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Are international aid practices in Palestine worse than in other places in the world?

Fundamental Questions

Are international aid practices in Palestine worse than in other places in the world?

Palestinians have a lot of experience with international aid and much of it is negative. They say donors are supporting their own political agendas, using aid to control the Palestinian Authority and civil society, and that the way donors give aid can never lead to real development because it doesn’t challenge the Israeli occupation and colonization. While many Palestinians know a great deal about aid to Palestine, they don’t necessarily know about the global aid system and how Palestinian experiences compare with those of other aid dependent peoples. Are international aid practices in Palestine worse than in other places in the world?

Convergence of Complaints

Studies like that done by The Listening Program in 2012, which involved 6000 people in over 20 countries, show a remarkable similarity of complaints from aid-dependent people around the world. They summarize:

"…The organization of international assistance as a delivery system through which some people ‘provide’ while others ‘receive’ is inimical to its stated objectives and undermines the very principles on which it is based. People who live in recipient societies say that this system turns them into ‘objects’ of others’ decision-making and planning, rather than engaging them as subjects in their society’s progress. They note that a system that is organized to deliver focuses on gaps and needs to be filled, rather than on existing capacities and structures that should be reinforced. Aid structures and functions that are designed to facilitate delivery inevitably become supply-driven, and the resultant top-down direction of goods and services violates the principles of participation, ownership, and sustainability essential for effective aid. Externally-driven deliveries are an inadequate mechanism for promoting positive change in the recipient societies."

These complaints are very similar to those expressed in Palestine, for example in a study published in 2011 by Dalia Association. The study involved grassroots civil society actors around the West Bank, Gaza Strip and with some participation by Palestinians inside Israel. Major complaints expressed by participants included: 1) Most donors fund relief, not development; 2) The use of intermediaries is often harmful to local civil society’s effectiveness and sustainability; 3) Aid organizations impose unrealistic and unfair procedures; 4) Aid actors impose their agendas; among others. More recently Palestinian aid critics have gone further, implicating donors and international aid actors in complicity with the occupation and blockade and calling for boycotts, as in the case of the Palestinian civil society boycott against USAID.

Donor-Led Reforms

Donors also have concerns about aid but they have focused more on the “effectiveness” of aid. In response, the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD-DAC) created the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness (WP-Eff) which developed and advanced the campaign for aid effectiveness highlighted by a series of High-Level Forums (HLF):

• Rome, 2002—focused on donor coordination and harmonization.

• Paris, 2005—produced the milestone Paris Declaration committing governments and multilateral agencies to the five principles of aid effectiveness: Ownership, Alignment, Harmonization, Results, and Mutual Accountability.

•  Accra, Ghana, 2008—civil society pushed for process reforms like broadening country “ownership” to include civil society and parliamentarians.

• Busan, Korea, 2011—reinforced the earlier principles and expanded the global commitment to aid transparency, but also incorporated new development partners, including business.

Some experts are challenging what they perceive as overly simplistic approaches to development and call on aid actors to "Do Development Differently," while others are framing their critiques in anti-colonial terms and calling for "Development Justice."

In the last few years the aid reform discussions have converged, to some extent, in the series of governmental, multilateral and non-governmental consultations feeding into the Post-2015 process, which was designed to create global consensus around Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that expire in 2015.

While there is a great amount of activity on the global level, Palestine isn’t as involved as some other countries, and many in Palestine aren’t even aware that decisions are being made on the global level that will shape aid policy and funding landscapes for years to come.

Civil Society Responses to Donor-Led Reforms

Throughout these processes, civil society participants have expressed concerns both about who is “at the table” and about what is being discussed there. Although not everyone agrees on every point, some common demands include the need to address development more politically and not merely as a technical exercise; the need to address development in the context of global economic and political relations rather than separate from them; the special obligations of the most developed countries; the need for a stronger human rights framework around aid discussions; and the desire to include concepts of justice.

Opportunities for Collective Action to Transform Aid

Since Palestinians are among the longest and largest per capita recipients of international aid in the world, Palestine can be a valuable case study about the possibilities for aid to make a positive difference in a chronic, political conflict. Can there be development under military occupation? In this situation, what kind of “aid” is most helpful as defined by the intended beneficiaries?

It is not clear if and how Palestinians and their allies should engage with global aid reform processes. Some people say that it requires too much effort, time and resources to engage with global processes and that the potential benefit to Palestinians is too low. Others consider it strategic to align with global collective actions that might not only benefit Palestine, but give Palestinians the opportunity to contribute to sustainable change on the global level.

Is Palestine really a unique case or should Palestinian efforts to change aid practice be channeled through the global civil society movement?

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