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Follow the money – foreign donors to Palestine – and Israel

Three articles from an Open Democracy series on Funding for Human Rights: 1) Benjy Cannon on Aerican Jewish giving to Israel; 2) Noam Sheizaf on who funds Israeli human rights organizations – and who funds those who oppose; 3) Lori Allen on the human rights industry which foreign donors fund.

B'Tselem camera
A Palestinian woman using one of the cameras B’Tselem, Israel’s outstanding human rights organisation, was able to buy through foreign donations (including from JfJfP), but most foreign donors prefer to give money to zionist projects such as the Jewish National Fund.

American Jews, money and the Israel-Palestine conflict

Although the American Jewish community spends relatively little on human rights work in Israel/Palestine, they are getting serious about promoting a lasting peace in the region. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, “Funding for human rights.

By Benjy Cannon, OpenDemocracy
April 09, 2014

The American Jewish community has a complex philanthropic and political relationship with Israel. On the one-hand, substantial American Jewish money flows into Israel, often directed at causes that explicitly or implicitly contribute to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On the other hand, American Jews, particularly the younger generation, overwhelmingly support a peace deal that would grant Palestinian independence and end the occupation of Palestinian lands. So while American Jewish funding for Israeli human rights organizations pales in comparison to other causes in Israel, many Jews are pushing for a political solution consonant with the goals of human rights activists.

American-Jewish Giving to Israel

A 2012 study from Brandeis University estimated that in 2007, American Jews donated just over $2 billion to organizations in Israel, while a more recent article in the Forward estimated the number at 1.7 billion annually.

logo_kkl_110 KKL logo  Where does all that money go? In 2007, the largest category (worth about $500 million) fell into a conglomerate of “traditional Zionist groups.” These groups include an Emergency Fund for the Second Lebanon war; the Jewish National Fund (JNF), which plants trees and develops land in Israel and in areas beyond the Green Line; and Birthright Israel, which runs tours for young Jewish adults. The JNF and Birthright seem to have innocuous, or even laudable goals, which helps explain their tremendous fundraising power. However, activists have criticized the JNF and Birthright for their complicity in human rights abuses and indifference to the occupation, respectively.

Conversely, the Brandeis study listed “Progressive” organizations – which deal with human rights issues in Israel and the West Bank — as the second smallest beneficiaries of American Jewish money, with about $46 million in funds in 2007. While this sum is significant, it is far less than the money going to other causes.

But money only tells half the story. The progressive American Jewish grassroots, particularly the younger generation, is passionate about solving the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Changing Political Tides

In “Funding cannot stop rights abuses,” British anthropologist Lori Allen [see below] concludes that while human rights organizations do incredible work documenting and publicizing human rights issues in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, these measures are ultimately insufficient. Rather, only a political solution can secure a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians, and end the occupation.

Allen is absolutely right, and American Jews increasingly agree. There is a growing movement – particularly amongst young people – in support of a comprehensive, two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. These young Jews are also clear-eyed about the challenges that lie ahead. Just 23% of non-orthodox American Jews aged 18-29 believe that the Israeli government is sincerely pursuing peace, and a mere 17% of all American Jews believe that the settlement project in the West Bank – a focal point of the Palestinian struggle for human rights – is good for Israel. A whopping 76% of young non-Orthodox Jews believes that a Jewish, democratic Israel, and a free, sovereign Palestine, can live side by side in peace and security.

On the surface, support for a two state solution and Palestinian human rights are not necessarily the same thing. However, the politics of Jewish America indicate a deep sensitivity to human rights issues. According to Pew, 38% of American Jews identify as liberal, which makes us the second most liberal religious denomination in the country, behind Buddhists. Domestically, American Jews are actively tuned in to issues of discrimination against the LGBTQ community, Muslims and African Americans, with large majorities asserting that these groups face “a lot” of discrimination. In contrast, less than 50% of the US general public believes that Muslims and African Americans face significant discrimination.

The politically progressive tendencies of America’s Jews are beginning to manifest themselves in political activism around Israel/Palestine. Given both the history of Jewish involvement in human rights work and attitudes towards discrimination in the US, many American Jews believe that Israel should live up to their values. Supporting a peace agreement in Israel also means supporting an Israel that upholds the basic tenets of justice and egalitarianism that undergird their domestic political leanings. We see this trend reflected in the rise of the progressive Israel lobby.

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Expressly pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jewish groups, such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund have flourished in recent years. Sara Sorcher and Elahe Izadi’s recent piece in the National Journal details the rise of J Street, which is dedicated to the resolution of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Sorcher and Izadi argue that J Street has “changed the landscape” of what it means to be pro-Israel in the United States. J Street has created a space for both American Jews and elected officials to challenge the policies of Bibi Netanyahu’s government when it makes peace more difficult or advances detrimental policies. J Street’s political action committee (PAC) was the largest pro-Israel donor in the 2012 election cycle, and Vice President Joe Biden spoke at their most recent conference. Of the over 3,000 attendees, 900 were students, demonstrating the appeal of pro-peace activism for younger Jews.

J Street, The New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now and other like-minded groups still face opposition. Politically active American Jews are by no means united behind progressive pro-peace activism. However, the rapid growth of their organizations and age of their supporters is a positive indicator going forward.

The rise of J Street demonstrates the presence of organized people and organized money in progressive Jewish American politics. While J Street and its allies posses a political, rather than specifically human rights oriented focus, their language and policy goals seek to promote Palestinian rights alongside a Jewish, democratic state. American Jews may not donate as much to human rights organizations as to other causes in Israel, but the trail of big money is at odds with Jewish pro-human rights work in the political sphere, and with Jewish American political sympathies. Yes, the disconnect between money and activism is problematic, but it is not indicative of how most American Jews feel about human rights, and is at odds with trends in their political activism.

Cause for Optimism

Understanding the American Jewish connection to human rights in Israel and Palestine requires looking beyond funding to human rights groups. While there are significant funding obstacles, both in the US, Israel and the Palestinian territories for human rights organizations, American Jews have doubled down in pursuit of a political solution to the conflict. This is appropriate. As Allen so eloquently articulated, human rights work, while critically important, is not in and of itself sufficient to fix the significant issues in the region.

The relative dearth of American Jewish money directed towards human rights issues in Israel and the occupied territories is troubling. Progressive American groups seeking to expand the political conversation must continue drawing attention to and rectifying the monetary shortfall. But amidst the challenging, entrenched dissonance between donors and constituents, American Jews cannot lose sight of the urgent need for a political solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict. The American Jewish community must continue pushing, harder than ever, for a lasting peace to secure a future for human rights in Israel and Palestine.

Benjy Cannon is a Jewish World Blogger at Haaretz.com, where he writes about Jewish culture, and diaspora/Israel relations. He currently serves as a student representative on the Maryland Hillel Board of Directors, is a J Street U National Communications Co-Chair, and is the president of the University of Maryland’s J Street U chapter. Benjy studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, College Park. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon.


Will foreign funding last for those inside Israel who defend the Palestinians?

Israel’s human rights organisations depend on foreign funding to defend the rights of the Palestinians. But as the Middle East is increasingly torn by new conflicts, foreign funding may shift to wider regional and global rights issues.

By Noam Sheizaf, OpenDemocracy
November 14, 2013

Israel is a special case in human rights work and human rights funding. For a start, it is a western society in a non-western region, and “border” societies are always unique. Israel is a member of the OECD, its political heritage and economic indexes are closer to that of EU countries than to any other part of the world. The rest of the Middle East, including Palestinian non-citizens, is part of The South in terms of economic indexes and has its own political traditions and institutions which are closer to other post-colonial counties.

Secondly, Israel is involved in a long-term occupation of a non-western society – the Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza. Third, the two societies – Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian – are in a state of on-going conflict that in the last decades escalated every few years to become armed hostilities, claiming the lives of thousands on both sides. Often, human rights work is perceived – especially in the eyes of the Israeli public – as “taking sides” with the enemy in the conflict, and more than anything else, it is seen as a primarily political activity. In recent years, human rights organizations have taken a leading role in documenting and challenging the human rights violations that take place under the occupation; at the same time, criticism of their work and attempts to limit their funding sources have also grown significantly.

For the sake of the debate, this article will focus on Israeli human rights organizations who deal with the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, or the OPT).

The origins of Israel’s rights movement

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Following the first Intifada which broke out in 1987, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) began focusing on the occupied territories. Around the same time, several political activists formed B’tzelem – a human rights organization dedicated to violations taking place in the West Bank and Gaza (then still under direct Israeli control). Both organizations were quickly portrayed in the national conversation as being “pro-Palestinian,” and therefore at odds with the policies of the Israeli government. It was a position shared by politicians and commentators from the right and left alike – even those who took pride in the Israeli democracy and the special place the human rights community holds within it. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin famously called ACRI “the association for Hamas’ rights.”

The collapse of the peace process, the second intifada (October 2000) and the decade that followed saw the emergence of a whole array of non-profit organizations that use advocacy, petition to courts, public campaigns and similar tactics to highlight and oppose the effects of the occupation on Palestinian civil society. Today, those organizations deal, among other things, with legal rights of Palestinians (Yesh Din), accountability of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) (Breaking the Silence, B’tzelem), house demolitions (Rabbis for Human Rights, The Committee against House Demolitions); torture (The Public Committee against Torture), freedom of movement (Gisha, Machsom Watch); monitoring settlement construction (Peace Now – a grassroots movement turned NGO), promoting dialogue, and many other issues. Israeli human rights organizations have become a leading source of information for local and international politicians, journalists and other professionals who deal with the conflict. These organizations are also perceived as being part of the political opposition because of their position on the single biggest issue to dominate Israeli politics in the past few decades

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Where the funding comes from

Most funding for human rights activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and even inside Israel comes from the foreign sources. The Israeli government does not support human rights work on the Palestinian issue, and donations from the business sector and private citizens are extremely limited. It should be noted that donations to non-governmental organizations of all sorts in Israel are relatively low. More than half of the 27 billion USD that went to Israeli non-profit organisations in 2010 came from the government, and only 1 to 3 percent from private donations. The non-profit sector is a relatively new phenomenon in Israel which may, in part, explain the absence of a philanthropic tradition.

When Israelis do give to human rights causes, they would rather do it for environmental issues, social justice, gay rights and other causes which are not directly related to the conflict. Heads of human rights NGOs I have spoken to confessed to a great difficulty in fundraising “on the Palestinian issue” among Israelis, who perceive the work of the organizations as serving the interest of “the other side” in the conflict. With international donors, I was told, it’s the exact opposite: They are likely to give more to organizations which deal with peace-building or defend the rights of Palestinians under the occupation. The result is a public perception that human rights work on Palestinian issues amounts to “foreign intervention”. In other words, the need to rely on (mostly) foreign funding results in a challenge to the organizations’ image and to their ability to operate freely. At the same time, as long as Israel is in conflict with the Palestinians, the prospect of major local support for human rights organizations remains relatively low.

Many of the human rights organizations are supported by grants from foreign governments, including the European Union, USAID and various governments-run funds and programs. Scandinavian governments are especially active on the Palestinian issue; and there are five German political funds operating in Israel, supporting various political issues. The other main source of funding for the human rights community is private donors, most of whom are members of the Jewish diaspora.

Throughout Israeli history, diaspora Jews have supported every kind of project and institution – from the military to sports to civil society. However, the human rights community is more dependent on Jewish support than other elements of Israeli society, due to the lack of government support or any other form of local funding.

Israel’s rights groups are often attacked for defending ‘the other side’ in the conflict

Recent years have seen an organized effort by the Israeli right to attack or limit funding sources for human rights organizations. They have done this in two ways: firstly, they have attempted to introduce legal limits on foreign support for Israeli organizations; and secondly, they have launched campaigns to scare private donors, especially (but not exclusively) those from the Jewish diaspora.

On January 2010, a non-profit organization with strong ties on the political right called Im Tirzu launched a high-profile campaign against the New Israel Fund (NIF) – a liberal-Zionist organization that has been supporting human rights issues in Israel for almost thirty years. According to Im Tirzu, organizations sponsored by NIF were behind The 2009 Goldstone Report, which accused the IDF of committing serious human rights violations and even war crimes during the 2008 Israeli invasion to Gaza. These allegations had a severe impact on the image of the NIF in Israel.

In recent years, several other rightwing non-profit organisations – financed as well from abroad, mostly by Jewish and Christian-Zionist donors – began publishing reports on “anti-Israeli” activities by members of human rights organizations. These included: speaking against Israeli policies in a foreign country, opposing Zionism, supporting the boycott of institutions that supported the occupation and of Israel as a whole and other forms of political activities. The real target of many of these reports was not the organizations, but rather at their institutional funders.

In 2010, Knesset members from the right introduced bills aimed at limiting foreign government funding to human rights organizations, either through imposing high taxes on them or by completely banning certain kinds of support. Fearing an international backlash, Prime Minister Binjamin Netanyahu used his power to prevent the legislation being passed. However, in recent months, similar bills have been introduced again by right wing members of the Knesset.

Attention and funds are moving towards global and regional rights questions

It is very difficult to estimate the effect of this kind of attack on the work of the human rights community.

Several organizations, including NIF, have actually seen a certain growth in private financial support, especially following the worst attacks (certain images by Im Tirzu echoed rightwing anti-Semitic propaganda, leading small donors to show their support of NIF by giving more). At the same time, donors and funders have introduced more strict guidelines for human rights activities and they monitor advocacy and political work more closely. Among both organizations and funders there seems to be a growing fear of making “the wrong” move or statement and exposing themselves to further attacks.

While not admitting it publically, it also appears that certain donors are more reluctant now to get involved in the Israeli/Palestinian issue. This could be the result of a feeling of perpetual status-quo and lack of return on investment in the form of actual change, but the hostility they have observed also plays a part, especially with funds based in the United States. At least one major U.S.-based fund supporting human rights causes has terminated its Israel program recently. Another fund, which started a pilot program with some human rights organizations, decided to pull out at the last minute; rumours claim that political pressure and political fears played a part in its decision.

There are also other developments which present a challenge to the human rights community in Israel. Some describe this shift as a potential crisis for Israeli human rights groups, others say it is just ‘a phase’. A new generation of Jewish funders is turning its attention to global human rights questions rather than those associated with the Jewish community or Israel. Governments and funds which take special interest in the Middle East are focusing on the Arab Spring and on democracy building in other parts of the region, some of them feeling that it is too expensive or difficult to make any impact on the Palestinian issue. One of the most important funds operating in the region has decided to avoid new commitments in Israel for the time being.

The prospects for the future

Despite a new round of peace talks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems as far as ever from resolution, and many trends on the ground – from settlement growth to the decline in support for peace and co-existence on both sides – are alarming. In recent years, observers find a renewed interest in the human rights aspects of the conflict and not just the diplomatic process. Through its innovative technique, commitment and high professional standards, the Israeli human rights community has taken a leading role in this conversation. However, this very same community is at a crossroad, facing internal pressure and on-going attacks and in danger of losing some of its international support just at the time it needs it the most. It is a moment that begs for new thinking and even for a renewed effort to turn to the local Jewish-Israeli community, both for political and for financial support.


Gaza aftermath,  Gaza Strip, 10.2.2013
Palestinian children walk by the destroyed buildings of the Interior Ministry’s civil department, which was heavily bombed in the IDF assault on the Gaza Strip, February 10, 2013. Photo by Activestills.org.

Funding cannot stop rights abuses

The work of human rights organisations in the occupied Palestinian territories can never end abuses. Only a political solution that ends the Israeli occupation can do that. In the meantime, donors supporting Palestinian human rights work should reduce their bureaucratic demands. 

By Lori Allen, OpenDemocracy
November 11, 2013

In July, the 23-year-old nephew of a friend was released from an Israeli prison. The young man, a Palestinian journalist from a Bethlehem-area refugee camp, had been arrested at his uncle’s home in the middle of the night. After injuring several of his family members in their raid, Israeli soldiers took the young man away and beat him so badly he could barely walk. He was accused of inciting protests with his photography, and released from prison eleven days later after paying 1500 NIS (approximately $417) bail.

This kind of thing is happening all the time throughout the occupied territories. It has been going on for decades. There are around 50 Palestinian human rights organizations in the occupied territories recording such abuses or working on human rights issues in some way.

Over the years, these organizations have developed great expertise in documenting all the ways that the Israeli occupation violates the rights of the 3.5 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories. They record how the occupation violates Palestinians’ rights to life, education, movement, economic development, the right not to be tortured. They analyze how the blockade of the Gaza Strip violates the right to movement of 1.5 million Palestinians living there, show how press freedoms are violated when Israel harasses Palestinian journalists like my friend’s nephew, and so on.

International donors, from Europe and beyond, donate millions of Euros every year so that Palestinian rights groups can continue their work. These organisations aim to ensure the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law, and to advocate for Palestinians’ rights. Yet there is clearly no chance of these organisations preventing abuses by Israel until there is a political solution that ends the Israeli occupation.

Whereas rights advocacy elsewhere may pressure a government to respect its own laws, in Israel those laws are themselves fundamentally discriminatory. The violation of Palestinians’ rights is an inseparable feature of the occupation. The only sources of leverage over the Israeli authorities are Israeli voters, who do not prioritize Palestinian rights, and the international community of states and global business. Irrefutable evidence of the ongoing abuse of Palestinian rights has not been enough to convince these powers to penalize Israel in any significant way that might curtail abuses or end the occupation.

Human rights bureaucracy

Donors believe their contributions may help end abuses against Palestinians. What they are really doing is funding an industry that provides employment in a place where there are very few opportunities for work.

Here’s how the industry works. Palestinian Human Rights Organisations (HROs) document violations, write reports, create advocacy materials, give legal aid to Palestinian political prisoners, provide human rights training for Palestinian security officers, promote “good governance” in the PA, and lecture children about their rights to education and leisure, among other activities. Palestinian HROs are specialists at analyzing all the ways that international humanitarian and human rights law forbid Israel’s confiscation of Palestinian land and water. They are practiced at issuing calls to the state signatories of the Fourth Geneva Convention to uphold their commitments, and they are adept at circulating videos that capture some of the many ways that Israeli settlers and soldiers wreak havoc, brutalizing Palestinian farmers and children.

al-haq pchr addameer

At the same time, the donors funding this work demand other kinds of reporting and recording. They require reports with lists of outputs and impacts, such as how many publications were produced and educational pamphlets printed. HROs must chart the numbers of beneficiaries, how many people attended seminars or came to them to report a violation. No one seems to measure whether Israeli soldiers beat people less, whether settlers uproot fewer trees. Or, in relation to the Palestinian Authority (PA), whether security officers who attend human rights seminars implement those lessons in the field. Recent police brutality against protestors in Ramallah suggests not. As one HRO professional who lectured to PA security forces himself told me, rights training is often theoretical, disconnected from real practice. But so long as some “outputs” can be tallied, and some “beneficiaries” can be counted, the donors are satisfied.

Receiving and reading all these reports is such a big job that funders’ administrative demands have generated a whole new field of intermediary NGOs. These are entire organizations dedicated to HRO management, to which funders outsource their paperwork and to whom Palestinian HROs must answer. One HRO reported producing 114 separate reports for their funders in one year and spending more than $70,000 on “servicing donors” in order to meet their administrative demands.

This is one reason Palestinians have become cynical towards NGOs in general, many believing these organisations to be corrupt. And most have little hope that human rights organisations can improve things on the ground. People told me that they continue to report the abuses they have experienced to HROs because it is the only thing they can do. And similarly, many Palestinians working in HROs recognize their limited scope for ending abuses, especially by Israel. But they continue to do this work because it is, they believe, better than doing nothing.

The mountain of administrative work that donors demand of HROs is not the reason human rights violations continue. But surely no one can believe that $70,000 spent on quarterly reports is helping matters either. Donors’ proclivities for spreadsheets and statistics means that HRO workers end up spending more time on paper work than on working with people, or on developing long-term strategies for real social and political change.

In addition, most donors distribute their funding on a project-by-project basis. So to ensure organizational survival they must spend a significant amount of time figuring out what kinds of activities donors will fund and seeking out benefactors for the next project. And the next, and the next. HROs will always be dependent on the whims of donors, who designate their money for the flavor of the month violation. Before the second intifada began in 2000, land mine awareness was popular. During the intifada, “crisis intervention” projects for traumatized children were the thing to do. Suddenly everyone was painting children’s faces to cheer them up, handing out crayons for them to express themselves and “ventilate their feelings.”

All of these things can be important, effective ways to alleviate some of the effects of some of the occupation’s violence. But the piecemeal nature of donor largesse disperses focus and leads to dissipated energies. Diversifying funding sources would not solve these problems either. In any case, HROs are unlikely to attract funders among local philanthropists. Demands on their limited resources are huge, even for the wealthy businesspeople in Palestine and the diaspora who can contribute. They tend to direct their aid to emergency humanitarian relief during acute crises, or to development projects with more tangible results than rights advocacy can have.

The way forward

Human rights funding should not be provided on a project-by-project basis, which requires NGOs to spend vast amounts of their time cobbling together grant proposals to submit here and there. It makes them more likely to be funder driven, preventing them from developing and pursuing their own broader vision. Funders should trust the people they work with more, reduce the bureaucracy and eliminate the box-ticking forms and reports. Donors might protest, citing the problems of corruption and inefficacy. But many of the attempts at imposing accountability can be meaningless anyway, since the kinds of things HROs are forced to count — numbers of publications, numbers of beneficiaries, numbers of symposia delivered — don’t reveal anything about actual impact or effect.

Funding should go to organizations in larger chunks and include support for infrastructure. It is almost impossible for NGOs to get money to pay for their buildings, so that they can have some stability and focus on long-term visions and planning. For example, a group I work with wished to purchase land to create a park with green spaces, so that children’s “right to leisure” might actually be enacted. Not one of the tens of donor organizations that I approached was willing to donate. They don’t do infrastructure.


Posters in Gaza city of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, 2012. Although this is a primary human rights issue in Palestine, prisoners’ rights NGOs like Addameer and Samisdoun do not receive American funding. Photo by Majdi Fathis / APA images.

Despite the absurdities of this system, human rights funding should not end. So long as the occupation continues, the source of the abuses remains in place. HROs try to treat the symptoms, but cannot cure the disease. Although the hypocrisies of the human rights industry are clear, donors should not withdraw.

Although donors are doing little to stop the root cause of human rights violations, at least they provide work in a place facing extremely high unemployment levels (20.1 percent in the West Bank and 31.5 percent in the Gaza Strip in 2012). The economy is in shambles and will continue to be, so long as Israel controls when people can or cannot move outside their home territories; whether goods, building materials, and people can reach their destinations; and whether farmers can access their fields on the Israeli side of the separation barrier.

What should end is any funder trumpeting their aid as a means to curtail human rights violations. The reality is, only systemic political solutions can do that.

B’Tselem’s Camera Project

Aid Agencies call upon donor governments to continue providing aid to the Palestinian people
Association of International Development Agencies (AIDA) 

13 February 2006

Academy for Educational Development; AFSC/Quaker Service’s; AM Qattan Foundation; Caritas Jerusalem; COOPI; CISS – Cooperazione Internazionale Sud -Sud; Diakonia; Enfants du Monde – Droits de l’Homme; Enfants Réfugiés du Monde; Handicap International; International Orthodox Christian Charities-Jerusalem; International Christian Committee-ICC; Japan International Volunteer Center-JVC; Kvinna till Kvinna Jerusalem; The Lutheran World Federation-LWF; Medecins Du Monde-France; Middle East Aid and HAGAR Programs; Medico International; Mennonite Central Committee; Mercy Corps; Norwegian Church Aid; Oxfam GB; Oxfam International; Oxfam-Québec; Oxfam Solidarity Belgium; Save the Children Sweden; Save the Children UK; The Swedish Organization for Individual Relief-SOIR; Solidaridad Internacional; Terre des Hommes Foundation; and World Vision.

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