ICAI Commissioner, Mark Foster, visits Jordan and the Lebanon as part of our review of DFID’s work with UNRWA

18 Jul 2013

Part II – Jordan & the Lebanon

We finally crossed from the relatively lush horticulture of the West bank over the narrow river into Jordan. I had been to Jordan a decade ago for a meeting at the Dead Sea. This time I had a chance to understand more about the political balance in the country, the challenges of moves towards greater democratisation in the light of the Arab Spring, and the complexities caused by the recent exodus from nearby Syria. There are more than 2 million registered persons on the books of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) in Jordan and they provide services both inside and outside the camps. Many of the recipients also have Jordanian IDs which allows them to access the Jordanian health, education and social service systems. There are, however, real barriers to the kinds of jobs that the refugees can get and there are camps and groups which do not have access to IDs.

I visited one such camp near the ancient Roman city at Jerash and saw first-hand the wretched slum conditions which its inhabitants experience, with children playing over open sewers, a ragged marketplace stocked with a few desultory vegetables, and makeshift mud brick and corrugated aluminium homes. I had the opportunity to go inside several of the homes and speak to recipients of the UNRWA social safety net distributions of food and cash ($10 per quarter). These were proud family heads, both male and female, whose whole lives had been spent in the camps and whose access to work, higher education and health services (especially for the many disabled and mentally-ill children) had been severely limited.

There was an impressive Womens Programme Centre in the camp where we saw women being taught to make livelihoods from embroidery and soap making, gaining remedial education and operating small businesses and a kindergarten. There were impressive signs of initiative and local leadership from the women running the centre, which is, however, struggling to attract funding. We also gained an insight into how the historical issues are transmitted across generations when the cute children in the kindergarten included a murder enactment in their end of term celebration song!

We went walkabout in Baqa’a camp on the outskirts of Amman. This is one of the biggest camps, at some 125,000 people, and it is like a small town. We saw one of the largest health centres operated by UNRWA and, while we were impressed by the dedication of the staff and the implementation of quite sophisticated eHealth systems, the underlying weak infrastructure was evident. Both the dental chairs in the facility were out of action and the dentists had been sent home due to visible sewage bubbling up through the floor into the electrics and the nutritional health training suite was closed due to risk of imminent building collapse.

We took an impromptu walk into the market and upon opening up the dialogue about UNRWA services were immediately surrounded by a crowd of camp citizens all eager to tell us what they thought, with the now regular refrain that it was all “our” fault. We also gained a sense though of the divisive politics within the camp between groups loyal to different parties, a fact which made a difficult situation even more challenging.

We flew on to Lebanon and made it through the inquisition from the customs officials at Beirut airport who were somewhat bemused at our apparent travels over the past few days and the various stamps in our multiple passports. The refugee situation in Lebanon is among the most complex, with the camps having very restricted entry and exit and the inhabitants having severely limited work opportunities. Again, in Embassy briefings and meetings with senior politicians, I received a rapid lesson in the complexities of Syrian, PLO and Israeli incursions and departures, Shia and Sunni Muslim relationships and the relative allegiances of Hezbollah, and the political blocks in the Lebanese government. Suffice it to say that obvious solutions to the situation were not forthcoming!

We walked into the infamous Burj Baraineh camp on the outskirts of Beirut through groups of youths touting kalashnikovs in the doorways of the various party offices. This site was originally home to 3,000 refugees and now has over 35,000 in the same space. Yasser Arafat’s face peers down from many walls in the cramped environment of labyrinthine lanes and over-hanging slum dwellings. All the streets and lanes have utility wires and pipes strung overhead and, as we saw running water and electricity coming into contact and heard about the regular electrocutions, I struggled to keep my head down as we headed deep into the complex to meet beneficiaries. We again came face to face with resolute women, both young and old who were battling against poverty to keep their families in food and clothing in dank two-three room dwellings. They relied on friends, family and local benefactors to pay health bills and meet basic livelihood needs and yet they appreciated the UNRWA support, especially for education. As I made my way out of the camp, past the suspicious knots of gun-toting youths, I was accosted by three old women dressed in black burkhas. They were newly arrived Syrian refugees who had fled the conflict in their country and were now squatting in the camp, putting even more pressure on its crumbling services.

Surprisingly, amidst all this challenge and despair, we saw a secondary school and a vocational training centre operated by UNRWA which were delivering excellent outcomes. The school had some of the best results in the whole region, despite its students having to dodge regular outbreaks of gun-fire on the way to school, and the training centre had a near 100% success rate in placing its trade-taught graduates, despite the limitations of opportunity in the country. There was real enthusiasm and hope for the future in students that we spoke to in both the school and the training centre.

These glimpses of light amid the darkness and confusion of the whole environment were uplifting and overall the resilience of many that we met was impressive. They all continued to anchor back to the Palestine refugee cause and the reinforcement of their history as a definition of their identity. In the midst of the vocational training centre students had pitched a replica refugee tent and we were treated to some keening songs by some of the boys at the centre recalling the suffering of Al Nakba.

Each night, at the end of the day’s packed schedule, I and my fellow members of the review team met to compare notes and develop our emerging points of view on both the impact of UNRWA’s service delivery and the effectiveness of DFID in influencing that impact. It was a real challenge to triangulate all the information, perspectives and insights that we were exposed to on our travels and interactions and to draw out a clear picture.

We have since returned to UK and begun to shape the final report which is due to be published in September. Away from the completion of the task however, I must say that this field visit has been the one that has had the most impact on me since I took on this role two years ago. The combination of the chance to immerse oneself in a situation that has been in the background of one’s whole life, to gain privileged access to those involved at all levels on multiple sides, and to begin to understand the way that the flows of history, ancient and modern, interact with current events to shape the future has been quite something.


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