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foreign aid

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.

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As reported by The Guardian a few days ago, Israeli security forces have arrested the Gaza director of World Vision (one of the world’s largest Christian charities) accusing him of diverting tens of millions of dollars to Hamas. The main Israeli concern is probably not the mismanagement, but that these funds were allegedly used to build a military base, dig military tunnels and pay salaries in Hamas’s military wing.

Reading the related articles (AlMonitor, Haaretz, +972Mag, others) and reports on similar cases (UNDP or here; Save the Children) the most surprising is the international surprise. The management of World Vision, other donors, diplomats and journalists  claim that they were not aware of the mismanagement of funds. Hamas officially denies the accusations condemning “the Israeli detention campaign against staff of international organizations working in the besieged Gaza Strip” (Ma’an). However, it is either a pure lie (since it is more or less known how things are usually going on under a sort of authoritarian rule, military occupation or simply tough economic conditions; big international donor charities have been quite visible in Gaza for the past decade) – or donors really did not know anything about these practices and their surprise is genuine. But then they have been simply blind/deaf, so to say, cheated…? Would it be so simple? Is it possible that international donors, being present and witnessing what has been going on in Gaza for years, really do not know the rules of the game? As proposed by a related journal article (by Neil Narang in International Studies Quarterly), ‘aid can inadvertently increase each combatant’s uncertainty about the other side’s relative strength, thereby prolonging civil war (…) so policymakers need to carefully consider whether the specific benefits provided by humanitarian aid outweigh the risk of prolonging civil conflicts.’

Our interviews conducted last summer (see previous post) did not touch upon this subject, my colleague did not heard about similar cases during the interviews (we did not ask about it). It is probably very difficult to investigate and prove these claims (by academic means). But to run an aid organization or a humanitarian charity without ‘compromises’ is equally very difficult under such circumstances, if not impossible. And while one can only guess how or why someone, an individual working at an aid organization “gets into trouble” this way, it is hard to believe that donors are not aware of such attempts.

Empirical data collected in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (last summer, so far unpublished) reveal that (at least) two “aid industries” exist in parallel. As expressed by one of our respondents (leader of an Islamic charity, Sept 21, 2015, Gaza Strip):

“We don’t get any support from European and American donors, these donors don’t deal with us, they are ashamed to deal with us. While they know the we are association providing services for wounded people, they think that the wounded people are military personnel; on the contrary, all the wounded people are civilians. They have been injured during the years of the Intifada and during the wars or the bombing of the Israeli army for many places and houses in Gaza. There are is a very sensitivity to the word ‘wounded’ or ‘injured’ or ‘prisoner’ by those donors (European and American), these donors are boycotting all the Palestinian associations dealing with these category of people wounded or prisoners.”

The one which is “ashamed” to deal with the other has also been accused of promoting neoliberal ideas at the expense of local, Palestinian national (nation-building) interests.

With reference to this complex world (of opinions and realities) two recent publications deserve attention:

Marie Juul Petersen (2015): For Humanity Or For The Umma?: Aid and Islam in Transnational Muslim NGOs. London: Hurst and Co

The book explores how Muslim NGOs conceptualise their provision of aid and the role Islam plays in this and offers insights into a new kind of NGO in the global field of aid provision. It also contributes more broadly to understanding ‘public Islam’ as something beyond political Islam. The book is based on empirical case studies of four of the biggest transnational Muslim NGOs, and draws on extensive research in Britain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Jordan and Bangladesh.

Linda Tabar and Omar Jabary Salamanca, eds (2015): Critical Readings of Development under Colonialism. Towards a Political Economy for Liberation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Ramallah: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Birzeit University’s Center for Development Studies

The point of departure of this latter publication is to elaborate on “the critical development discourse in Palestine” that has “become part of the overall debate of development under colonial settings.”

 

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…

Chatham House has published a new research paper (The ‘myth’ of a Palestinian economy by Sami Abdel-Shafi) on the EU’s donor policies (based on the Oslo Peace Process). The core objective of the paper was worded as “to persuade the European Union (EU) to shift its policy from supporting the current framework of Palestinian economic development, which in effect subordinates the economy to a political process that has become stalled and dysfunctional. It calls for the decoupling of economic development from the peace process, irrespective of the political roadblocks – or possible future progress – in the latter.” One of its recommendation (p25) concerns “a joint review by the EU and the PA of the extent to which aid has achieved its aims seems timely. Similarly timely would be an assessment of how effective it has been for the EU to divert funds from development aid to humanitarian aid and budgetary support to the Palestinians.”

Everyone being familiar with the history of aid to Palestine knows that there are serious problems with the way how the EU supports the Palestinian statebuilding. The EU – the international donor community – has been busy with “building” a Palestinian state, the territories of which is partially occupied by Israel and controlled by the Hamas. For some more or less obvious reasons the EU has been pouring money to the Palestinian territorries (adminstration, statebuilding, security cooperation with Israel, supporting refugees, and victims of the Gaza wars). From an academic perspective the exciting question is why policy-paper writers, activists, scholars, researchers constantly feel compelled to write papers on the EU’s incompetence and urge it to change its policies? The EU – let it mean anyone – knows well the situation, each and every fact created on the ground; the EU has closely monitored and documented the “developments” since the early 1990s. Various European bodies and authorities published exhaustive “self-reflective” reports and papers throughout the years (see for example the evaluations prepared by the European Court of Auditors), to mention only the most recent one prepared to the EC:

Evaluation of the European Union’s Cooperation with the occupied Palestinian territory and support to the Palestinian people 2008 – 2013, Vol I (main report) + Vol II (Annex). Evaluation carried out on behalf of the European Commission, May 2014

This paper sincerely and explicitly concedes that “notwithstanding ardent declaratory policies, massive financial support, dialogue and deployment of other instruments, EU Cooperation had little demonstrable impact on the main obstacles to achieving the Two-State solution. The Evaluation collected abundant evidence that the goals of the EU have been seriously hampered by “binding constraints,” the most significant being the Israeli restrictions in relation to occupation and allocation of resources for settlements, but also including Palestinian political divisions and an absence of democratic process. While these binding constraints have been highlighted in EU statements, the evaluation findings indicate that the EU has been neither willing nor able to address these constraints squarely, with an effective political response” (Vol I. page VIII).

The EU knows everything. The Palestinians – Israel alike – know that it knows everything.

Al-Monitor published an article – authored by Uri Savir (Aug 30, 2015) – stating, among others, that “waiting for the international community has become synonymous with “waiting for Godot”, mostly because the peace process looks hopeless. It may be the case from a diplomat’s perspective, but researcher find this subject increasingly interested (if measured by the number of publications published in academic journals recently).
Two pieces from the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development (August 2015) – both are concerned with impacts and context of peacebuilding in Palestine:

Joanna Springer: Assessing Donor-driven Reforms in the Palestinian Authority: Building the State or Sustaining Status Quo

[Abstract] “Official development assistance for statebuilding provided to the Palestinian Authority (PA) has increasingly been focused on technocratic governance reforms that fail to address the root causes of conflict between Israel and Palestinians. A prime example is an emphasis on preparing mediumterm development plans despite the fact that the ongoing occupation prevents their effective implementation. The donor community is bound by the Fragile States Principles to strengthen state capacity to help prevent recurrence of conflict. Drawing on publicly available data and government documents, as well as interviews with stakeholders in PA development policy, this article identifies shortfalls in statebuilding strategy benchmarked against the Fragile States Principles. In order to fulfil their peacebuilding mandate, it is crucial for the donor community to address the role of the Government of Israel in governance failures in the occupied Palestinian territory and engage civil society more effectively.”

Ned Lazarus & Michelle I. Gawerc: The Unintended Impacts of ‘Material Support’: Us Anti-terrorism Regulations and Israeli/Palestinian Peacebuilding

“This briefing illustrates the problematic impacts of MSC regulations on peacebuilding through the examples of US-funded NGOs working in the Israeli-
Palestinian context. Drawing on testimonies from dozens of Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding initiatives, the briefing highlights local NGO experiences with MSC regulations such as the Partner Vetting System (PVS) and the Anti-Terror Certification (ATC). As emphasised herein, the MSC regulatory regime complicates the struggles of peacebuilding organisations to attain legitimacy in their societies, affecting their ability to recruit participants, to build partnerships, and to achieve the impacts envisioned by donors and practitioners alike.”

Source and link: Journal of Peacebuilding & Development 10 (2), http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rjpd20/current#.VeRNZfmqpVI

 

The fact that  the US prioritizes Mubarak-era security arrangements over (transition to) democracy according to a draft version of a bill (Making appropriations for the Department of State, foreign operations, and related programs for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2016, and for other purposes) does not reflect more (nor less) that ties and bonds do matter as long as (i) there is a common enemy to win over or dangers to overcome (ii) democracy is not a sacred cow. Fear matters more than political ideas.

Reading p 133-134 (paragraphs on Egypt) it is clear how “foreign aid” is linked to regional considerations and donor interests: “Funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this Act that are made available for assistance for the Government of Egypt may be made available notwithstanding any provision of law restricting assistance for Egypt, except such funds may only be made available if the Secretary of State certifies and reports to the appropriate congressional committees that such government is (A) sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States; and (B) meeting its obligations under the 1979 Egypt- Israel Peace Treaty.”

AL-Monitor quotes panel member Dutch Ruppersberger, justifying the proposed bill this way: “If you have an ally you work with them. You don’t tear them down, you build them up (..) if we walk away, do you want China, Russia to move in and take them over? That’s kind of the things you have to look at.”

The objective of foreign (development, military) aid practices is to perpetuate the bond (Furia 2015, 4) as long as the bond is seen as a means or guarantee to prevent non-desired outcomes.

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Julian Pecquet: “Congress seeks to lift last restrictions on aid to Egypt” Al-Monitor, June 1, 2015 available at http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/06/state-department-congress-funding-egypt.html#ixzz3c5IFuVjz