human nature

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.


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.

One of the most important concepts is fear in the ‘refugees/migrants versus Europe’ debate. It is not entirely clear whether Europe is against the migrants, or migrants are against Europe. But it is more than obvious that at the level of generalization both sides fear the other contrary to Jean-Claude Juncker’s call for collective courage. He is worried by ‘the fear directed against these people by some parts of the European population’ and concludes that ‘Europe fails when fear prevails’. As if it was simply a matter of choice.

One must admit that we social scientists – just as human rights activists – know very little about fear regardless to our knowledge on its consequences, such as violence, war, population movements, suicide and so on. Politicians, at least as much instinctively as cynically, know much better what fear is about in Europe thanks to the various public opinion polls. The language spoken for example by the Hungarian PM, Viktor Orban is seen much less unrealistic and provoking today than a month ago. His arguments are at least as much, if not better, shared by a significant part of the European public (opinion) and politicians as judged by others, certain media outlets, journalist, politicians, scholars or activists included. Orban’s gambling builds not only on how many people in Hungary think about foreigners coming from remote countries, but also on a more general European resentment rapidly growing against the new-comers let them be migrants or refugees.

When Le Figaro, the second second-largest, right-leaning national newspaper in France asked whether its readers agree with the Hungarian decision to build a fence on the Hungarian-Serbian border (to keep refugees and migrants away), 88% of the respondents said  yes (the sample is not representative, but big enough, the number of voters was as high as 56250). On a more representative side, the latest available Eurobarometer survey (the poll was conducted in May with over 30,000 people interviewed) found that immigration jumped to the top of the most frequently cited EU-level concerns with 38% (+14 points). It is now way ahead of the economic situation (27%, -6 points) and unemployment (24%, -5 points) too. While the immigration of people from other EU Member States evoked a positive feeling for more than half of Europeans, the opposite was true in the case of immigration of people from outside the EU. Their (economically-motivated) immigration evoked a positive feeling for only about a third of Europeans (34%) and a negative feeling for 56%. It is not surprising that close to three-quarters of Europeans said they were in favour of  a common European policy on migration (73%). Results of the next survey (due in November) will likely be even more ‘anti-European’ and fearful in light of the late-Summer developments in Europe.

What is fear?  Fear is a very normal human emotion induced by a threat or any negative stimulus. Neuro- and cognitive science says that fear is automatic, unconscious, spontaneously generalized and resistant to extinction. The perception of threat leads to neural changes in the brain and indirectly in behaviour as well: it leads to hiding, freezing, or running away from traumatic events. It is fear which makes people run away from Syria, Afghanistan or Turkish refugee camps. And it is fear – and not simple hatred – which makes other people, Europeans, reluctant to receive and integrate them in large scale. Is this fear real or imagined? It depends. But new arrivals bring not only their human rights with themselves. They also carry their history, collective memory, tragedies and traumas, culture and religion and a lot else. And while there are generous and ‘fearless’ European individuals being busy with offering a helping hand, a great part of the general public is quite much concerned about opening borders and integrating strangers with complicated past. One of the most important human feeling – fear – seems to be shared by refugees and Europeans as well. Describing fear as abnormal, coward, egoistic or anti-European may take into consideration some significant political events of European history. However, it ignores not only other, less glorious historical facts, but scientific evidence on human nature as well. Fear is not only very normal, but hardly a matter of choice. Equally, it is not simply a matter of moral(ity). If Europe needs more refugees and immigrants – but even if the opposite is true, there is no straightforward answer to this question – it should focus on understanding this very human feeling instead of building further rhetorical fences and trenches.

A few years ago researchers demonstrated that monkeys and humans ‘share a specific perceptual mechanism, configural perception, for discriminating among the numerous faces they encounter daily’. The main message is that  the evolution of the ‘critical human social skill of facial recognition’ enables us to form relationships and interact appropriately with others [1]. Provided that these others think alike.


A recent article investigating the trends in social media communication (the specific subject is the recent war in Gaza, Israel vs. Hamas, but the findings are more general) seems to underpin the old wisdom of journalism: people read what they are otherwise interested in. Recalling the author’s words: social networks are perfectly designed to reinforce our existing beliefs. It is the media – not simply the traditional version, but everything which is internet-based, so to say, the online society itself, illustrated by the monkey above – which ‘creates’ reality (for itself, for themselves).  It is not the message, which is novel, but the way of proofing. The spectacular results can be seen here:

Gilad Notan (2014): Israel, Gaza, War & Data. Social Networks and the Art of Personalizing Data.

View story at

The gap between truth and reality is larger and larger, the former playing less and less significant role in any game. It seems so.

Sources and further reading: [1] ‘The science of faces’ blog post on Skepacabra, July 12, 2009 (the monkey graph is copy-pasted from this blog).

‘Any words of consolation or press interviews with family members seem nothing more than an intrusion on their deep sadness and great pain,’ writes Asma Al-Ghoul, a Gaza-based columnist for Al-Monitor Palestine Pulse, upon summing up her report about the tragedy of the Hamad family. This sentence tells much more about the reality of (post)modern conflicts than updates in newspapers, human rights reports, political analyses, twitter feeds, facebook shares, blog posts or even articles in referred journals will ever be able to reveal.

Let us see the supply side first. What does the press do? It sends its journalist and photographers to the region to report on the events, daily life and daily death, among others. Sometimes it pays for the information, other times it ‘just’ reports. What does the academia do? It provides lengthy explanations about international humanitarian law, reminds to the importance of human rights law, summarizes briefly the historical context, and tries to analyze the contemporary events. What does the activist do? Raises funds to save lives, organizes demonstrations and distributes as many pieces of information about brutality as possible. The supply side of the play called ‘understanding’ is performed by various artists: journalists and photographers, university professors and researchers, political analysts and political activists. We are confined to explain what is going on in the Middle East – in any other parts of the world – but we are unable to prevent suffering, to ease the pain of the individual or to bring back a father to his son. We can produce tons of pages with reports and explanations, but still, we are unable to prevent the son to repeat the mistakes of his father. Let this mistake be about having a coffee at a wrong place in a wrong time, firing rockets or bombing as response to rockets.

And the demand side? The audience? We readers – sometimes simultaneously writers/authors – are sitting in comfortable armchairs buying stories of sufferings without risking our daily routine or lives. We not only watch and monitor what is going on, we not only prosecute, sentence, judge or acquit people living far from us. We are also consumers, rational decision makers. We can choose between channels and websites based on our prompt preferences. And today’s choice does not influence tomorrow’s decisions. Depending on our ‘tastes’ we can prefer a burning fuel station in Ashdod or a mourning family in Gaza over sports today, while opt for the world cup final over Palestinian rockets and Israeli bombings the day after. We can choose and we, indeed, choose. We pay for the ‘adventure’ let it be a football match or the suffering of a family in the Middle East. But even the globally conscious – showing solidarity with a Palestinian child losing his father, a Palestinian mother losing her child or an Israeli family being affected by unpredictable rockets – will never be able to give them back their prior lives. Only those, living in close proximity, Israelis and Palestinians, will be able to find solutions for their problems and find ways for consolation, provided that they choose living together, at least, next to each other.

Norwegian version was posted in Aftenposten (July 18 2014): Forklaring uten å kunne gjøre noe.

The project focuses on foreign aid (and its role in the MENA region) and has not been so much interested in other forms of ‘international communication’ such as, for example, sanctions or boycotts, even if they could be understood as ‘negative aid’. Watching Ari Lesser’s Boycott Israel, but if you do, boycott all those other evil countries too, one can count almost 40 countries blamed for committing human rights violations (to mention a few: North Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Congo DRC and some other countries from SSA, numerous Latin-American countries, former CCCP (post-soviet) countries and Middle Eastern states). Three of the listed countries belong to the ‘West’ (Germany, US, Japan), two of them are mentioned due to their crimes committed in the first part of the 20th century (Germany and Turkey) and Japan is being held responsible for ‘slaughtering innocent’ whales. The Palestinian Authority (PNA) is not mentioned, probably for some sort of political correctness, even if it has also been liable for human rights abuses regardless to the question ‘who’ represents the PNA. Bypassing the obvious question (on the rationality of boycotts being a sort of ‘excommunication’ to use a Christian, religious term), it is worthwhile to compare this arbitrary list of countries with another one prepared by the World Bank.

If counties are ranked on the basis of net ODA received between 2009-2013, (1) Afghanistan (6,7 billion USD/year, average), (2) Congo DRC (5,5 billion USD/year), (3) Vietnam (3,5 billion USD) can be found on the top of the list. It continues with (5) Pakistan (3,5 billion USD), (6) India (3,22 billion USD) and (7) Turkey (3,19 billion USD). Ten of the top 25 ODA recipients (measured by net ODA and receiving at least 1 billion USD annually) are ‘qualified’ participants of the Lesser-video. There are quite many countries violating democratic and human rights (for example, Nigeria and Bangladesh) that are not mentioned by Lesser but being among the top 25. It must also be acknowledged that there are ‘differences’ in terms of the parameters of violence. Certain states, to be more precise, certain governments do not protect women and their rights, others tolerate executions for blasphemy or widely arresting or detaining persons (in most cases their own citizens) arbitrary. Lesser and those liking his performance blames the international community for applying double standards vis-à-vis Israel. He is concerned with the unproportional international attention devoted to the Palestinian rights. Or he may worry for those not getting enough international attention. 

In more general terms one might also ask about the ‘collective blindness’ of the international community which (countries, governments and public alike) not only ignores state sovereignty, responsibility and ‘national’ self-determination by providing institutionalized (mainly humanitarian, but also development) aid for those that should be cared by their own leadership, but also plays into the hands of the very same leaders committing various crimes against their own people (at least according to Western and/or universal standards). If the Western argument evolves about the ‘responsibility to protect’ principle related to humanitarian intervention, one may think about further ‘rights’ and ‘duties’ related to the abstract ‘social contracts’ existing (at least hypothetically) between a foreign (developed) country and a citizen of another (developing) one. It is much easier to ‘protect’ by providing aid than to provide conditions for a meaningful life for the rest of the world (too). And it is more likely that societies are divided due to their members’ uneven access to aid than kept together – provided that ‘community’ among the people ever existed within the (nation)state boundaries.

Ari  Lesser (2013): Boycott Israel. (accessed: 9-12-2013)

SPME (2013): Boycott Israel: Interview With Ari Lesser. (accessed: 9-12-2013)

World Bank (2013): Net Official Development Assistance Received. Online database

All knows that there is ‘good aid’ and ‘bad aid’, but it is very difficult to separate them, since aid is not purely a technical term. Humanitarian aid is said to be apolitical serving only principles (humanity, impartiality, neutrality and independence to mention only the most relevant ones), development aid is about belief (in economic growth and/or poverty reduction), and military aid is explicitly about common interests (making allies). Regardless to its objectives or the motives behind foreign aid, even humanitarian aid, is deeply embedded in politics. Humanitarian aid can be offered purely on ‘humanitarian’ grounds. Resource scarcity – money being at the disposal of the donors – leads to certain selectivity even in terms of the disasters and catastrophes let them be natural or man-made. The scope and magnitude of the humanitarian activities surrounding, for example, the Syrian civil war (compared, for example to similar cases in Africa) says at least as much about donor preferences in terms of being good, as about the negligence of the Syrian government or about the preparedness of the neighboring countries to manage such crises. Foreign (mainly, but not exclusively Western) commitment, competencies and professionalism is needed in order to prevent larger catastrophes (measured by higher rate of mortality, lower rate of school enrollment ratio or that of vaccination, etc).

As the Syrian case will probably show in the future, ‘conflict resolution and post-war reconstruction concerns (…) could be seen as ‘the riot control’ end of a spectrum encompassing a broad range of ‘global poor relief’ (Duffield 2001: 9). The reasons – let them be economic or political, strategic or moral, developmental or humanitarian – for participation in form of foreign aid are secondary to the fact, that foreign assistance brings the ‘establishment’ of global governance closer to the recipient societies. This ‘closeness’ leads to further tensions among local stakeholders – as well as to further opportunities to intervene – by delegitimizing indigenous leadership and by alienating leaders from their own people, even in Syria. This argument, applied in the Palestinian case too (Paragi 2012b), can be formulated this way too: ‘the [donor] policy is most effective when objectives are more or less similar on both sides – (…) – where foreign aid support reforms which the [recipient] government itself wants to carry out’ (Stokke 1995: 79). If the recipient government does not really care about its own people (regardless to the question of democratic representation) further tensions will emerge in terms of implementing donor policies. Mark Duffield formulated it in the following way: ‘the condemnation of all violent conflict by liberal peace means that the leaders of violent conflicts are automatically problematized’ regardless to their motives and acts (Duffield 2001: 128–129). It is strange enough, but people usually tend to favour their own problematic (or problematized) leaders over foreign helpers. It is the ‘foreign’ adjective which would deserve more attention – not the effects, effectiveness or efficiency of any foreign help.