Why did Canada keep throwing money at UNWRA while other countries cut back?

Rahim MohamedIn late January, International Development Minister Ahmed Hussen announced that Canada would suspend funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) following bombshell allegations that a dozen UNRWA employees participated in the Oct. 7 terror attacks in southern Israel.

With Hussen’s late January statement, Canada joined a growing list of countries that have pulled donations from the troubled agency. As of writing, nine major donors, including the United States and Germany, have announced that they are suspending or reviewing their donations to UNRWA.

The development minister’s recent announcement shouldn’t let the federal government off the hook for its patronage of UNRWA, which has long been linked to terrorism (over 1,000 of the agency’s current staff are believed to have ties with Islamist terror groups). UNRWA’s radical indoctrination of pupils at its over 700 schools has also been well-documented in multiple studies of textbooks, curricula and other teaching materials.

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Yet UNRWA’s lengthy track record of malfeasance, encompassing both hostility toward Israel and run-of-the-mill corruption, hasn’t, until recently, dampened the current federal government’s spirit of giving. In fact, a cursory glance at public accounts data shows Canada, under Justin Trudeau’s tenure, to be one of UNRWA’s most reliable and generous patrons, regularly outpacing a number of peer countries.

Since fully restoring UNRWA funding in 2016, the Trudeau government has pledged more than $200 million to the agency, with the nearly $32 million pledged in 2022 accounting for about two percent of the agency’s budget.

Over the same period, fellow G7 country Italy has pledged around $145 million and Australia $125 million. Canada even out-pledged the U.K., the world’s sixth-largest economy, in 2022. Meanwhile, economic juggernauts China and India pledged a paltry $6 million combined that year. (Both countries have expressed strong pro-Palestinian sympathies in recent months, alongside the other BRICS members.)

Year to year, Canada is regularly one of the top 10 government donors to UNRWA (not including the EU) despite being home to just 45,000 residents of Palestinian ancestry, comprising less than one percent of the global diaspora. What, if any, strategic purpose this spending has ever served is unclear.

Israel’s neighbouring countries in the Middle East, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, have been far less generous toward UNRWA despite the obvious stake these countries have in the political stability of Palestinian-held territories and the broader region. (A caveat: we should not assume that funding the UNRWA and “stability” are one and the same, especially given the agency’s infiltration by genocidal Hamas partisans.)

The reluctance to top up the agency extends to even affluent Gulf kingdoms such as Kuwait and Qatar (the 18th and 19th largest state donors, respectively, to UNRWA in 2022). To put this into perspective, UNRWA’s entire US$1.6 billion budget is about a quarter of what Qatar spent on the construction of stadiums alone in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup. It’s hard to see how giving countries with actual skin in the game a free ride is a good use of scarce Canadian aid dollars.

The Trudeau government has also been quite forgiving of UNRWA’s multiple widely publicized transgressions. After cutting funding by 30 percent in response to a 2019 sexual misconduct and nepotism scandal, Canada restored funding to near the pre-existing level the following year, with pledged donations reaching a record high of $37.1 million in 2021. By comparison, Australia zeroed out funding for non-core UNRWA activities over each of the next three years, resulting in a sustained decrease of funding from pre-2019 funding levels.

Not even the horrific events of Oct. 7, which were quickly linked to the poisonous teachings of UNRWA-run schools, gave Canadian development officials pause for reflection. Instead, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly touted Canada’s “increased” funding for UNRWA in a televised interview conducted over two months later.

By this point, a number of major benefactors had already announced plans to withhold aid. This group of withholdees notably included Germany, which has historically been one of the two biggest state donors to the agency (joined by the United States).

Canada’s recent decision to suspend funding for UNRWA is welcome news but the announcement comes too little too late. The Trudeau government must be held to account for turning a blind eye for years to the agency’s clear dysfunction and barely concealed extremism, wasting hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the process.

The numbers are clear, and they speak damningly to Canada’s complacency, ambivalence toward Israel, or even see-no-evil complicity in funding Hamas’s activities via the UNRWA. The recent pause in funding shouldn’t stop Canadians from demanding answers and accountability.

Rahim Mohamed, PhD, is a Senior Fellow with the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy.

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