A UN aid group alleges the US won’t allow its money to go toward helping refugees in Syria and Lebanon

Palestinian workers carry bags of flour to distribute to families, at an aid distribution centre of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in the southern Gaza Strip town of Khan Younis. Photo: Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images
  • United Nations aid group UNRWA said it was told that US aid money delivered to the organisation could not be used for services in Syria and Lebanon.
  • The organisation said it was the first time the US had “geographically earmarked” its funding.
  • Last week, the the US announced it would cut its aid to the group by half.
  • The organisation said cuts could be part of President Donald Trump’s greater strategy to cut back on foreign assistance.

United Nations aid group UNRWA alleges that US aid money pledged to the organisation was specifically earmarked for refugee services in certain areas and could not be used for services in Syria and Lebanon.

This marks the first time the US has specifically exempted their funds from being used in those countries, according to Elizabeth Campbell, Director at The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).

The organisation is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states, and the United States has historically provided about one-third of UNRWA’s humanitarian budget, Campbell told Business Insider.

Last week, the US announced it would cut its aid to UNRWA by half, and pledged $US60 million to the group. The US State Department said it was withholding another $US65 million from the group until it made “unspecified reforms.”

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a press briefing that the $US60 million the US has pledged to the group would be used to “sustain schools and health services” and ensure that “teachers and also health care providers can be paid their salaries.” The Department did not go into specifics about the services set to benefit by their aid contribution, but added that the US would like to “take a look at UNRWA, trying to make sure that the money is best spent.”

According to Campbell, all of UNRWA’s funding goes toward operating “700 schools across Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan” and helps maintain operations in “140 clinics across the five areas.”

“This is the biggest funding crisis the Agency has ever experienced,” Campbell said.”None of the funding can be used toward Lebanon and Syria.”

Campbell says the organisation was shocked to discover the US’ plans for major cuts to the organisation. “We don’t know why this is the case. It’s the first time they have geographically earmarked funding to us, normally it goes to all branches.”

Campbell explained that the group’s operations are the same in each of their five branches.

“Our mandate is the same in those areas so we provide education, access to healthcare, and emergency relief and other services in all five areas.” Campbell said there was no distinct differences in the group’s contributions in Lebanon and Syria, other than the political climate.

Aid cuts reflect Trump’s changing policies in the Middle East

According to Campbell, UNRWA had little warning that the US was even considering slashing its aid contributions to the group. She said she learned of US plans to cut the organisation’s aid when UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said earlier this month at a press conference that President Donald Trump said he was considering cutting some or all aid to the group. “Shortly thereafter we received funding. We weren’t informed in advance of that.”

When asked to speculate about the US’ motives for reducing UNRWA’s aid budget, Campbell said they could be part of Trump’s greater strategy to cut back on foreign aid.

“There are a lot of dynamics in play, one of which is US withdrawing foreign assistance generally.”

The Trump administration in early 2017 announced plans to slash foreign aid by 28%, according to a White House budget document. The US has already pledged to withhold $US255 million in aid to Pakistan.

Campbell also said Trump’s political interests in the Middle East have affected aid.

“Another piece is obviously related to Trump’s decision on Jerusalem,” said Campbell, referring to Trump’s controversial move to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and plans to move the US embassy.

Since speaking with Ms. Campbell, the US announced it was withholding an additional $US45 million from the group in the form of food aid.

Business Insider has reached out to the State Department for comment.