as a humanitarian project, has now become a pseudo-government, with a staff of teachers and doctors. Unlike a government, and contrary to the liberal ideals of the UN, there is little in way of consent or mandate from the population.

The research question: how does UNRWA’s structure, culture, and mandate shape its behavior within the reality of its practices with Palestine Refugees, within the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and within its attempts to reconcile its identity conflict through participatory reforms. This began with a study of UNRWA's needs, capacities, and preferences for participatory practices, in agency planning and actions with refugees. Through the use of a Case Study, observations, and interviews, this research intended to appraise the viability of participatory action through the perspectives of several departments representing the strategic level, the programme management level, and the field level of UNRWA’s West Bank Field Office.

The research found that there was a solid consensus amongst all interviewed that participatory reforms were essential to the agency’s success, but responsibility for this reform process was not clear. Participatory reforms were seen as a means to reconcile some issues of governance but also to reduce future financial and service burdens on the agency. However, the strategic level interviewees expressed concerns on the long-term existence of UNRWA; refugees are quite dependent on UNRWA for basic services yet there is no exit strategy down the road. Since UNRWA’s international mandate is apparently tied to the resolution of the conflict, the concern is that UNRWA will reach a point of unsustainability before the conflict approaches a resolution. In part, UNRWA is a tool used by both major conflicting groups. Using analysis from literary sources, this paper argues that UNRWA is as much a victim as well as a support structure in the larger conflict – trapped within decade’s worth of constructed identities and norms tied to Palestine Refugees – and that the entire model is unsustainable. On a macro scale, UNRWA is caught in a paradox of development best practices, do-no-harm humanitarian norms, and its international mandate culminating in an ill-fated and inseparable track between itself, the conflict, and the Palestine Refugees.


International Relations | Organization Development | Other Public Affairs, Public Policy and Public Administration | Peace and Conflict Studies


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