Over the last sixty years, UNRWA's relationship to the Palestinian refugees it serves has undergone profound changes. Faced with the difficult task of adapting a humanitarian regime to a highly politicized environment, the agency has had to thread its way through the diverse and sometimes conflicting expectations of the international donor states, the Arab host countries, and the refugees themselves, who from the start were deeply suspicious of UNRWA's mandate as inimical to the right of return. Against this background, the article traces the evolution of the agency's role from service and relief provider to virtual mouthpiece for the refugees on the international stage and, on an administrative level, from a disciplinary regime to emphasis on community participation and finally to the embrace of a developmental agenda. Although UNRWA's presence, originally seen as temporary, seems likely to endure, the article argues that financial and political constraints are likely to thwart its new agenda.
This paper focuses on the political dimensions of UNRWA's mandate and activities through an analysis of its relations with the Palestinian national movement. The evolution of the UNRWA-PLO relationship, from uneasy coexistence to active partnership, parallels changes in each of the two bodies: UNRWA's movement toward greater politicization, and the PLO's gradual embrace of developmental goals associated with the state-building process. The article ends by touching on the problems inherent in the new development approach, particularly with reference to the refugees' right of return.