social cohesion and values

Empirical data collected in the West Bank and Gaza Strip (last summer, so far unpublished) reveal that (at least) two “aid industries” exist in parallel.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…

Two notable paragraphs from a book on gifts, corruption and philanthropy. The excerpts are from chapter 2 (the ethics of a gift):

‘Charity becomes a powerful tool for those searching for public relations kudos, or even for real power. The ambivalence of the gift re-appears: the principle of solidarity is used to access or establish a position of power in one way or another, either to be nominated as “the most generous,” or as “the biggest contributor” or to reinforce strong socio-political and business bonds between the acclaimed donor and the ‘miserable’ receiver (who might temporary escape his material deprivation only to find himself trapped in a dependent position vis-à-vis the generous donor). Philanthropy – behavior where intentions could be termed ‘good’ per se becomes a part of public relations/business conquest. Charity may be employed as a very powerful and even manipulative tool to bind people to a (spiritual) goal or mission, or even more blatantly to lock the receiver into one’s self-interested (but often disguised) political-economic objectives’ (Verhezen 2009, 60).

‘The logic of abundance does not directly aim for reciprocity but incites it. Unfortunately and ambiguously, unilateral gifts evidently generate envy and may even trigger violent reactions because the logic of social obligations has been broken as the recipient is in no position to give back’ (Verhezen, 2009, 61).

Verhezen, Peter (2009) Gifts, Corruption, Philanthropy: The Ambiguity of Gift Practices in Business. Bern: Peter Lang

Egyptians are known about their hostility towards foreign (mostly US) aid.  Various survey results show that somewhere between 55-85% percent of the Egyptian population is against US aid. Egyptians’ attitudes about U.S. economic aid – channeled in form of budgetary support or direct assistance to NGOs – became increasingly negative, while NGO employees faced charges of illegally accepting foreign funds and stirring unrest (Azeem 2013; Sabry 2014). Other foreign donors (Arab governments, international financial organizations) ‘perform’ better, still sentiments against them similarly increased from the first part of 2011 to the beginning of 2012 (Younis and Younis 2012). Assessing the positive and negative aspects of foreign funding provided (to civil society organizations) in Egypt, Mohammed Elagati collected countless arguments for and against aid mainly from various stakeholders within the Egyptian civil society (Elagati 2013).

As indicated by the Neighbourhood Barometer data (the survey was carried out by REACH Egypt), Egyptians are much less knowledgeable about the details of European involvement and development cooperation than people living in the neighbouring countries. Still, the high rate of ‘do not knows’ vis-à-vis the EU (50-70% depending on the question and date of NB survey) is even more interesting, since Egypt is seen as one of the key partners in the region. Looking at the extent to which Egyptian respondents agreed with various statements formulated on the EU’s involvement in Egypt, the rate of agreement (approval) is very low:

NB, Egypt, qAB8, 2012-2014

The deepest point (‘Spring 2013’ denotes the period between 6 June and 8 July 2013) may well be explained by a specific event, namely the military takeover (3 July 2013) and the preceding mass demonstrations demanding change, which was highly criticized and denounced by the Western powers and public opinion as well. Neither this, nor following steps taken by the EU (the West in general) were welcomed warmly in Egypt. But perhaps the Egyptian results lead to further questions on the reliability of public opinion in non-democratic countries. As long as public opinion is not truly ‘free’ in most countries in the region, one has to interpret ‘local voices’, results of public opinion polls included, cautiously.

Sources: Z. Azeem (2013) ‘NGO Workers Sentenced by Egyptian Court’ Al-Monitor, 10 June, 2013; M. Elagati, M. (2013) Foreign Funding in Egypt After the Revolution. FRIDE, Arab Forum for Alternatives & HIVOS; M. Younis and A. Younis (2012) Egyptian Opposition to US and other foreign aid increases. Gallup, 29 March 2012; M. Sabry (2014) ‘How Egypt’s protest law brought down the revolution’ Al-Monitor, 9 September, 2014; A. Taylor (2013) ‘Millions March in Egyptian Protests’, The Atlantic (In Focus), 1 July 2013; and Neighborhood Barometer analytical reports, wave 1-5 (2012-2014):

In their contracts and internal documents foreign governments are often explicit about what they expect from the research groups they finance. The article written by Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore and published by NYTimes (Foreign Powers Buy Influence at Think Tanks,, September 6, 2014) tracks how foreign governments try to influence research in not so innocent manner:

Even if there is a public debate and outrage, it must be kept in mind that money matters and it is part of our daily lives. Donor ‘influence’ is part of the game even at the lowest research/researcher levels. EU Marie Curie grants, such as the one behind this blog, cannot be obtained unless the applicant is able to ‘outline the benefit that will be gained from undertaking the project at Community level and how the integration grant will contribute to enhance EU competitiveness’ (copy pasted from ‘Instructions for preparing proposal Part B for Marie Curie Grants’). The benefit and competitiveness – in most fields/disciplines of social sciences – is ‘something political’ or at least ‘policy-related’. And it applies to any research on value-sensitive topics, such as human rights, governance, democracy, religion, violence, foreign aid, etc. If a government (a private person, for that matter) is motivated to influence masses in the Middle East, it has to support Islamic charities and/or movements. In the West, one can win more by giving money to research establishments and researchers, because their (our) activity, academic and intellectual independence, legitimacy is perceived to be sacred. Motives and mechanisms are the same.

In order to understand the ‘power of public opinion’ we may recall how it interacts with foreign policy making. While the realist school asserts that people’s opinion is constantly changing, elusive, hardly reflect substantial knowledge on foreign policy issues and it is almost impossible to structure the various views (and as such it can be ignored for the higher good of the state), the liberal way of thinking is convinced about its consistency and stability (and as such public opinion is needed for democratic decision-making even in the field of foreign relations). Sometimes, public opinion tends to be tricky, elusive and ‘not so reliable’. To illustrate it, it is worthwhile to take a look at the following two tables containing data from the Arab Barometer (wave II, 2010-2011):

arab barometer wave II, q705.pdf

When asked ‘which is more important in causing the lack of development in the Arab world’ most people in most countries cited either internal factors, or the combination of internal and external factors. Only a minority said that (only) external factors explain the lack of development (Egypt 17,4%; Palestine 21,2%, Saudi-Arabia 7,7%). However, when they were asked about he main obstacles of reform in their countries, most of the respondents were much more critical:

arab barometer wave II, q7113

Vast majority of the respondents agreed with the statement – strongly or some extent – that (q7113) ‘foreign interference is an obstacle to reform in your country’ (Egypt: 83,9%; Jordan: 76,8%; Palestine: 85,1%; Lebanon: 92,4%). Reading the data, the reader may wonder how it is possible that ‘external factors’ play much less significant role in explaining the ‘lack of development’, than ‘foreign interference’ plays in explaining the ‘obstacles to reform’ in a given country. The explanation may be hidden in the ‘context’ of the given question (Q7113). Respondents might have been biased by being asked and answering the following questions at the same time: (q7111) ‘The Arab-Israeli conflict is an obstacle to political reform in your country’ and (q7112) ‘In order to eliminate global terrorism, the Palestine issue must be solved.’

Sources and further reading: Arab Barometer, wave II (2010-2011) and codebook:; [1] R. Holsti (2009) Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy. Revised Edition. University of Michigan Press


“The Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains the prism of pain through which most Arabs view the world” argues Shibley Telhami and concludes that “seen from the Arab side, this Israeli imperative entails exactly the sort of dominance that they reject and are revolting against; the very essence of the prism of pain through which Arabs view the world. In an era of Arab awakening, a half a billion Arabs and Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa find it impossible to accept the strategic domination of a country of 8 million, especially when they don’t accept the Israeli narrative for the absence of Palestinian-Israeli peace to begin with. And they see America, and to some extent other European countries, as providing the support to make this possible. [1] Telhami’s argument is underpinned not only by his own survey data, but  by the Arab Barometer (wave II) survey too. When asked whether the Arab world should accept the existence of Israel as a Jewish state, most respondents opted for the ‘refusal’:

Arab Barometer wave II, q709

Looking at the results, it is very interesting, although not novel, that people living in those countries that signed any sort of peace agreement with Israel (Egypt 1979, Jordan 1994; Palestine/PLO 1993-1994-1995-) do not think significantly differently that people living elsewhere. The only exception perhaps is Egypt which has one of the highest rate of approval (36,8%) and lowest rate of refusal (55,8%). The distinction being made between country, nation and state is of particular interest in the Middle East [2], and polling institutes should formulate a question on the ‘existence of [Egypt, Jordan, Saudi-Arabia] as an Arab State’ in the future.

Sources and further reading [1] S. Telhami (2013). The World Through Arab Eyes, Chapter 5.; [2] B. Lewis (1998) Multiple Identities in the Middle East, Chapter 3, 4, 5. NY: Schocken