Why aid workers can’t aid Palestinians
Jeremy Wildeman, The Electronic Intifada
September 06, 2012
In my ten years of work in the aid sector in Palestine, I found there were two key problems that when combined made the delivery of effective aid nearly impossible: Israel’s control of the borders and the major donors prioritizing their relationship with Israel. This leaves well-meaning aid workers and organizations in a difficult place, fearful of upsetting either Israel or its donor allies, because that could result in their being barred entry at the border, or losing funding for their projects and jobs.
As a result Israel gets to pick and choose which organizations can work in Palestine and, with the help of the major donors, is able to define a narrative for the occupation on its own terms: one that refers to an illusory “peace process,” “capacity-building” and “development projects” that mask a reality of settler-colonialism and the confiscation of land from a defenseless people.
Aid organizations working in Palestine, which could counter that narrative through advocacy work that would raise awareness about conditions in Palestine in order to influence public opinion and build the political will in donor governments to pursue principled measures, instead feel compelled to engage in self-censorship to improve their chances at the border.
Designing aid projects under the illusion that there is an ongoing “peace process” between two equal sides who are at conflict with one another, rather than the reality of one side exercising total power over the other, dooms them to failure. Many of these projects are highly inappropriate. I have at times even found myself running them.
One of the worst projects I ever managed in Palestine required “teaching” Palestinian refugee children about human rights in refugee camps in Nablus during the second intifada. I bore no illusions that the implicit belief behind the funding was that the donor hoped we were teaching those children to respect Israeli rights (and women’s rights of course), on the premise that there were two equal sides at “war” which needed “convincing” to live together in peace.
At that time those children were being abused by the Israeli army on a daily basis, could not sleep at night because their homes were being raided, many had been to prison, and many more were injured (or killed) in deadly clashes with the Israeli army.
Those children were suffering the effects of collective punishment inflicted upon them, in contravention of Article 33 of the 4th Geneva Convention which states that “no protected person may be punished for an offense he or she has not personally committed, and collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”
My Palestinian colleagues scoffed at the human rights project. If anything, Israeli soldiers invading the city needed nongovernmental organization workshops to teach them about human rights.
In no way whatsoever did this project address those refugee children’s problems. As a human rights project, it purposefully ignored the collective punishment and abuses carried out by the Israeli army. In the classes, it was horrific to see how each of the adolescent refugee boys and girls could so accurately comment on the position of a peer’s body when imitating torture in an Israeli prison.
Working within the confines of aid
After working with innumerable foreign nationals in the aid sector in the West Bank, I am confident in my belief that the overwhelming majority of them travel travel there with the best of intentions and a sincere desire to help. Unfortunately those well-meaning individuals end up constrained within the structures of aid, and for most of them, challenging those structures could mean losing their jobs.
Richard Falk recently noted those disadvantages when compared to his unpaid role as a UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights, allowing him to avoid the rigid institutional discipline that forces career aid workers to prioritize the interests of the West over what is actually useful for Palestinians (“Pros and cons of Western solidarity, Al Jazeera English).
With rising unemployment in Europe and the United States, that need to be employed puts further pressure on them to not lose those jobs. As one American explained to me in Ramallah following the 2008 financial crisis: “The job situation for me here in Ramallah is actually better than back home in the United States. It’s better for me to stay here.”
My own experience with aid in Palestine began with a heartfelt desire to provide humanitarian assistance for Palestinian youth in Nablus at the beginning of the second intifada. At that time, the city was devastated by conflict and curfews which could be imposed upon the city for days, weeks or months at a time. Violating those curfews would put you in mortal danger.
Regular Israeli military invasions and violent checkpoints shattered children’s sense of security, while restricting their access to schools (or anywhere). Meanwhile, Western aid workers tended not to enter the city due to the danger and limits on access placed upon them by the government of Israel.
This led to a vacuum of assistance in places where aid was genuinely needed. In spite of the challenges of working in such an environment, I and my Palestinian colleagues were highly successful in providing education-focused activities for a large number of Palestinian children.
In the process of carrying out such work, we asked international volunteers to help us run activities. They were particularly good as instructors in English and intercultural communication skills. Although grateful for their support, we were careful to do our best not to provide them with a salary (with some necessary exceptions) or to fund their stay, in spite of tremendous pressure to do otherwise. In fact, we asked volunteers to cover the costs of their own accommodation and coordination. This was all based on the premise that aid should go toward the Palestinians who were in need.
Unlike the large international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), we competed fairly with local charities and business, not paying anyone (myself included) more than a fair local wage. If anything, we were too concerned with supporting as many employees as possible in a tough economy, than to participate in NGO wage-flation — providing high wages that local institutions could not compete with.
Yet in spite of our moral purism and financial efficiency, I was always conscious that I may not be doing enough, because I was not focusing on advocacy work against the occupation. It was, after all, the main source of all problems.
Instead of focusing on solving the conditions which necessitated our charity’s formation, I had fallen into the trap of concentrating my efforts on finding resources for our charity to continue to exist and expand its services further. In the process I felt compelled to avoid direct advocacy work — writing about the effects of the occupation or engaging with the press — for fear of being barred entry at the border and rendered incapable of carrying out my work keeping our funding flowing and our staff employed.
I actively chose to silence my criticism of the occupation, just as I now as a scholar have trepidations repeating Stephen Walt’s words about the Israel lobby and Ilan Pappé’s research acknowledging the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. I was censoring myself, like other aid workers, in spite of all my best intentions.
The need to speak out
So long as aid in Palestine remains detached from the everyday realities of occupation and operates on the aggressor’s terms, it will continue to be ineffective. It will continue to do harm. It is an ominous sign of its failure that the government of Israel has itself become an advocate of aid to the Palestinians and recently sought an International Monetary Fund loan on their behalf (“Israel sought $1 bln IMF loan for Palestinians, Reuters).
Palestinians are very much aware of the problems with aid and consider many projects to be inappropriate, such as the human rights project my former colleagues scoffed at. As Sam Bahour recently wrote, investment into Palestine is meaningless without an end to occupation (see “Palestine’s Investments Require Divestment,” Huffington Post). Aid needs to do more than provide Palestinians with new ways to cope with the effects of occupation.
Aid workers should strongly support organizations like the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) when it runs afoul of the government of Israel for providing practical support to Palestinians who are facing the demolition of their homes and villages.
They should refuse to provide aid on the terms of the aggressor, even if that means being denied entry into the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This is because aid has failed so completely in its mandate to improve Palestinians’ lives, instead coming to serve the interests of the oppressor by sustaining the false veneer of a “peace process” — a false narrative of two relatively equal sides being in conflict — and subsidizing the costs of occupation for Israel.
Aid practitioners, such as myself, need to make this stand in order to help reform aid. They need to engage in advocacy against the occupation, because occupation and a historical record of ethnic cleansing that began in 1948 is the only reason Palestinians need aid in the first place. Until that happens, aid providers will not be addressing Palestinians’ problems. Instead, they will be aiding occupation.
Jeremy Wildeman is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, where his research is on the effects of foreign aid on Palestinians. He cofounded the Nablus-based charity Project Hope. He has a longer essay on the role of development aid published by the Palestine Studies Group.