One Year After Ceasefire, ‘Temporary’ Housing for Gazans Seems to be Permanent

This article first appeared in Huffington Post.

One year after the August 26, 2014 ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, Abu Fathi Abu Jammous, his 8-month pregnant wife, and four children are living in a sweltering prefabricated caravan.

Abu Fathi’s house was totally destroyed in the brutal attack on Khuzaa in the southern Gaza Strip, and he was forced to move his family into an UNRWA school. “When Human Appeal UK offered the caravan, I felt lucky. Winter was coming. They said it would be temporary.” But one year later, Abu Fathi is still waiting for his home to be fixed.

The Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated areas in the world and the 1.8 million Palestinian residents suffer from economy-crippling mobility restrictions. They survived an exceptionally cold winter, in which at least four babies died of exposure in temporary shelters, and are now enduring a summer of record-breaking heat.

11822919_868530893222953_5503148933996370998_oDuring the day, Abu Fathi’s wife takes the children to her mother’s house; there is no money for air conditioning, and, in any case, electricity in most parts of the Gaza Strip is only supplied on an intermittent basis for 6-8 hours per day.

An estimated 28% of the population of the Gaza Strip was displaced at the height of the 50-day attack. Ten months later, the last UNRWA collective shelters were emptied, but displacement is still widespread. No one knows exactly how many people still live in the ruined remains of their homes, but according to the Shelter Cluster, a UN coordination body, well over 100,000 families (over half a million people) are still without adequate housing—including the 500 families residing in caravans.

Abu Fathi says his house reaches 55 degrees Celsius during the day. “My three-year old isn’t moving. I took her to the hospital and they said she’s sick from the heat. They gave her oxygen and provided pills and told me to keep her next to the refrigerator. She’s going to die,” he says frantically. “My six-year old is sick too. He suffers from an enlarged liver and soft bones. We’re all going to die and nobody cares.”

An aid worker who didn’t want to be quoted said that caravans in Khuzaa had been built hastily and poorly “as a public relations measure.” He added most caravan dwellers in Khuzaa had since abandoned them and moved in with relatives or any place they could. “Anyone still living in a caravan in Khuzaa today is truly in crisis.”

A big cause of the problem is that most of the funding for the Gaza Strip is restricted to humanitarian emergencies and cannot be used for permanent solutions. The same pattern happens after earthquakes and tsunamis – donors quickly move on to other emergencies, leaving long-term development needs unaddressed. The situation in the Gaza Strip is even more complex because the causes are political and chronic. One aid worker in Gaza confessed, “As far as I know, no one is planning what to do for these people when winter comes. It is a failure of the system. ”

The shortcomings of these forms of shelter are widely acknowledged globally: caravans are expensive, inadequate and often culturally unacceptable. Prefabricated shelters are therefore only intended to bridge the gap between emergency relief and durable solutions after natural disasters or conflict, but if durable solutions never arrive, then it’s not so much of a “gap” as it is a precipice. In disaster after disaster, “temporary solutions” end up lasting much longer than anticipated. Beneficiaries and aid organizations spend additional funds to fix or modify temporary structures, thereby depleting resources that could be allocated to durable solutions. Abu Fathi, an unemployed laborer, has invested over $1,000 in his caravan and it is still unlivable. Experience shows that extended reliance on temporary solutions can make aid beneficiaries vulnerable to new humanitarian crises.

11816328_868530929889616_5114740443478516888_oAbu Fathi’s caravan is one of 50 provided by Human Appeal UK. Their spokesperson explained, “Due to pressures of time, volume, and availability of materials, we needed to provide shelter for as many people as possible, as quickly as possible and caravans were thought to provide better shelter than canvas. We have made some adjustments to make the caravans more comfortable, but they were only ever intended to be temporary structures so do have their limitations.”

Many parties share responsibility for the near-total absence of permanent reconstruction in the Gaza Strip. Whether the cause is donors who have not fulfilled their financial pledges (perhaps fearing their projects will be demolished by future assaults); the Israeli blockade and restrictions on imports of construction materials; or the internal Palestinian conflict between Fatah and Hamas, caravan dwellers do not know where to turn. Abu Fathi said, “The caravan seemed like a blessing at the time, but if I had known how hard life would be, I would have refused it. I don’t know what I would have done instead. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Beneficiaries in the Gaza Strip are in a conundrum and so are aid actors. The Qatar Red Crescent Society (QRCS) was among several Arab donors who provided caravans conforming to the standards established by the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Public Works and Housing Asked if QRCS planned to work further with the beneficiaries who received caravans, a QRCS staff person replied: “It doesn’t make any sense to throw more money at temporary solutions.” So, would QRCS help those in caravans to find permanent solutions? “Sadly, as long as Israel maintains its blockade on the Gaza Strip, there are no permanent solutions.”

For its part, Human Appeal UK said they were “exploring further options for improving the caravans to make them more comfortable,” but Abu Fathi fears it will not come in time.


A New Aid for Palestinians

This article first appeared in Cornerstone, the newsletter of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Issue 72, Summer 2015, pp. 12-14.

Global citizens who care about justice often complement their social activism with financial gifts to organizations they believe in; and they often support their government’s use of tax funds to provide bilateral aid to developing countries. “Aid” means “help” and good people want to be helpful. They give from a sense of obligation, which is often grounded in faith, and in response to the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 5.52.45 PMPalestinians are among the highest recipients of international aid from governments and have been for decades, making them among the most aid-dependent peoples in the world. While most of us would consider aid a good thing, it is obvious that being dependent on aid is a bad thing. But the majority of concerned global citizens don’t realize just HOW bad it is. If they did, they would make aid accountability a priority among their Palestinian solidarity activities.

On one level, the problems with international aid in Palestine are just like the problems with aid that are reported in many parts of Africa, Latin America and Asia – aid is unpredictable and uncoordinated; it reflects priorities of donor countries not necessarily the recipients; it distorts the agenda of local governmental and civil society groups; it undermines accountability to communities in favor of bureaucratic accountability to donor institutions; much aid is repatriated back to donor country economies; and aid is often wasted on consumption and activities that don’t lead to real, long-term development.

Because of these problems, and because of the dialogue around the expiration of the Millennium Development Goals, activists in aid-recipient countries are working together to protest both the methods and the politics of international aid. They are moving beyond a technical critique that implies that we just need more aid, more transparent reporting, more harmonized procedures, and better use of data about what kind of development works. Instead, they are talking about “development justice” and integrating aid issues with other aspects of global inequality such as third world debt. Some are even talking about aid as a form of neo-colonial intervention designed to maintain inequality rather than challenge it and suggesting that poor people reject aid.

In Palestine, aid is such a prominent and visible part of life that even non-experts tend to be quite sophisticated about how it works. Perhaps this is because nearly everyone is directly or indirectly supported by aid. The largest employer, the Palestinian Authority, can’t pay salaries without international aid, and the Palestinian elite and middle class (upon whom the consumer and service industries depend) are nearly all employed by United Nations agencies, international non-governmental organizations or local non-governmental organizations that depend on grants from the internationals. There is really no part of the economy or aspect of life that isn’t affected by international aid.

For this reason, it doesn’t take long for a conversation about aid among Palestinians to turn to a gripe session. Unfortunately, complaining isn’t very effective in making change. Some people feel they should be grateful for donors’ generosity, so although they aren’t happy with aid, they silence themselves. Some people are fearful that if they complain, donors will stop giving, so they only make vague suggestions that can’t be implemented. Others talk about the problems with aid, but don’t address their complaints to the right parties, or don’t understand how to frame their complaints in terms of rights, so they aren’t taken seriously.

To help Palestinians understand the aid system and their rights in it, a group of Palestinian and international activists are launching Aid Watch Palestine, an initiative to start a conversation about aid that is honest, critical and constructive. We want to connect the issue of aid with the struggle for national liberation and with human rights.

For example:

  • If Israel is responsible under international humanitarian law for rebuilding Gaza, why are the international donors paying, thus letting Israel off the hook completely for the costs of their damages?
  • If international actors are intervening because of a humanitarian imperative, how can they justify the shamefully slow pace of rebuilding in Gaza?
  • If international actors truly wish to prevent further violence, why do they allow Israel to profit so much from occupation and war?
  • How can international actors credibly claim to be helping while they are simultaneously supporting the Israeli war machine?

By posing questions like these to Palestinians, aid actors and global citizens, Aid Watch Palestine hopes to challenge people who say, “We are doing the best we can under difficult circumstances.” We want to challenge ourselves to think more creatively about how international intervention can actually help – not by throwing money at the problem, but by addressing root causes of the conflict and further long-term solutions that respect human rights and international law.

Wanting to help isn’t good enough. After 67 years of “aid,” Palestinians are still occupied, dispossessed and colonized and vulnerable to violence, poverty and hopelessness. Where is the accountability? Concerned global citizens should still give, but we think they should ask harder questions about their government’s aid programs:

  • Is aid intended to further the donor government’s foreign policy objectives? Or is it intended to respect the priorities, rights and agendas of recipient communities?
  • How are decisions about aid allocations made? Who makes them? Who chooses the decision-makers?
  • Does aid only address the symptoms of suffering or does it address the root causes, fundamentally changing power relations?
  • What kind of global economic and political system is advanced by international aid and is it contributing to the kind of world we want to live in?

We also need a critical approach to our own charitable contributions:

  • Are we giving to international organizations when there are local organizations doing the same work? If so, why are we doing that, and what impact does it have on the capacity for local self-reliance?
  • Are we giving to “emergency” needs (like food aid) instead of to longer-term (and harder) efforts to prevent food insecurity in the first place? If so, are we being fooled into supporting simplistic and ineffective approaches?
  • Are we making charitable contributions when what is really needed is our political intervention so that we can find just solutions? If so, how can we combine ever act of financial giving with a call to a representative, letter to the media, or public statement of support for a government policy that will lead to self-determination and peace with justice?

Six Steps to “Dignified Interdependence”

This article first appeared on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace.

Not infrequently, people ask me how community organizations can become independent of international funding. Part of the answer, I believe, lies in reformulating the question.

“Independence,” is a smokescreen. First world countries that claim to be independent are often dependent on the natural and human resources of the global south. Even donors who claim to be independent because they have endowments are hiding the fact that their resources were taken through exploitation of workers and sometimes from war.

Instead of asking how we can become independent, I suggest we ask how we can achieve “dignified interdependence” – a system of relationships that acknowledges that we are all giversand receivers and that recognizes our value to one another.

Here I propose six possible steps that civil society and community philanthropic organizations can take to become less dependent on international funding and more dignified in their interdependence:

1-Act as if you are poor

Poor people don’t take taxis when they can walk; they don’t eat in restaurants when they can cook. If community organizations want to be less dependent on international funding, they need to become more thoughtful about how they use the resources they have. Acting “as if you are poor” means looking hard at all expenses and cutting every possible unnecessary expense, starting with those that don’t contribute to the mission. One way to do this is by sharing with other community organizations and resisting pressure to compete. Does every organization need its own photocopy machine? Does every organization need its own video camera?

2-Act as if you’re rich (it sounds like a contradiction but it’s not)

Rich people don’t obsess about what they don’t have. They don’t say, “I can’t implement my project because it’s not funded.” Rich people have a sense of abundance, of being able to mobilize resources – even if they aren’t already in the bank. Acting “as if you’re rich” means being confident in your ability to use whatever resources you do have to get access to more resources.

3-Generate value from mission-related activities

If our activities are valuable, we should be able to generate resources from them in ways that serve the mission. The obvious way is to charge fees, which many civil society groups resist because they say their beneficiaries can’t pay. But therein lies the whole problem! If “we” are service providers and “they” are beneficiaries, then we’ve stripped them of their resources by framing them only as receivers. When we think in terms of sharing, and we realize the value of all resources (not only money), we not only increase resources available for our work, but we increase the community of supporters that are invested in the organization.

4-Generate money from non-mission-related activities

There are some examples of successful income generating initiatives, like the medical relief group that founded a printing press to produce their own materials and now brings in core funding for relief activities through printing services. However, I still think this option should be pursued with great caution. Not only can a community group get sidetracked trying to run a business (which is hard!), but working for profit is, in many ways, at odds with the kind of society social justice groups are trying to create.

5-Reject bad money

I suspect most civil society and community philanthropic organizations are reactive rather than proactive in fundraising. In other words, they respond to calls for proposals or announcements of grants. This leads to susceptibility to distortion of mission, especially if the grantseeking organization was not clear about its mission/identity/values in the first place.

But there is another way. We can, individually and collectively, decide what kind of donors we want to work with: Sincere? Politically supportive? Compliant with good donorship principles? And we can decide what kind of funding we want: Core? Multi-year? Large? Aimed at human rights? Easy to renegotiate? Submissions in local languages? Etc. We can take our demands to the donor community and tell them what kind of funding would support our objectives, rather than waiting to see if what they offer is “good enough.” We can control funding by not applying for aid that doesn’t meet our standards. But that will only work if we have standards  — and if we believe that we have a right to have standards.

In fact, none of these ideas will work if we don’t believe in ourselves and one another. We must have confidence that we can survive without international funding. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t seek and accept funding, but we can’t build our activities, or our identity, around being in need of it.

Do you believe that we can survive without depending on international funding?


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Community Transformation is Local Work

See the entire article on Civicus.

“The small Palestinian village of Saffa was the site of Dalia Association’s first pilot of community-controlled grant-making back in 2008. At first glance, the methodology didn’t make much sense. Why would we give small grants when the need was so great? Why would we give unrestricted grants when the risk was so high? Why would we expect the community to contribute so much when Palestinians are devastated by occupation, dispossession and colonisation?

As Palestine’s community foundation, Dalia approached the problem differently from traditional donors who are looking for some kind of return on investment. Dalia is not a donor: the funds that Dalia mobilises already belong to the Palestinian community. Dalia holds them in trust and facilitates transparent, democratic and accountable use of the funds, but it is the community’s right and responsibility to decide how they are used. This might sound like the same ‘participatory approach’ that is fashionable in development circles, but it is not. Dalia’s commitment to community-controlled grant-making is based on respect for the right of Palestinians to control their own resources. Community controlled grant-making is an expression of resistance – to the Israeli occupation and to dependence on aid, both of which undermine Palestinian self-determination….”