Play satirizes how aid donors sideline Palestinians

House of Yasmine takes on the harmful role of foreign aid in Palestinian society.

Sarah Tuck

A political talk show sets the stage for House of Yasmine (“Beit Yasmine” in Arabic), a play produced in collaboration between the Ashtar Theatre of Ramallah and the Al-Harah Theatre of Jerusalem. The story unfolds as the play’s characters, led by human rights worker Yasmine, discuss the Palestinian Authority’s 2011 bid for statehood at the United Nations and then turn to audience members to ask for their own thoughts on the role that foreign money plays in Palestinian politics as well as social and economic issues.

Those watching a recent performance in Jenin’s Freedom Theatre were quick to highlight that aid dependence means both that no organization is independent and that little genuinely sustainable development has occurred in Palestine.

Once filming of Yasmine’s TV show ends, she has a surprise birthday celebration with her friends and family, only to be critically wounded at the hands of a sniper shooting from afar. The resulting chaos leads her family and close friends to seek outside assistance from all available sources and eventually to lose sight of their original goal — helping Yasmine.

Faced with a dying friend and some knowledge of the aid system, Yasmine’s inner circle hopefully calls on international health expert Kate. She arrives only to conclude that Yasmine, nearing death, urgently needs medical supplies that she can access once someone writes a proposal for their acquisition. After Yasmine’s family and friends rush to finish a completely depoliticized proposal, they are then asked to sign a document assuring the donor that none of the money will go to “terrorists.” Highlighting the absurdity of these bureaucratic procedures, all of these events unfold while Yasmine lays helplessly beside them.

Kate finally returns with the “green medicine,” which leads Yasmine’s friends to ask, “Isn’t it addictive?” Kate assures everyone that in small doses the medicine, or the aid money it represents, will only have positive effects. Other donors are quick to emerge and offer their own forms of aid. By the time the medical assistance begins to have an impact, nearly everyone around Yasmine has found a way to benefit from her injuries and seems to prefer that she remains unwell so that they can continue to profit from the process of saving Yasmine rather than actually helping her.

It soon becomes apparent that Yasmine may well have been named Palestine as her story parallels that of the nationalist movement and struggle against the occupation after the influx of foreign aid following the 1993 Oslo accords and the creation of an aid-dependent economy.

Silencing dissent

Of particular relevance is the character of Yasmine’s son, who confronts the dilemma of rebelling against the system or joining it to forget about his mother in exchange for immense personal rewards. As the foreign health expert notes, he has a “lot of energy and potential” and she could help him study abroad or get a comfortable salary in exchange for his silence on matters of resistance, revolution and liberation.

His chants of “no to the green medicine” are met with concern not because the international expert felt compelled to understand his criticism but for the fear that his ideas might spread. The young man’s struggle to decide is one many young, well-qualified Palestinians face today. In a place where jobs are scarce to begin with, working for nongovernmental organizations can be one of the few ways for young people to apply their skills and to also earn a good salary. Even though many are themselves often critical of aid and international donors, in order to stay employed, those once questioning youth are encouraged to keep their criticisms to themselves.

In September last year, for instance, when the Sharek Youth Forum (a Palestinian group) launched a campaign in support of the PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s statehood initiative, according to interviews with current and former employees, however, many did not agree with the initiative but received an internal directive to avoid expressing any criticism of the PA in public venues and to adjust their personal activism accordingly.

Recognition of the connection between aid and silencing dissent is growing. According to Herak Shebabi activist Aghsan Barghouthi, for example, the independent, youth-based group only accepts individual donations of around $75 or less. Unfortunately, in an economy where nearly every sector whether private or public, for or not for profit, is connected with foreign aid, the road towards open discussion and uncensored criticism remains a long one and efforts of reformers remain relegated to small scale acts of resistance.

Ignoring Palestinian voices

It is clear that amid widespread claims of prioritizing local needs, donor disinterest in engaging Palestinian voices in a critical dialogue is ubiquitous. This is despite the fact that the same Palestinian civil society that is supposedly in need of “development” has consistently shown itself eager to have greater input about how to use the nearly $1 billion in aid that is annually injected into the Palestinian economy. Following a far-reaching assessment about the needs, perceptions and preferences of community-based organizations, the Ramallah-based Dalia Association sought to discuss its findings with prominent donors through the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee — which transfers aid to the PA from Europe and the US — but to no avail (“An Appeal by Palestinian Civil Society to the International Community to Respect Our Right to Self Determination in the Aid System,” April 2011).

While Dalia’s report showed that most donors argue that they are already meeting local needs, they also often refuse to engage with Palestinians working outside of the largest locally-run organizations. This is deeply problematic.

Nonetheless, efforts to foster dialogue are widespread. Organizations like the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (connected to the German left-wing party Die Linke) also actively encourage Palestinians to take a critical look at foreign aid. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation helped finance House of Yasmine.

Actor and general manager of the Ashtar Theatre, Edward Muallem noted that the point of the play was to encourage discussion not only among Palestinians but also between Palestinians and donors. Yet representatives of donor governments who were invited to attend the performance hosted by the Freedom Theatre declined to do so.

Still, the play’s witty dialogue and sharp analysis facilitated an interesting debate between Palestinians and development professionals, including a brief question and answer session that would have been of great interest to any organization or individual genuinely concerned about the local needs of Palestinians.

Donors may have benefited more from the performance than any other group because, while a work of fiction, House of Yasmine takes its inspiration from real stories collected by theater staff. Rather than being isolated cases, these absurd events are actually a nearly universal experience in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, under the control of the Israeli military occupation — aided and abetted by the same “international community” upon which the Palestinian economy is dependent.

Palestinians are increasingly making themselves heard but the fact that donors are continuously failing to pay attention only reinforces the fact that administering “green medicine” is not motivated by the patient’s best interests.

Michelle Gyeney is a freelance writer and conducting graduate research on the impact of foreign aid policies and practices in Palestine.