In Funding Cannot Stop Rights Abuses, Lori Allen concludes that international aid to Palestine should not be falsely posited as a means to curtail Israeli human rights violations. I couldn’t agree more! However, her argument would be stronger if she didn’t conflate three distinct problems with international aid that, while mutually reinforcing, are better addressed one by one, and in a more nuanced way.
First, I agree with Allen that only changed Israeli policy – not international aid – can resolve Israeli human rights violations. Internationals that genuinely want to help should direct their efforts at pressuring Israel for a just political resolution, not at alleviating symptoms of occupation. However, this is not a critique of international funding for human rights, but of the entire international community’s approach to Palestine. Donors claim that humanitarian aid alleviates humanitarian suffering, and that development aid promotes statebuilding, institution-building, and reform, among other benign-sounding objectives. In fact, aid is essentially a palliative, intended to maintain a stable status quo in support of the international community’s larger political goals in Palestine. From that vantage point, aid seems to have been both remarkably successful and remarkably complicit with continued Israeli occupation, colonization, dispossession and exile.
Second, the purpose of funding to human rights organizations in Palestine is, as Allen concedes, to support documentation, analysis, and publicity about Israeli abuses, and to advocate for respect for international law. But Allen seems to discount the value of these human rights activities because they don’t, by themselves prevent abuses. She doesn’t seem to appreciate that testimonies, videos, statistics and analysis collectively form a solid body of irrefutable evidence about the massive violations of human rights inherent in all aspects of Israeli occupation policy. To me, Allen’s criticism is misplaced. Rather than suggest that human rights work isn’t worthwhile, I think she should focus on the widely-acknowledged fact that Palestinian advocacy strategy is weak, and that one possible explanation is that Palestinian human rights organizations cannot strongly and credibly advocate for international governments to hold Israel accountable when they are dependent on funding from those very same international governments.
Ironically, Allen may also be guilty of the same error commonly made by donors who wrongly use “traditional” project criteria to evaluate advocacy, when more complex, long-term, context-dependent, social change approaches are called for.
Third, Allen makes an important point when she criticizes the bureaucracy of aid, and the very real damage aid processes can cause to local civil society. Yet, this problem is not specific to human rights funders, nor is it specific to Palestine. Aid recipients around the world complain that the international aid system is self-serving and self-perpetuating. Aid processes undermine the independence, sustainability and impact of local civil society. Unfortunately, changing these policies may be harder and take longer than changing Israeli occupation policies! Instead, some aid justice advocates are proposing a more empowered approach: Palestinians can assess aid according to whether or not it advances Palestinian self-determination, then boycott aid that doesn't meet local criteria.
The only way out of this conundrum is to decrease dependence on aid, and here again, I disagree with Allen’s pessimistic outlook. IF we 1) spend less by eliminating irrelevant or wasteful activities, 2) redefine philanthropy to include both monetary and non-monetary resources, 3) reconnect parts of the Palestinian community that have been separated from one another (diaspora, Jerusalem, private sector, etc.) and 4) create mechanisms to consolidate local control over resources and 5) promote accountability to local communities––then we have excellent prospects. Fortunately, Palestine has a community foundation--Dalia Association—that is doing just that.
Founded in 2007, Dalia Association is a small but growing philanthropic institution based in Ramallah that mobilizes local, private sector, and diaspora resources, both monetary and non-monetary, along with funding from solidarity-oriented international donors. It makes small, unrestricted grants for Palestinian development using community-controlled grantmaking methodologies. Dalia Association also promotes philanthropy, most recently by launching company funds that enable the Palestinian private sector to engage with development initiatives that are led by the community. Dalia Association also advocates to reform international aid in line with Palestinian rights and local priorities. They recently won the Arcus Global Social Justice prize for their strategy, partly on the basis of this inspirational 10-minute film. And Dalia is just one of many Palestinian institutions that are trying, despite difficult circumstances, to work with integrity and make a difference for Palestinians. They deserve both local and international support.