Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Donors and Palestinian development

Back in June I was part of a seminar hosted by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at Birzeit University to consider alternative forms of development in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT).  This is an issue which has vexed us for much of the time that I’ve been involved with the CDS, including a conference that was put on in September last year.

The seminar came off the back of a report that I was involved in drafting which consisted of a conflict-related development analysis (CDA) of the OPT.  The seminar focused specifically on the aid community and what it might be able to do differently so as to assist development.  Our main recommendation in the report was that donors’ assistance be directed to support resistance against the occupation.  In particular this means adopting a more rights-based approach to development than has been hitherto applied, where people’s ability to choose for themselves is the primary means when determining how funding be allocated, rather than paying agencies and individuals to do things for them.
What was encouraging about the day was the extent to which many of the donors we invited and engaged with do seem to be grappling with this need to change their approach to development.  The impression I took away was one in which donors appear to be torn between ideal outcomes and current reality.  On the one hand they recognise the constraints and difficulties put in the way of Palestinians and the realisation of development in the OPT.  But on the other hand it appears (to me at least) that they are unable to challenge those constraints adequately.  In some respects the shift away from development assistance to humanitarian aid between the 1990s and 2000s not only provides the basis for this, but makes it easier for donors to avoid addressing those limitations.  By treating the occupation in much the same way as a natural disaster, they are able to avoid tackling its man-made and political causes and consequences.

That said, it would be wrong if I didn’t acknowledge the fact that many donors at the seminar do recognise the political nature of the occupation and its choking effect on the prospect for development in the OPT – even if they claim not to be independent of the conflict.  However, their general response to the constraints on development has been largely to examine ways of tailoring their strategies and activities within the OPT and their Palestinian partners rather than going to the source of the obstacles: the Israeli state.  Several of the participants from the donor community acknowledged the need to finesse their actions in different parts of the OPT, especially in Area C where Israel has regularly destroyed donor-funded infrastructure which don’t have permits.

Despite the encouraging sign of donors seeking alternate strategies, I fear that this may well get bogged down in two key ways.  First, although donors claim to want change, they have tended to shy away from directly confronting Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  I understand why this is: if donors challenge the occupation then they risk Israel putting obstacles in their way, like denying or delaying work permits for their foreign employees or preventing travel permits for the local ones.  One donor participant at the seminar acknowledged as much when its representative said that such this was what it experienced following the organisation’s decision to focus less on humanitarian assistance and more on funding development projects in Area C (under formal Israeli control).  In particular their activities were directed at slowing down the demographic trends, whereby people were leaving the area for the PA-controlled Areas A and B.  The effect of this work was to bring it into greater confrontation with the Israelis, who retaliated by making it harder for staff to gain work permits and therefore focus on their main objective, which was to initiate, implement and evaluate the activities alongside their Palestinian partners.  Because of these problems, it’s understandable why donors may well seek safer ground.  But what this means in practice is that not only do donors fail to oppose Israeli policies; they end up working around the occupation rather than on it.  As a result they end up perpetuating the very situation that they claim to be working against.

Second, at the same time that donors skirt around Israel, they have also avoided responsibility for much of the present development challenges within the OPT.  It is common currency for donors – especially state donors – to say that they are only in the OPT at the request of the Palestinian people and their representatives in the form of the Palestinian Authority (PA).  I was struck by the fact that one state donor spoke in especially glowing terms about the development objectives in the Fayyad Plan (named after the current PA prime minister, Salam Fayyad).  But this approval masks much that’s problematic with the Plan, most notably in its pursuit of free-market reforms and greater integration into the global economy – measures which can only expose the already weak and constrained Palestinian economy to greater vulnerability.

Indeed, donors’ claim that the Fayyad Plan is a product of the PA obscures their own involvement in producing the current development strategy.  It is inaccurate to claim that they are only following the PA’s freely chosen agenda.  Rather, they have used compulsion against a relatively weak Palestinian ‘partner’ to achieve Western goals.  Following the unexpected victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections, two of the largest donors to the PA, the US and EU, imposed financial sanctions against the PA.  This escalated an already fraught situation between Hamas and Fatah, eventually leading to violence and the eventual political separation of Fatah-controlled West Bank and Hamas’s control of Gaza.  Following Fayyad’s appointment as prime minister in the West Bank, international credibility was restored when Fayyad deduced which way the wind was blowing and published the Palestinian Reform and Development Plan (PRDP) in 2007 (drafted with assistance from the British Department for International Development) and which provided the basis for the Fayyad Plan two years later.  Little surprise then that donors speak of the proposed administrative, fiscal and judicial reforms in the PRDP and Fayyad Plan with such approval; it’s essentially their programme that has been put in place under the facade of PA authorship.

In sum, until donors accept that they have a role to play in the occupation, then I fear that their apparent willingness to change course will simply remain hot air.  It’s vital that they realise the political role they have and that choosing not to act (e.g. as in not challenging Israel) can impact as much as when they do act (e.g. in shaping the PA’s development agenda).  At the start I suggested that development assistance should be directed towards activities that have resistance to the occupation as their main purpose.  Similar appeals have been made by social movements like the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and youth movements, who advocate an end to ‘normalisation,’ the notion that problems can be resolved if ordinary Israelis and Palestinians will engage each in dialogue with each other and work together.  To take this approach is problematic for many donors, who see this as ‘good,’ while disregarding (intentionally or not) the naked power imbalance between the two sides.  Donors therefore have to make a choice: whether to continue their claim of being disinterested partners and fail to bring any influence to bear on Israel; or to be political, face the obstacles that will inevitably be thrown in their path by the Israeli authorities and potentially make a difference.

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