Breaking the complicity: ‘Developing Palestine means ending the occupation’

From 26 August to 4 September, representatives of prominent Palestinian organizations will attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. They will join thousands, from civil society representatives to heads of states, gathered to discuss the current issues of development. In Palestine however, ‘development’ must be examined within a separate context; that of prolonged Israeli occupation. With policies designed to deprive Palestinians of their land and resources, and the negation of any aspect of independence, the process of development under occupation has instead been one of ‘de-development’. Against this backdrop, the development industry has flourished, saturated with the aid dollars flowing into the West Bank and Gaza since 1994.

As international and local organizations now decry the advent of a ‘humanitarian crisis’- placing Palestine within the disaster status of tornadoes or earthquakes- we are witnessing a renewed surge in the presence of foreign organizations and initiatives. In theory aimed at abetting the impending ‘humanitarian crisis’- clearly the result of Israeli military occupation and assault- this shift is but part of a larger system of development which finds sustenance in the Israeli occupation, while further contributing to the de-development of Palestine.

This system is based on the implementation of contemporary foreign-government policy, aimed as the silent de-politicization of local grassroots organizations and initiatives, the formation of an alternate elite structure without strong constituencies, resulting in the further disjunction between local Palestinian organizations and the collective.

The business of ‘development’

In Palestine and other countries, development aid is financed largely -if almost completely- by foreign governments. Governments disburse revenues for Overseas Development Assistance through multi-lateral agencies (UN, World Bank, etc.) or their own bi-lateral agencies (USAID, DFID, AUSAID, CIDA). In turn, ‘non-governmental’ organisations (such as Oxfam, Save the Children, Care, Christian Aid) receive funding from both. Development projects are implemented directly by these foreign agencies/ NGOs, or are implemented in ‘partnership’ with local Palestinian organisations.

Government development priorities are the embodiment of their regional foreign policies. Government donor agencies and NGOs in their countries then develop their assistance programs in accordance with these ‘overseas priorities’. In order to secure funding, Palestinian NGOs will tailor -or package- their activities to fit within these priorities. Although in some cases the priorities might coincide, generally it is an erosion of an organisations’ own objectives. Furthermore, Palestinian organisations are then accountable to European and North American NGOs and donor agencies, which themselves are accountable to their back-donors: foreign governments.

‘Development’ as de-politicization

Although ‘development assistance’ as a foreign policy tool is not exclusive to Palestine, it is particularly damaging in this context, in terms of maintaining the status quo of Israeli occupation and the de-legitimization of Palestinian resistance.

On more than one occasion, development funds have been used to silence criticism. Aside from the more visibly destructive policies of USAID (aimed at changing on-ground realities and destroying a number of critical Palestinian NGOs), many government donor agencies and NGOs have used development funds as a tool of de-politicization. Methods of de-politicization include: solely funding projects and/organisations that are non-political in nature; restricting elements of projects that could be viewed as being political; and pressuring Palestinian organisations to publicly distance themselves from criticism of the Israeli occupation and public support of Palestinian resistance. The first is illustrated by the rise of so-called ‘rule of law’ and ‘peace through education’ programs, ‘reform’, ‘peace’ and ‘democracy’ fully removed from the struggle against occupation, the end of which is the only real route to the attainment of these ideals.

The true disjunction is evident in foreign governments’ policies on ‘peace’, as embodied in the Oslo Process. Many Palestinian organisations have -since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority- called for reforms, criticizing the very undemocratic nature of the PA as shaped under Oslo. But to be opposed to the Oslo Accords, was to be opposed to ‘peace’- hence rendering many organisations ineligible for funding, earmarked by foreign governments to cement the Accords. Conversely, as the Palestinian Authority falls out of favour with foreign governments (not based on a recognition of Palestinian criticism, but rather compliance with US/Israeli de-legitimization tactics aimed at justifying continued occupation), donor agencies demand complete detachment from the PA. The degree to which local Palestinians organisations should be working with the PA is subject to a separate debate; importantly, directed funding removes the local organizations from the process of decision-making on these and other issues.

From ‘development aid’ to ‘humanitarian assistance’

In the wake of the unprecedented Israeli military assault in the first half of 2002, which left thousands -under curfew- without adequate food supplies or medical access, international organisations scrambled to deal with the crisis. Journalists -largely unable to enter the ‘closed military zones’ - fought to tell the ‘humanitarian relief’ story: foreign news reports on the Middle East became images of emergency convoys, and workers assembling food packages and medical kits.

Increased media attention, combined with a real deterioration of conditions in Palestine, set the stage for the shift from a largely ‘development’-oriented approach to one which is increasingly viewed as ‘humanitarian assistance’. This shift -most visible in the growing number of foreign organisations and workers congregating in the bars and restaurants of Jerusalem- is cemented by increased foreign funding for ‘relief’. Although simply an exacerbation of the existing development system, this shift has the very real impact of further de-politicization, as Palestine becomes a ‘humanitarian’ issue rather than one requiring political solutions based on justice.

The most visible example of this is found in the ‘humanitarian relief’ convoys that began during the Israeli military assault in April. However well intentioned, convoys into areas under curfew help to solidify Israeli marginalization of the Palestinian Authority, and other Palestinian service providers, as foreign aid workers were the only ones able to access certain areas of the West Bank. As the closures and restrictions intensify, so will the reliance on foreign-passport holders to be able to provide goods and services to closed areas. While many within foreign development agencies are cognizant of this dynamic, and are engaging in limited self-analysis of their roles under acute Israeli measures, others do not. This was exemplified when some foreign NGOs and agencies applied for special permits to gain access to certain areas of the West Bank, under a new Israeli system of permits designed to further cantonize Palestinian areas. Despite a general call from Palestinian organisations for non-compliance, these foreign NGOs went ahead - one organisation in particular citing ‘responsibilities to donors’.

Foreign NGOs/donor agencies and advocacy initiatives

While many individuals working within the foreign donor system may indeed be committed, they operate within a framework which leaves little recourse to real criticism against the Israeli occupation, the effects of which provide them with their ‘development’ or ‘humanitarian’ mandates in the first place. While change within government donor agencies seems elusive, even smaller foreign NGOs are subject to pressure in their countries, as they must compete for limited government funds to run their programs. The degree to which foreign NGOs are constrained is also illustrated in not wanting to threaten their charity or non-profit status, a legal status which is conferred based on political considerations and pressures.

Furthermore, foreign NGOs are facing increasing pressures as many western governments pass restrictive ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, elements of which are so broadly defined that foreign NGOs must further restrict any statements (and certainly project funding) which could threaten their legal status or government funding.

Hence, foreign advocacy work on Palestine often transpires horizontally, with statements and press conferences that are couched below the ceiling of what is acceptable criticism of Israeli occupation, within the status quo of their governments’ policies. For instance, statements issued under the umbrella of the Association for International Development Agencies (AIDA) may call on the Israeli government to increase humanitarian access to the West Bank (ie, facilitate their work), but fall short of strong advocacy work to end military occupation. Furthermore, many of the statements issued by AIDA can be in stronger terms only because they often do not name individual member organisations as signatories. Certainly, foreign agencies do not even begin to issue statements similar to those of their local ‘partners’, who are themselves increasingly guarded in what statements they make, lest they lose subsequent foreign funding.

And when statements are issued nonetheless by Palestinian NGOs, their donor agencies do little to support them. Palestinian NGOs found consensus to term Israel an ‘apartheid state’ at the World Conference Against Racism, but this did not translate into consensus or approval from their donor agencies/NGOs - not necessarily because individuals working with foreign agencies debated whether Israel could be described as such, but because this consensus would require a different approach from development agencies, which had actively supported the South African struggle.

Enriching local elites, alienating the collective

Beyond aligning their programming with the objectives of foreign donor NGOs and agencies, Palestinian NGOs must also be able to position themselves within the capacities of those same donors organisations. Since most desk officers with foreign NGOs and donor agencies do not speak, read or write Arabic, they end up working with Palestinian organisations which can present them with fancy proposals and polished reports in English.

Those Palestinian NGOs that are able to position themselves to foreign donors are already within the elite of Palestinian society- from the prominent ‘families’, often foreign educated, English-speaking and western-oriented.

Funding obtained by virtue of being able to ‘connect’ and communicate effectively with donors helps to reinforce these capacities, thereby ensuring subsequent funding. In turn, these Palestinian NGOs are then able to expand beyond their original mandates, obtaining funding in new areas. Often the work of community-based organisations (who are less donor savvy and out of the foreign funding loop) is duplicated. Eventually these smaller organisations are marginalized and the competition falls away, irrespective of the potential quality of their programs. Instead, funds are monopolized within a select group of Palestinian NGOs, who in turn compete amongst themselves for power, prestige and funding- often seemingly but an extension of the primordial squabbling between the families of Palestine.

And so the directors of these prominent NGOs are flown as ‘representatives of Palestinian civil society’ to fancy conferences and interviewed as ‘experts’ on television. While undoubtedly better spokespersons than almost anyone from within the Palestinian Authority, one must question to what extent the directors of these Palestinian organisations represent the Palestinian people.

Their voices emerge largely from East Jerusalem, minimally exposed to the Palestine of invasions, checkpoints, curfews, shelling and home demolitions. Able to talk the talk about malnutrition statistics, but distant from the hardened existence of life in Rafah refugee camp, or the old city of Nablus.

So when a petition denouncing suicide operations -a petition funded by the European Union- is signed by these elitists and published in the Al-Quds daily, the average Palestinian might stop to wonder what truly motivates the signatories. Was this a self-preservation tactic, both for the signatories receiving funds from foreign donors, and also for foreign donors, not wanting to jeopardize their programs lest they be seen as funding ‘terrorism’? If these individuals sell themselves and their organisations on the basis of representing the needs of Palestinians, can they in all honesty then take such a stand, on that same authority?

All of this poses the risk that the Palestinian public not only starts to view prominent Palestinian NGOs are being disconnected from the daily realities, but also as but the subcontractors of foreign agencies and governments, providing services without aiming to tackle the root causes of suffering. Absent are strategic discussions with communities aimed at mobilization and empowerment, a constituency which is increasingly alienated simply by being under curfew, an Israeli tactic aimed at de-mobilizing Palestinian society.

Since Palestinians have a real need for relief, they still go to such NGOs for services, but have less faith in them. No wonder then that political and social movements such as Hamas are gaining popularity. They continue to resist the occupation, are critical of the US and European governments, denounce the Palestinian Authority and expose its corruption, while offering a wide variety of services.

Ending the silence, breaking complicity

Unless foreign development organizations take an active stand against the occupation, they are but sustaining Israel’s colonial occupation and perpetuating Palestinian subservience. The concept of ‘solidarity with Palestinians through programming’ is transparent and cowardly- especially when these programs are but the implementation of their government’s policies.

Advocacy should be an integral part of an organisations’ mandate. This advocacy work should focus on real issues (such as the end to Israel’s military occupation and colonial expansion, and the right of return for refugees), and not just those that are safe within the parameters of their back-donors. Any advocacy work in Palestine and Israel must be reinforced with active lobbying to their governments to pressure Israel (through sanctions, boycotts, diplomacy) to end the occupation. Moreover, foreign workers should have the personal initiative to do their own awareness activities about these issues when in their home countries. Unfortunately, foreigners relating experiences in Palestine are often listened to over Palestinians themselves. Given this dynamic, it is the responsibility of foreign organisations and foreign workers to actively use their voice, both in public awareness and government lobbying.

Local Palestinian NGOs should demand that their donors take a public stand on basic principles, or - refuse their funding. Palestinian NGOs must realise that they have power within the donor-NGO ‘partnership’, because without the implementing organizations, there is no development system. Donor agencies need local NGOs for both their own legitimacy in their programming, and also as the final service provider of the development process.

Palestinian NGOs need to break free of the constraints of their donors, and to actively develop strategies geared towards greater grassroots participation in real development. As ‘we do not need do not need Acamol [Israeli painkiller] to cure a cancer’, these initiatives must address the root causes of poverty and injustice: the Israeli occupation. And if Palestinian NGOs sell themselves on articulating the needs of the community, there must be a corresponding accountability to those same constituencies.

If Palestine is to preserve the ideals of self-determination and the legitimacy of resistance, change must be made on all levels of the ‘development’ process. Development, a multi-billion dollar industry that premises itself on ‘improving’ lives, must not be given legitimacy in its current form in Palestine. We cannot allow the collective will of the people to be silenced, and to have ‘development’ at the expense of ending Israeli colonial occupation.

The authors have worked for both Palestinian NGOs and foreign donor agencies, and are currently residing in Palestine. Their names have been changed for privacy reasons, and they can be reached at and