Rena Zuabi
Last updated: 9 December, 2012

“If left as is, Palestinians will have to quickly grapple with the fact that billions of dollars in aid money can never buy freedom”

Fireworks sounded in every corner of the city immediately after the final UN vote counts on November 29. While celebrations for Palestine’s upgrade to  “non-member observer state” status continued throughout the night, Palestinians awoke the next morning to the same series of checkpoints, permits, and settlements that have become a normal part of daily life here.

In fact, despite international praise for the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) economic development agenda, facts on the ground seem to have shifted from bad to worse in the occupied territory. The PA’s approach to state building has reared its ugly head with debilitating levels of poverty and unemployment. The cost of living in the occupied territory has also skyrocketed. All the while, settlements continue to expand on expropriated Palestinian land in the West Bank, young Palestinian boys from East Jerusalem are thrown into Israeli administrative detention, and the grip of siege continues to suffocate lives in the Gaza Strip.

Although a potential step forward politically, it remains unclear how the recent UN vote will be followed up with positive change in the everyday lives of Palestinians.

In spite of the influx of international aid to Palestine in recent years the state-building project has done very little for sustainable development or the end to the occupation. Ultimately the lack of socioeconomic development, or more appropriately, de-development of the territories is a political question, largely rooted in the unwillingness of the international community, including international donors, to tackle the political roots of the development crisis. Confronting Israel’s occupation remains a red line for most international organizations and governments.

While the world and the PA decide whether they can muster up the courage to face the Israeli government with further diplomatic action, Palestinian communities must look inward to advance the road to liberation.

It is incumbent on Palestinians to redefine the terms of international aid, local development, and the state building model.

The Palestinian question calls for political interventions and financial support that strengthen and advance the right to self-determination, that is, the ability to independently set local development agendas, pursue independent socioeconomic development, and above all, freely exercise the right to resist occupation towards liberation.

The current aid system in fact violates the very principles of development put forth by the international community itself.  These principles include obligations and responsibilities such as the right to development as “an inalienable human right” in which “all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural, and political development” (Declaration on the Right to Development, 1986) as well as obligation for aid donors to “do no harm” in aid programs (Principles of Good International Engagement in Fragile States, 2005), to “respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it,” (International Non-Governmental Organizations Accountability Chapter, 2005) as well as the notion that International NGOs (INGO) are “accountable to their stakeholders including peoples whose rights they seek to protect and advance,” (International Non-Governmental Organizations Accountability Charter, 2005).

The “do no harm” principle, for example, is premised on the notion that aid must adapt to local circumstances.  More specifically, aid actors must remain highly cognizant that in regions of conflict, aid immediately becomes politicized, entangled within complex social, political, and economic realities on the ground. Aid can easily be misused or mismanaged to prolong conflict or exacerbate existing tensions and divisions within a society.

In the case of Palestine, international organization’s respect for “do no harm,” has unfortunately become an exception rather than a rule.

Years of humanitarian aid and neo-liberal economic development particularly in the West Bank’s main population centers have led the occupied territory into what Sam Bahour calls an “imaginary state,” a façade of development in urban areas. This façade however, is quite transparent, most clear when one drives five minutes outside of Ramallah to find a series of Israeli checkpoints and the growing Ma’ale Edumin, Bet Arye, or Givat Ze’ev settlements to name a few. To elaborate on Bahour’s analysis, I will add that most Palestinian NGOs despite potentially good intentions, actively facilitate the expansion of this project by answering to International NGO (INGO) project proposals that encourage competition instead of cooperation among local organizations and impose development frameworks that are irrelevant to the reality on the ground in the territories.

Changing existing donor-client relations will not be easy. Palestinian civil society organizations rely on international aid to fund their programs and projects. Palestinian communities rely on these projects to put food on the table, maintain a job, or send their children to school.

Therefore, providing viable alternatives to this system is the first step in tackling such a systemic problem.

Building Palestine’s “social capital,” or the ability of groups of people within society to work towards collective action is one theoretical approach when discussing alternative frameworks for development. Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar describe social capital as an essential function of democracy, and in the Palestinian context implies for instance, the capacity of groups within Palestinian society to collectively act in resistance to the occupation, towards the right to self-determination, including the ability to set local development agendas and development priorities. These ideas are not foreign to Palestinian society.

In the years leading up to the First Intifada, the first Palestinian uprising against Israel’s occupation, popular committees were formed for the sole purpose of supporting local development in resistance to the occupation. Women were especially central to these efforts, organizing income-generating projects to sell local food stuffs and clothing as alternatives to Israeli imports. Volunteerism was alive and well and a means through which communities became agents of resistance, forging “institutional alternative to the occupying power, and mobilizing people against it…” to use the words of Hanafi and Tabar. The question of rights was the premise for local development and pluralistic movement.

Today, the spirit of volunteerism and national movement have been washed away by inflated salaries in the NGO sector, while the most marginalized communities find themselves passive recipients of “food aid, free shelter, and handouts.”  Tabar and Hanafi elaborate, “the idea of a local volunteer has become almost foreign and the notion of voluntarism as something valuable in and of itself has become lost.”

Now looking forward, what steps can be taken to reconfigure this unsustainable approach to local development?

To begin, it is useful to reflect on a couple lessons from the past. Both top-down and bottom-up approaches have ultimately failed in Palestine. Top-down approaches, as they are implemented now, answer to foreign development agendas, do not to tackle the political roots of the development problem in Palestine, and leave communities voiceless. Former bottom-up approaches have lacked momentum largely due to a lack of resources and an unstable political framework.

Therefore, Palestinian civil society, with its broader networks and resources, can be useful in organizing and coordinating new approaches to local development while communities themselves must be empowered with the ability to set development agendas and speak on the issues most important to them.  Ultimately, it is the job of Palestinian NGOs and community based organizations (CBO) to start this conversation in their communities.

First, civil society organizations must create a unified and independent local development agenda. This requires the establishment of inclusive local NGO and CBO partnerships that communicate and convene to formalize development priorities. Although loose networks such as these already exist, they do not consistently function and are dominated by large elite Palestinian NGOs. Therefore, rebuilding these networks and partnerships means Palestinian communities themselves must ultimately lead discussions on agenda-setting and decision-making. 

Second, civil society organizations must monitor and report on international NGO mismanagement, abuse, or violations of international aid principles or mandates. These reports must be investigated and if proven true, publicized to the international community.

Nora Lester Murad, co-founder of the Dalia Association, a local NGO committed to changing the terms of aid in Palestine, argues that civil society organizations should strive to reject aid that undermines Palestinian self-determination. This includes non-cooperation with any projects with patronizing or harmful requirements such as:  the subcontracting of INGOs when there are available PNGO or CBO alternatives, the inability to set local development priorities, political criteria or aid conditions, enforcing “donor-client” program structures instead of true partnerships, or calling for relief or emergency aid when development aid is most appropriate.

Alternatively, civil society organizations should strengthen relations with aid organizations that support the advancement of Palestinian-led development, the use of local resources in projects including Palestinian experts and trainers, respects Palestinian rights to self-determination including the right to resist occupation, and actively challenge Israel’s impunity in support of international law. 

Finally, civil society organizations and local communities must frame the future development agenda using local resources and capital by investing in a more self-sufficient economy, lessening economic reliance on Israel, and prioritizing inclusive social development and civic engagement. This is especially true for Palestine’s agriculture and IT sectors, two markets that allow for economic growth while also providing local goods and services as alternatives to imported Israeli products. Tapping into local resources and avenues for funding is vital to the sustainability of such projects.

With their rich history of pluralistic, grassroots movement, it is not unthinkable that Palestinians have the ability to deconstruct and redefine current approaches to development. The onus is on Palestinian civil society, together with Palestinian communities, to initiate these steps.

If left as is, Palestinians will have to quickly grapple with the fact that billions of dollars in aid money can never buy freedom.