By Diana Dayoub ’21
UNRWA’s unpopularity with the people it works for, and the governments it works with, is in direct contrast to the popularity of the man from Wilton, Connecticut who heads it.
—Princeton Alumni Weekly, February 10, 1956
With the number of displaced persons reaching a record high since the 1940s and with the consequent expansion of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) activities, it seems timely to get some historical perspective on the UN refugee aid and relief legacy. Henry R. Labouisse (Class of 1926), a distinguished international public servant, stands out for his UN service and the significance of his agency’s relief and rehabilitation services as seen in the context of Near Eastern politics at the time. The Henry R. Labouisse Papers (MC199) document Labouisse’s work as director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)–or commonly referred to as “the Agency” in the region–from 1954-1958.
Labouisse’s Agency was charged with supplying about 907,000 Palestinian refugees in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan (as of 1955), half of whom were under 15 years old, with basic necessities like food, shelter and medical care. Yet this general description of Labouisse’s job, which, described by the UN General Secretary Dag Hammarskjöld in May 1958 as “one of the most exacting jobs…in the humanitarian field and also in the diplomatic field” (Box 13, Folder 3), does not fully characterize the extent and sensitive nature of Labouisse’s position.
Labouisse’s job not only included assisting Palestinian refugees displaced due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but because of the expansive nature of UNRWA’s role, also necessitated ensuring the cooperation of governments of countries that hosted the refugees and overseeing the internal functions of the Agency, often hindered by special interest groups and “internal mafias” (Box 12, Folder 12). Delivering humanitarian assistance to desperate refugees expressing sentiments of nostalgia and bitterness further complicated Labouisse’s already-strenuous mission (Box 12, Folder 12). For the refugees to become more accepting of UNRWA’s aid, Labouisse had to rehabilitate the Agency’s “abysmally low” reputation after allegations of corruption, favoritism, and bickering (Box 12, Folder 13). UNRWA was responsible for guaranteeing the day-to-day survival of these destitute refugees, but it also accorded tremendous importance to rehabilitation, operating several vocational schools and training programs and awarding grants to refugees to establish themselves in small businesses (mostly in agriculture and crafts).
The particular challenges UNRWA faced made rendering aid especially difficult. Repeatedly, the lack of collaboration with UNRWA on the part of Israel and host Arab states stood as one of the main hurdles for Labouisse and his team. Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian and Jordanian authorities obstructed the Agency’s work on numerous occasions (i.e., refusing to issue exit permits for Agency staff to leave Gaza and prohibiting an UNRWA plane to fly over Syria to deliver supplies to camps in Jordan), while Israel’s forces occasionally destroyed the Agency’s infrastructure, such as an Agency school in Jordan in September 1956 as reported by the Jerusalem Post (Box 12, Folder 14).
Unappreciative attitudes certainly did not encourage Labouisse and his team. Some critics saw UNRWA’s work as unsustainable charity that did not go anywhere (Box 12, Folder 14), while many refugees believed that the Agency had “ulterior motives and that it was controlled by colonialists, Zionists, imperialists, etc.” (Box 15, Folder 17). Many refugees were also frustrated by the durability of their exile and argued that UNRWA was keeping the human mass fed without providing any long-term solutions. These claims are not baseless since the non-political nature of UNRWA’s job did restrain the Agency from pushing for a political settlement. One of the refugee delegates from Jericho, Sheikh Suleiman Taj El Farouki, complained at the Refugee Conference of July 20, 1956:
“Allow me to say that when a patient approaches a doctor over 7 years, and the doctor gives him the same prescriptions, and if after 7 years the patient is not cured, this indicates that the doctor is either ignorant or is a deceiver.” (Box 16, Folder 2)
The Agency’s lifelong challenge was–and still is–its chronic underfunding. Labouisse spent much of his UNRWA career pleading for government contributions and private support. Towards the end of his term, he confessed that he had spent “more time worrying about the financial plight of UNRWA than actually running the Agency” (Box 12, Folder 14). UNRWA had roughly $27 per person per year, which translates into a little over 7 cents per person per day (Box 14, Folder 5). In his fundraising addresses, Labouisse emphasized why the Agency’s continued operation was critical, an aspect of his job that imposed immense pressure on him personally:
“I would assume that to many of you, our Agency is simply one of several international bureaucracies which submit reports, line up figures on paper and ask for money. To us in UNRWA…We know, we can see with our own eyes, what the curtailment of food shipments, what the closing down of clinics and schools, would represent in terms of suffering, and probably also of increased unrest.” (Box 14, Folder 10)
Labouisse had to steer the wheel of a struggling agency condemned for alleged corruption, burdened by distrust from refugees and the region’s governments alike, and having to pursue its operations with a bare minimum of funds. But Labouisse’s efforts bore fruit and his success in leading the Agency was unanimously applauded by most refugees, governments, and UN staff. One of the letters that express the widespread admiration of Labouisse’s work among refugees reads:
“It is not easy for us, Arab refugees, no matter how rough and difficult our conditions may be, to imagine that we lost our capacity to distinguish things and differentiate between them, to the extent that we forget the good people who fought for us (…). I know, Sir, that your generous self will not accept my thanks, yet it seems to be a shame on us to neglect our least duty of appreciating the good people who have always demonstrated full readiness for our service.” (Box 16, Folder 1; translation by Diana Dayoub ’21)
Many maintained that Labouisse’s term marked “the start of a reign of frankness and sincerity” , while others acknowledged the change that UNRWA’s reputation had undergone in the Middle East (Box 14, Folder 12). Labouisse himself, upon resignation in May 1958, summarized the heroic accomplishments of UNRWA and took the time to thank its personnel:
“Thanks to their efforts, and thanks to the few governments who provided the funds, a whole population is kept alive, epidemics have been avoided in the huge, crowded camps, the children born and raised in exile are relatively healthy and they all receive at least elementary education–with a limited proportion of students progressing up to secondary education or entering vocational training schools. These results, taken as a whole, constitute a humanitarian victory of which UNRWA and the United Nations can be proud.” (MC199, Box 14, Folder 5)
After Labouisse’s resignation, the UN Secretary General spoke about the loss to UNRWA and the UN at large that Labouisse’s departure constituted. His service at UNRWA under those challenging circumstances inspired generations of students, refugee advocates, and public servants. While the UN refugee relief efforts may seem like a newborn branch of UN work given the unprecedented magnitude of the current refugee crisis in Europe, it suffices to look back at the careers of those who have triumphed the UN refugee cause since its creation in 1945 to appreciate the admirable consistency of the UN relief work over many decades.
Henry R. Labouisse Papers (MC199)
Diana Dayoub is a member of the class of 2021 and a student at the Woodrow Wilson School. She is interested in economic development issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and is pursuing a certificate in French Language and Culture and Statistics and Machine Learning. Some of the material in this post was translated from French or Arabic by the author.