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NGOs and Palestine

Uda Olabarria Walker
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    Today there are at least 1,200 Palestinian NGOs operating in a geo-political space equivalent to the size of Washington DC and Delaware combined. According to the World Bank, 200 of these are foreign run, 400 are local and organized under the umbrella of the General Union of Charitable Organizations, 90 are organized under the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations’ Network (PNGO) and a couple hundred others are divided among 4 other NGO Unions. Despite such a high number of social welfare providers; human rights organizations; and the plentitude of first-rate documentation, legal analysis, research and statistical information about the Israeli occupation, Palestinian history, politics, and culture, the current situation in Palestine continues to deteriorate.

Olso and the New Middle East After the First Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions on Iraq in 1992 a renewed US strategy of global hegemony was set into motion in the Middle East. One prong of this strategy was to impose humanitarian and democratizing initiatives( a strategy actaually initiated two decades a decades earlier with Jimmy Carter’s “human rights doctrine” and followed with Ronald Reagan’s “global democratizing” initiatives) on the Middle East. As a result, Western governmental and non governmental aid agencies, development organizations and the World Bank into the region, Palestine especially. Part of this process to democratize and open up the Middle East was to help Israel and the Palestinians find a way out of their “conflict. In 1993, the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords constituted a historic shift in the geo-politics of the Middle East and signaled the beginning of a three-year project to “ready the Palestinians for statehood. ” At this time Palestine had a well developed set of professional organizations and highly politicized grassroots organizations who had been functioning together as a para-statal entity in the OPT for the last 30 years. Under Oslo however, the political organizing strategy common to the Palestinian organizations was replaced by a-politicized “civil society/NGO” strategies. Two years into Oslo, the large international funding agencies shifted their aid packages towards “development assistance programs” and specifically targeted non-political and professional NGOs that were more focused on advocacy, human rights monitoring, capacity building, “civil" initiatives rather than grassroots political organzing. Never mind that Palestinian civil society had been practicing democratic organizing and good governance for more than 30 years—the OPT had now become a US-EU-Israeli sanctioned “state-in-the-making.” All US and EU funding was funneled through donor, rather than Palestinian grassroots, prescribed projects. By early 2000, billions of international aid and development dollars had been spent in the OPT—yet the movement towards a viable Palestine state was stagnant. The reason was quite clear. Behind the façade of state building and peace making, the one obstacle to viable Palestinian state, Israel’s colonial project, had become solidified. By 2000, it had morphed into an apartheid-like reality in which Palestinians found themselves corralled into Bantustans with none of the international political support that was truly needed to end Israeli colonization. Al-Aqsa Intifada By September 28, 2000 the Palestinian community had enough. The realities of Oslo were stark and impossible to ignore. The Al- Aqsa Intifada exploded into the streets as a direct response to the continuing occupation but more importantly, it signaled a total rejection of the status quo of Oslo and the byproducts of that project including, the Palestinian Authority and the Oslo NGO generation. For the first few years of the Intifada, the Palestinian Authority was relatively absent from the local, grassroots political stage and was been unwilling to take full control of the situation. The large Palestinian NGO’s, organized for ‘nation building” had to shift its gears completely and attend to an emergency situation that they were strategically and politically unprepared for. A political response from the NGO community came from a few NGO’s a few years into the uprising but much of the public NGO discourse remained academic and a-political, despite the fact that the renewed struggle against colonial occupation was happening all around them. Needless to say, the international donor (and human rights community) were of little help politically and spent more time trying to get Oslo and its attendant programs back on track than to actually support the Palestinian community under siege. NGO roots When Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Palestinian civil society was made up of voluntary, grassroots associations led by a young, educated, and politically oriented generation of Palestinians. By the late 1970’s they had coalesced politically into the broader structure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and formed a distinct part of the Palestinian liberation movement. Due to the lack of a Palestinian governing authority in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s blatant disregard for the socio-economic needs of the occupied population, Palestinian grassroots organizations were forced to work independently for the development of the Palestinian community. In the early 1980’s the funding for these organizations came through their respective political factions within the PLO umbrella but many organizations also had international connections with left solidarity groups who provided additional funding for social and political activities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). As this independent bilateral funding grew so did the organizational activities and role of these civil society organizations in the community at large. Due to their deeply rooted connection to politics and the Palestinian community at large, these grassroots organizations also provided the political space for the creation of a strong and pluralistic society in the West Bank and Gaza. From 1987-1990, the grassroots organizations served as the driving and organizing force behind the popular committees of the Intifada while continuing to provide services for Palestinian community. Throughout this period, many organizations (now NGOS) became more formalized and moved into professional civil spheres including research centers, human rights organization and advocacy groups. De-politicizing NGOs By 1994, Palestinian NGOs were providing 60% of primary health care services, 50% of secondary and tertiary health care, and 100% of all disabled services and preschool education in the OPT. Other professional and grassroots NGOs were working in the much needed areas of the agriculture, housing, small business and credit services. By 1995 however, US and EU aid agencies (through Oslo generated schemes) were funding the majority of these civil society projects and were funding and assisting many of the larger Palestinian government projects like the creation of the Palestinian Authority’s legislative and parliamentary infrastructure and the restructuring of the Palestinian economy. For example, according to USAID records, the agency pumped more than $1 billion dollars into the OPT from 1992-2003 making USAID the largest bilateral donor to the Palestinian people. Its signature can be found today on more than 52 development, job creation, youth, women rights, resource allocation, and financial assistance contracts and tens of other subsidiary initiatives. Furthermore, money from the notorious CIA-linked National Endowment for Democracy (NED) can be found in the annual budgets of some of the most prestigious NGOs in the OPT, several of whom are aptly working on issues of “democracy,” “human rights,” and “reform.” The impact of this shift in funding from supporting politicized, grassroots, professional, community based initiatives to the new super NGO's, was dramatic. The international aid industry (governmental aid for the most part) was instrumental in moving the Palestinian context away from one of resisting occupation to one of “peace building.” With this shift, the local reality--military occupation and dispossesion-- was de-contextualized. For the international community who was dictating the framework, Oslo had liberated Palestine. The best place for NGOs was in an “individual” professional capacity of supporting the nation building rather than grassroots collective strategies of development and resistance. Some would argue that “their acceptance of the Oslo project led many Palestinian NGOs to shift their loyalties away from their organic political center and towards an a-political position that rested within the framework of neo-liberal forms of nation-building and economic development." Palestinian academics Linda Tabar and Sari Hanafi point to a June 2002 public NGO critique of suicide bombings as the major marker that the NGO community was out of touch. Even Palestinians who disagreed with the bombings and other violent strategies read the critiques as coming from left field especially since the NGOs had not yet proposed any alternative course of action to stopping the Israeli seige. This type of action is in stark contrast to the political and strategic communiqués of the NGO/civil society community during the first Intifada. According to Tabar and Hanafi, it is from within the context of the Oslo project that this disconnect has occurred. Over the years, a “globalized elite” working in and around the Palestinian NGO and aid community emerged. “It was largely made up of urban, middle-class Palestinians, many who had cut their teeth in the first Intifada, along with a younger generation of Palestinian professionals. This new social entity, while continuing to work in the service of the Palestinian people, became comfortable in both the local and global networks created by the externally based Oslo process.” Therefore the analytical and developmental context in which they worked was often more globally than locally oriented. As a result, their intellectual and political orientation became less rooted to the continuing local context of political struggle against colonial occupation. Many of these elites became part and parcel to the agenda of the international agencies by concentrating on issues and projects that were not politically connected to the reality of the majority of Palestinians. This “dis-embedding” according to Tabar and Hanafi, created a fracture within Palestinian society. This fracture can only be mended if the NGO community returns to its roots, the Palestinian grassroots community, and the root issue: the continuation of the Israeli colonial project and the political, economic, and social disenfranchisement of the Palestinian people not only by Israel, but by the US-EU neo-liberal agenda as well. Rejecting USAID In the last two years there have been some positive and significant developments within the NGO community with regards to its responses to and actions within this current Intifada. Several NGOs (many led by leaders from the first Intifada) have mobilized for and supported community initiated actions against the Apartheid Wall and others have formed a new national initiative. In 2003, several major NGOs took a major political stand and refused to accept USAID funding due the agency’s new regulations that all organizations accepting funding must sign a waiver promising not to use the money to fund “terrorists or suspected terrorists projects.” According to a USAID spokeswoman, the Palestinian organizations are the only ones in the world who have rejected the USAID stipulation. This resistance to the internationaly dictated "terms of agreement" is growing and the Palestinian NGO community is again leading the way. In 2001, a NGO roundtable was assembled in Ramallah. Five prominent NGO leaders and one international development director began discussing the role that NGOs and the international aid community have played throughout the Oslo project. All but one acknowledged that the Oslo period had shifted the nature of Palestinian civil society to an enormous degree and that in some sense it had lost its autonomy and organic organizing principles. For most, a critical and frank discussion among the Palestinian NGO's about the damaging role the international aid and development community has played in Palestine is of vital importance because the “NGO sector is where much of the Palestinian secular, left-leaning, and national, democratic forces reside”and it is from here where support and protection for the Palestinian grassroots struggle against Israeli aparthied must come. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Uda Olabarria Walker is the Political Education and Delegations Director for Middle East Children’s Alliance in Berkeley, California.