Like every bureaucrat, Peter Hansen wants more money. Just the other day he said his UN agency suffers from "chronic underfunding," the traditional bleat of the empire-builder. He insists that rich countries, including Canada, aren't ponying up enough cash to pay for the work he supervises among the Palestinians.
Those unaccustomed to UN thinking may assume Hansen damaged his chances of a budget increase last week with his insouciant response to the news that his group employs Hamas members. He cherishes the fiction that Hamas killers and Hamas schoolteachers are separated by an ideological firewall. He acknowledged to a CBC reporter that Hamas members probably work for him, "and I don't see that as a crime."
Will that remark hurt him? Israel has called for Hansen's resignation, but then he doesn't like Israel anyway; he chose his side long ago, as his statements often demonstrate. An old UN hand, Hansen may believe that employing Hamas members will help him at budget time. It proves he's close to influential Palestinians and not inhibited by old-fashioned morality. He practises what Western liberals call inclusiveness.
A Dane who started out as an assistant professor of political science, he joined the vast army of UN employees at age 37 in what outsiders will quickly identify as an obvious non-job but colleagues at the UN probably considered a plum: "assistant secretary-general for program planning and co-ordination." Later, he was assigned to worry about transnational corporations and global governance, a responsibility even less useful.
In 1996, after he spent a couple of years as under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Hansen hit the big time. Boutros Boutros-Ghali made him commissioner-general of the UN's largest agency, which has 25,000 employees (mainly Palestinians), a budget of about US$350-million a year, headquarters in both Geneva and Amman, and maybe the longest name in the entire aid industry: United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, mercifully shortened to UNRWA.
The National Post editorial board argued on Tuesday that Hansen's organization should be shut down, an excellent idea that may nevertheless be impossible. The Palestinians and UNRWA are co-dependents; separating them would be like taking the olive oil out of a bowl of humus. (That Arab staple occurs to me because my wall currently holds a sign distributed by Toronto university students: "More Humus, Less Hamas.")
The Palestinians have been viciously exploited in the last two generations by the other Arab nations, the UN, and of course UN contributors such as Canada. Like some satirist's vicious parody of international benevolence, UNRWA flourishes by enlarging the problem it was created to solve. In 1951, there were about 860,000 refugees to worry about. Today there are 4.1 million, thanks to the widely held belief (never opposed by Hansen or any other civil servant) that it's better for Palestinian children to grow up in miserable refugee centres than surrender their claim on land Israel allegedly stole from their great-grandparents.
UNRWA has become the official aid community's ugliest example of internationalized hypocrisy, and probably the longest-lasting. It helped bring something new into the world: permanent refugee status. With UNRWA's help, most Palestinians remain in place rather than seeking happier lives in other countries. This means their misery can be used as a vivid argument against Israel, forever if necessary.
Hansen and his colleagues know how to tilt their reports on the devastation around them. A UN paper typically says a humanitarian crisis has been "caused by the conflict and Israeli closures" or some such. The "conflict" (suicide murders of the innocent) sounds beyond control, like an earthquake, but Israel must be blamed by name for defensive measures that cause calamitous unemployment among Palestinians.
How was this mess created? In 1949, Arab racial hatred came together with otherworldly UN aspirations and the belief of wealthy countries that money could both assuage their own neurotic guilt and pacify Third World dissidents. It was all played out against the persistent whine of the Arab states, rich ones and poor ones, that it was the duty of "the international community" (meaning mostly the Americans) to carry the burden of Palestinian welfare.
In 1996, Hansen's predecessor said that UNRWA was preparing to close down, but this December it will celebrate its 55th birthday. It may be the worst of all distortions of the UN ideal, a classic case of bureaucracy in metastasis. Billions of dollars have been spent to make everything worse, and yet hardly anyone argues about its value anymore.