Foreign aid: impressions and sentiments, roles and functions

The way how people in recipient countries think about and reflect on the meaning, roles and efficiency of foreign aid has received little attention with the exception of a memoirs of former aid workers (such as, for example, The Road to Hell written by Michael Maren), Oren Ginzburg’s illustrative graphics (The Hungry Man books) or a recently published collection of recipient views, titled Time to Listen and edited by M. B. Anderson et al).

In terms of the Middle East, much has been written on the objectives, roles, functions and measures of foreign aid and international (mainly Western) assistance devoted to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Diwan – Shaban 1999; Hooper 1999; Brynen 2000; Nakhleh 2004; Keating et al. 2005; Le More 2008, Nakhleh 2011). Only one survey conducted by the Development Studies Program at Bir Zeit University (DSP) in 2004 can be cited which measured local views on international assistance; its results were summarized by Nader Said (2005). Indeed, one way of answering the question ‘how foreign support relates to domestic phenomena’ is to ask people living on the recipient side of the development story.

To capture and measure local perceptions on Western assistance, a series of individual in-depth interviews and a few focus group interviews were conducted in the Palestinian territories in July and August 2010. The research was partly based on a series of surveys and opinion polls carried out earlier by Fafo in the period of 2005 to 2010 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; quantitative and qualitative data equally prompted that the function and effects of international assistance were quite controversial (Fafo 2008; Fafo 2010a; Fafo 2010b).

To learn more about the Palestinian perceptions, 21 in-depth individual and 3 mini focus group semi-structured interviews were conducted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in July and August 2010. Qualitative data were collected through direct encounters with Palestinian individuals. All interviews were semi-structured containing a series of open-ended questions concentrating on three main areas: (i) basic concepts and local interpretations of international assistance; (ii) past and present experiences with foreign aid and future expectations regarding its role and impact; and (iii) the perceived priorities of Western foreign assistance with reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The interviewers both in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip had the opportunity to engage the respondents in an “informal” conversation as well as to urge them to elaborate on their original response in order to encourage them to reflect further on the question or topic at hand. Transcripts of the interviews were processed by the means of manual content (discourse) analysis. The qualitative interviews confirmed some of the findings of the previous polls but found that Palestinians attributed additional functions to foreign aid too. Foreign aid was seen as (i) external help easing sufferings, (ii) a way of control, (iii) a means to achieve certain related and various distant political goals, (iv) a reward for good performance, (v) compensation deserved by Palestinians, and (vi) a means to maintain the Israeli occupation.

Impressions and sentiments as well as roles and functions of foreign aid as perceived by the recipient were among the novel findings of the research. It must be emphasized that Palestinians were at a loss to explain and assess the advantages and disadvantages of foreign aid. On the one hand it was emphasized that Palestinians were simply forced to betray their most important national goals and dreams by accepting foreign aid. Access to Western aid was seen as conditional on their ‘unconditional’ support for the overall goal, namely the Oslo peace process and a two-state solution. As long as Palestinian recipients shared the donors’ norms and values and/or their understanding of peace process, they received aid. When compliance with Western conditions was refused, as the case of Hamas proved, access to aid was denied. Due to this conditionality, foreign aid was perceived to bolster the intra-Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah. On the other hand they did not really know what else to expect from the donors except receiving more aid. Although foreign aid officially aimed at supporting the peace process, it was perceived widely as a means for maintaining in practice what should be eliminated in principle, namely the Israeli occupation. Since donors were perceived as being aware of it, Palestinians could not but conclude that Western donors provided foreign aid either for realizing alternative political goals or for their conscience’s sake. Research results were summarized in form of two papers (Paragi 2012a, Paragi 2012b).

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