Aid on Palestinian terms – the case for a boycott

Palestinians, already denied their right to self-determination, should not have to receive aid in ways that further undermine local priorities, capacities and ownership.

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By Nora Lester Murad

Aid, too often conflated with “development,” is a huge global industry whose success is not at all obvious: despite some gains, poverty is not eradicated, the climate is not saved, and rights are not respected. Yet poor outcomes are blamed on mere technical glitches while fundamental deficiencies and contradictions in global aid strategy remain unexamined. Palestine is an important illustration because of the high level of aid dependence, the numerous international donors involved, and the millions of Palestinians who continue to suffer despite billions spent over decades.

I have been disillusioned with aid-funded development in Palestine since I arrived in 2004 and found local NGOs chasing international funding by modifying their programs, publishing information in English rather than in Arabic, and hiring extra staff to submit financial reports in foreign currencies, among other distortions. In response, I helped to found Dalia Association, a Palestinian NGO that aims to promote Palestinian self-determination through local control over resources. Dalia’s publications, “Does International Aid Violate Palestinian Rights?” and “Donors, Don’t Forget to Do No Harm in Gaza” framed international aid reform as struggle for rights-claiming in the context of international law and linked aid advocacy to the Palestinian national movement as well as to the global aid reform movement (also here).

Can aid be reformed?

Spurred on by local interest, Dalia Association then published a study of grassroots civil society’s priorities for aid reform, distributed a short film, and organized an international petition campaign that stated:

Palestinians, already denied their right to self-determination, should not have to receive aid in ways that further undermine local priorities, capacities and ownership. Moreover, respect for rights in the aid process is tied to development effectiveness, an interest shared by Palestinians, other aid-dependent peoples, donors, policy makers, and civil society. We, the undersigned, support aid reform and therefore pledge to work within our organizations, with our representatives, and in solidarity with Palestinian civil society to reduce dependence on aid, ensure accountability at all levels, and promote development within a framework of rights.

I took part in the Fourth High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness – the most important global aid policy gathering – and I reached out to donors, wrote blog posts, and spoke at conferences. I distributed information through the Local Area Coordinating Secretariat (LACS), to which all major international donors to Palestine belong, and the Association of International Development Agencies in Jerusalem (AIDA), which includes all major international NGOs. But sadly, there was not a single expression of interest. In unofficial conversations, I was told: “We love your work. We agree with you. You should go after the bad international actors who tarnish our reputations.” They did not understand that we are all implicated in the charade that development under occupation is possible. Moreover, they thought their good intentions could alleviate their responsibility for the collective impact of international aid on Palestine.

Transparency – where? accountability – how?

Members of the Palestinians for Dignity Organization protesting in front of the European Union building, EUPOL COPPS in Ramallah.

Still, I remained hopeful. Perhaps we could not convince aid actors to change with facts and appeals, but we could hold them accountable for putting into practice the principles they espouse — principles like local ownership, mutual accountability, and harmonization with local agendas and goals like legitimate politics, addressing injustice and people’s security.

The United States, self-proclaimed champion of aid transparency and signatory to nearly all the relevant treaties, declarations and best practice statements, was my first experiment. In early December 2011, I met Raj Shah, USAID’s top administrator. I told him that US “anti-terrorism” policy harms Palestinian development. He said that I might not have a full picture of the constraints USAID operates under and that USAID might not have full appreciation of my point of view. He asked one of his aides to take my contact information so that Marla Rudman could follow up. I never heard from Marla Rudman, but considering the possibility that my email address was not clear or my card was lost (or her cat ate it), I contacted USAID and explained.

On January 31, 2012, I got an email from Sara Borodin, USAID West Bank and Gaza Desk Officer. We spoke on February 9, after which I sent documents that she promised to share with colleagues. She also promised to get back to me about how the US commitment to the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States would affect USAID’s work in Palestine. I never heard from her again. I emailed her in July 2012 to ask for access to USAID project data for my research, but received no reply.

I wanted to know how USAID funds were being spent – for what and to whom – but I could not find any details on their website. For example, the 2-page fact sheet about the Civic Participation Program within the Democracy and Governance Program only includes an overview, goals, activities and successes. Under “Project Detail” it lists the Implementing Partner as Catholic Relief Services, the duration as 9.30.2010-9.30.2012, and the estimated cost as just under USD18 million. I contacted USAID in Tel Aviv directly. I had a strange email exchange with Anna-Maija Litvak during which she kept telling me the information I wanted was on their website. Several times I said I could not find it and asked for a link or an annual report, but she just insisted that the information was there. Then she stopped answering my emails.

So I called Catholic Relief Services to request a quarterly or annual report of the Civic Participation Program. They seemed suspicious, but I reminded them that I was asking for public information and they sent it right away. From the report, I could identify the names of their Palestinian NGO sub-grantees and the general activities supported under the grant, but any details that would enable me to assess if the expenditures were legal or effective were lacking. A conversation with senior staff Ziad Abdullah and Nicole Lumezi was helpful, but the details were still incomplete.

Since the international aid community has committed to transparency and accountability, I checked the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) database, the focus of a massive global effort to get donors to publicize what they fund. No USAID data were available there; (apparently the US is required to have an IATI compliance plan by end 2012 but need not actually comply until 2015). Neither Catholic Relief Services nor any of the other implementing partners listed on the USAID website were compliant with IATI yet either.

The information on the Palestinian Authority’s online database, DARP, is also incomplete. In a call to the PA, I was told that donors do not disclose details of the grants they make to Palestine through INGOs. I asked, “But, if you don’t know how millions of dollars of aid directed through INGOs are spent, how can you be sure they are not buying drugs and guns or putting it into their pockets?” Their reply: “That’s a good question.”

Admitting the truth – aid reform is an industry

I am reporting in painful detail to illustrate how I became disillusioned, not only with aid, but with aid reform. I was part of the global aid reform movement, but my experience has made me critical: Aid actors know exactly what they are doing in Palestine and in other aid-dependent contexts. Their aid policy, an extension of their foreign policy, aims to perpetuate the unequal but controllable status quo.

Sadly, a huge swath of global civil society is now coopted into a formal process of “aid reform” that has a diluted vision, wastes precious resources on meetings and reports, and often cannot practice what it preaches—all because they agree to work within the narrow constraints proscribed by powerful Western governments hiding behind their “donor” masks.

I have come to the conclusion that although some kinds of aid are helpful, the system as a whole is closed and self-serving. As a result, we will not be able to change international aid policy through “front door” engagement (what they call “civil society participation”), which is designed to occupy us with circumscribed busy work while they get on with what they want to do. My conclusion: Donors do not want to change the aid system. And we cannot make them.

Would a boycott work?

There is another option: Palestinians can realize control over aid-funded development by rejecting aid offered on detrimental terms. Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) is a growing, international movement through which Palestinians and their allies stop supporting people or entities that damage prospects for a just peace. Should BDS expand to target aid?

Both Ugandan aid critic and activist Yash Tandon and Palestinian academic and activist Khalil Nakhleh make an emotionally appealing argument for a total rejection of aid. But aid has become hegemonic in Palestine – too many elites will protect the aid system upon which they depend, and too many ordinary people eat and live from aid funds. Also, isolation from local resources and the imposition of Western anti-terrorism policies mean there are fewer alternatives to mainstream international aid than there were previously.

Take, for example, the Palestinian civil society boycott against conditional funding. It was called by the Palestinian NGO Network (PNGO) and other civil society networks in 2004 after USAID introduced the Anti-Terrorism Clause (ATC). Over time, the boycott has been diluted by INGOs that take USAID funding and pass it on to local NGOs, and even by USAID’s own concessions (e.g., they waive visibility requirements making it easier for NGOs to hide their USAID funding from their local constituents). PNGO claims the boycott is still in force and that non-compliance is grounds for expulsion from the organization. However, several PNGO members do rely on conditional funding.

Talking with those Palestinian NGOs about why they take USAID funding despite the boycott was both painful and enlightening. Their reasons included: 1) We had no alternative other than to close due to lack of funding; 2) As long as we are using the funds according to our own priorities and the donor is not imposing an agenda, why should we not take the funds? 3) The INGO intermediary signs the ATC, not us, so we are not actually breaking the boycott; 4) Other NGOs take conditional funding, so we will be at a competitive disadvantage if we do not. None of the Palestinians I spoke with actually defended the work of USAID in Palestine, but they were not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to live on lower budgets.

For these reasons, a blanket rejection of aid is probably neither feasible nor strategic, but a targeted boycott with clear, compelling criteria and well-researched targets might work well as a national strategy. Times have changed. The Palestinian Authority’s concessionist approach is under attack. The international community has proven unreliable. Youth are in the streets demanding change.

Ironically, due to the waste and profit inherent in the current system, Palestinians may not be as dependent on international aid as they believe. If we take a 10 million Euro project and deduct the sums taken by donors and international NGOs for administration, the sums wasted on activities that are not local priorities, or used to pay overpriced foreign consultants, and the amount that reverts to Europe for supplies (among other unneeded expenditures), the remaining balance might be not be so great. Moreover, there are alternatives to dependence on aid, and with the help of the Palestinian Diaspora and supporters around the world, Palestinians can develop new models of sustainability that do not require them to mortgage their future to international actors whose vision for Palestine is unacceptable.

Debating criteria – what aid should Palestinians accept or reject?

Recently, Dalia Association convened a new series of local discussions with a focus not on international policies, but on Palestinians’ own policies. We asked: “If Palestinians want international aid on their own terms, what are those terms?” The discussion quickly moved past technical issues (e.g., longer funding cycles, flexibility to change activities) and became emphatically political: donors should not fund our schools and stay silent when Israel bombs them; donors should not punish Palestinians for pursuing their legal rights through the United Nations. They concluded that “aid” that does not promote Palestinian self-determination cannot lead to real development.

This is where there was a strategic shift in the discussion. Whereas previous meetings had always ended with an agreement to compromise with donors, these participants advocated rejection of false “development” projects that are, at best, distractions, and at worst, harmful to Palestinian dignity, independence and sustainability. More specifically, they drafted criteria by which acceptable international assistance can be distinguished from assistance that should be rejected.

These are hard times to flip the discourse and propose risk-taking, but perhaps Palestinians reached these hard times by playing it safe for too long.

Nora Lester Murad, PhD, lives in Jerusalem, Palestine where she writes fiction. Her blog, “The View from My Window in Palestine”, addresses issues of aid, development and daily life under military occupation. She founded Dalia Association, Palestine’s first community foundation, and served as director until 2010.

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