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A lot has been written about foreign aid in the Middle East and the analytical framework offered by gift theories. An author can hardly wish a better ‘last post’ than a story written by life. While most development aid (ODA) – as financially un-reciprocated grant – is provided to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan (and Turkey), the biggest beneficiary of US military aid, however, is Israel.

A few days ago, the US Embassy in Israel – wishing shana tova before the Jewish New Year – sent gifts to Israeli and international organizations (civil society and non-governmental organizations included). It contained, among others, a bottle of wine from Jewish settlements. As reported by Reuters, +972mag and Newsweek, ‘one of the recipients of the gift basket containing settlement produce was Peace Now, an anti-settlement organization that monitors the Israeli government’s settlement policies and activities in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.’

While the message to most people is that ‘it is impossible to distinguish between Israel and its illegal settlements these days’, the explanation ‘accidental’ and ‘unintentional’ says equally much about the nature and unintended impacts of foreign gifts – foreign aid – channeled to the region. It is worthwhile to quote Mauss (1928/2002, 16):

“one must give back to another person what is really part and parcel of his nature and substance, because to accept something from somebody is to accept some part of his spiritual essence, of his soul. To retain that thing would be dangerous and mortal, not only because it would be against law and morality, but also because that thing coming from the person not only morally, but physically and spiritually, that essence, that food those goods, whether movable or immovable, those women or those descendants, those rituals or those acts of communion—all exert a magical or religious hold over you.”

Gifts – let them be private or public, innocent or calculated – have ‘magical, religious, and spiritual force’ even today. It applies at least as much to official foreign aid as to private donations. A bottle of wine can be rejected for its ‘spiritual essence’. Billions or a few thousands of dollars?  No way.

Feminist Economics published an article (Funding Pain: Bedouin Women and Political Economy in the Naqab/Negev) on experiences gained by Bedouin women in the Negev (Israel). The article deals with the “political economy of their unrecognized, officially nonexistent villages and homes” and “rectify the gap in bottom-up knowledge of political economy by investigating the institutional structures that define and circumscribe women’s lives.”

There are interesting paragraphs informing the reader about Bedouin women’s experiences gained during their interactions with various donors. As quoted by one of them: “A year ago, one of the foreign groups – a potential funder – that we usually host, visited our organization; usually I meet the groups from overseas to describe and explain the life of Bedouin in the Naqab, sometimes the group was joined by a Jewish guide. During one of these visits, the guide asked me in front of them all, to tell my personal story, and share details from my life; and I did. Following this meeting, the guide recommended to our director [that we] stop talking about the Naqab and the difficulties facing Bedouin communities and Bedouin women, and concentrate [instead] on personal stories. It was very hard and I felt very bad, because I am not asking for their sympathy. I want them to believe in my cause.” (p15)

Interpreting this and other voices, the authors conclude that “requiring Bedouin women to share their private pains in the public sphere of funding works to re-center the role of donors and thus reinforces the starkly disparate relations of power that characterize the Naqab. Bedouin culture is more often than not portrayed as inferior and backwards. Donor relationships can become a transaction in which they ‘steal the pains of others’, which, as Sherene H. Razack suggests [with reference to the Rwandan experience] (2007), institutionalizes conceptions of Western superiority” (p16).

These arguments on “stealing pain” and the citation of old, Egyptian perceptions on the “Western” gazers (p13) recall a very similar feeling described in a totally different context. A (well-known) Hungarian writer, Magda Szabo wrote a (less known) novel with the title “Szemlelok” (in the early 1970s, no English translation). The word ‘szemlelok’ could be translated as ‘bystanders’ or ‘spectators’ or indeed, ‘gazers’. The story is about a Western diplomat (from a neutral country) preparing to serve in an imagined communist CEE country. Right after they arrive to the host country, her wife dies in a fatal accident (her car crashes with a wedding carriage, the driver of which was drunk) and he gradually develops a strange relationship with a rather independent, local woman whose father was privileged enough to spend long years in the West before he was summoned home to be detained after WW II (and after a while to be “rehabilitated”… the historical context is too complicated to detail here). The woman, Anna, is the central character of the novel, for she is able to assess the developments from both (Western, Eastern) perspective due to the fact that she spent her first ten years in the West.

What she says and how she says resonates well with the experiences of the Bedouin women (and that of those cited in the paper from Rwanda). Although her real ‘enemy’ is not the donor, but a curious Western journalist – representing the Western audience – hunting for secrets in the diplomat’s private life, the arguments are the same: there are not real, everyday dangers in the West (except for the ‘dummy’ dangers of amusement parks), so the ‘audience’ has to to ‘buy stories of sufferings’ and feels compelled to send ‘butter’ and ‘chocolate’ in the summer hot to help this way…

AHLC members and other major donor countries met in Brussels yesterday, at a meeting hosted by EU High Representative office. The chair, Norwegian Foreign Minister Børge Brende, welcomed Prime Minister Hamdallah and commended the parties, the UN, the World Bank, the IMF and the Quartet Representative for their reports and contributions (see an earlier post here).

Citing the Chairs’ Summary “the donors took note of Israeli efforts to increase the volume of materials into Gaza. They welcomed the readiness expressed for further increasing the volumes even if this involves raised security risks. Access to the Gaza Strip for materials, financing and persons is a necessary condition for the full reconstruction of Gaza. Protection of the lives and security of all civilian populations must be assured.

The AHLC concluded that the Palestinians will need high levels of budget assistance during the coming years, and called on the donors to respond to this need. Assistance should not be diverted from the West Bank towards the reconstruction of Gaza, and assistance to Gaza should be channelled through the PA. Without a resumption of the political process to end the occupation, however, the PA’s financial situation will become unmanageable.” 

Minutes have been recorded and can be accessed at EU’s website (Audiovisual collection):

Roundtable and opening remarks by Børge BRENDE, Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs, and by Johannes HAHN, Member of the EC in charge of European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations

      or at: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I103818

Remarks by Federica MOGHERINI, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the EC

      or at: http://ec.europa.eu/avservices/video/player.cfm?ref=I103793

Reading the reports and watching the speeches, it is worthwhile to recall Annalisa Furia’s thoughs from her recently published book: “the quantity of generosity does not say much about the ‘quantity of real aid’ (…). It also does not say that much about its quality, about the nature of the gift (…). More importantly, it does not say much on the ways in which gift [that is, aid] is returned” (p74).

Annalisa Furia (2015): The Foreign Aid Regime: Gift-Giving, States and Global Dis/Order. NY: Palgrave(Pivot)