Are there Alternatives to Dependence on International Aid? Yes!

My latest article appeared in This Week in Palestine, September 2012. Check out the amazing issue on the theme of “Alternatives” in Palestine. For your convenience, I’ve posted the article below. Please tell me, are there alternatives to dependence on international aid?

Most people I know believe that Palestine is changing, and not for the better. Even those who enjoy a higher standard of living than in the past have a lower overall quality of life. The Palestinian commitment to community is eroding, and individualism and materialism are seeping into the void. The main culprit? Palestine is dependent on international aid.

The billions of dollars circulating through the Palestinian economy may lull us into temporary complacency, but without dignity, empowerment, and a just peace, the promise of development is false. I think most people know this, but can’t imagine the alternative. Well, the alternative to dependence on international aid is simple: don’t depend on aid. Want to know how?

1-Focus on priorities not opportunities

We don’t need so many traffic police crowding up the manara, and we don’t need so many democracy workshops. Yes, there are opportunities to get funding for those things, but we should resist being enticed into implementing others’ agendas. Our own priorities, decided democratically, can bring focus and passion back into daily life.

2-Live more simply

Investing in our collective future rather than short-term individual gain requires us to live more simply. When we borrow money for cars and houses that we can’t pay off without inflated, donor-funded salaries, we have relinquished our independence. If we give up our cappuccinos and drink tea with maramiya, we will spend less and need less.

3-Value Palestinian resources

Too many people buy into the myth that Palestinians are deficient. Think about it: Palestinians live all over the world, speak many languages, and are well connected to people with influence. Palestinians are highly educated and experienced in every field of human endeavour, from science to the arts to politics. Palestinians are drawn together by a shared history, a cultural legacy, a shared future, and endurance. Where is the deficiency? If we calculate the value of Palestinian resources, we will realise that international aid is but a small supplement to the resources available in ourselves and in one another.


We can spend less and need less simply by sharing. Two part-time employees can share a computer. Two companies can share office space. We can share our time as volunteers. We can use our public spaces for multiple purposes. Eliminating waste and duplication is a big step toward reducing dependence. Also, eliminating “leakage” to Israel by purchasing Palestinian-made products and complying with boycotts is another way keep Palestinian resources in the community.

5-Cultivate alternative sources of funding

We can inspire solidarity and investment rather than charity by ending complicity, stamping out corruption, and consistently acting with integrity. We can increase local giving by establishing systems for small, regular contributions. Private sector philanthropy can be more strategic and should include international companies that sell to the Palestinian market. Diaspora philanthropy can engage Palestinians around the world in service and the building of long-term endowment funds.

6- international aid selectively

In those cases in which we choose to accept international aid, it should be on Palestinian terms and in ways that don’t promote dependence. Most importantly, we should not be complicit in wasting resources! Palestinians should refuse funds that are tied to use of overpaid foreign consultants who bring little added value or to the purchase of unneeded commodities from the donor country. Refusing bad aid is a national imperative.

7-Remember Palestinian history and culture

Some may find it difficult to imagine alternatives to dependence on aid, but Palestinian history and culture are rich with examples of self-reliance. During the first Intifada, Palestinians didn’t ask, “What can I get?” but “What can I give?” Even the most simple of impulses, to send a plate of grape leaves to a neighbour makes the point. Today, many, many Palestinians give money, time, and love for the Palestinian cause. We must remember and celebrate these aspects of Palestinian history and culture.

8-Be even more innovative

While we mine Palestinian history and culture for examples of self-reliance, we can also learn from innovations in other parts of the world. I heard that a young person in Tokyo can help an aging neighbour and “earn” hours that his or her own aging parent can use to buy help from a young neighbour in Osaka. I’ve seen thriving bartering clubs where members offer skills ranging from dentistry and cooking to babysitting and language lessons, and they receive the same number of hours in services from other members of the club. I experienced a listserv where people in a community posted things they no longer need: office supplies, strollers, or computers, and others come by to pick them up off the front stairs-no charge. There is a lot of exciting innovation happening in Palestine, but there is also much room for innovation, so we depend less on international aid.

* * * *

I remember one of my first bus rides after I moved to Palestine. The bus was nearly empty. The driver wasn’t earning much. Maybe he didn’t even earn enough to buy fruit to bring home. Then we drove by an old fellaha walking on the side of the road. She was a short, round woman in a traditional embroidered dress. She carried fruit in a basket on her head in the heat. It was obvious she was taking her wares to the market but didn’t have the money for bus fare. Our near-empty bus passed her by.

This problem is one of unexploited latent resources. The unused seats on the bus are a resource, but they don’t bring value if unused. The fruit the woman fails to sell is a resource, but has no value if it is tossed in the garbage because people don’t earn enough to buy fruit. The answer to this conundrum is simple: the woman should pay her bus fare in fruit. Unfortunately, it’s hard (really hard!) to modify the way we think and live-especially after years of being trained by the international aid system that money is the only resource that has value. Other obstacles include common beliefs that “We are poor; we can’t give. We are entitled to international aid. Why shouldn’t they give us money since we’re occupied?” And, “Why should I help for free when other people are getting rich?” We must think differently about ourselves, our resources, and one another.

Every time I speak in public I tell the story of the women’s rights activist in Nablus who asked me to help her raise money from donors so she could hire doctors to give lectures on health topics to local women. She said she had been trying to fund the project for years without success. I pointed out that there are many, many doctors in Nablus. Each could give a lecture once a month for free as part of his or her community service. There was no need to focus on the resource she didn’t have (money), when the resource she needed (doctors) was available locally at no cost. How come that wasn’t obvious to her? How come it isn’t obvious to us all?


  1. Emily says

    A really interesting and powerful article. However, I find the approach of “blaming” aid a bit sensationalist. Of course there are many examples of international aid being problematic (I could go on and on about some of the problems!), and sometimes that includes over-inflated costs and corruption, but after 15 years in the sector I am confident this is by far the exception. People, especially in the media (not you but many others!) unfortunately love to pick up on the exceptions and it too often gets used as an excuse not to do anything about the problem, particularly from afar. Therefore, criticising aid per se as inflated and corrupt only fuels this and I find that a bit sad, as actually a huge amount of good is achieved.

    Your examples are inspirational, but if you take them a little further: everyone starts to do community service, to achieve real scale you need to coordinate it, there comes a point where people can’t afford to do this really well for free, or if they can it is not particularly representative, you get paid staff, you get administrative costs, and this is where you end up with some of the aid models you allude to. Not everyone can afford time, some can afford money and aid is one way of harnessing that. At it’s best, it’s not that far from your ideal, and yes there are some that have lost their vision and are chasing their, or others tails, but perhaps too simplistic.

    • Nora Lester Murad says

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Emily. I hope we can continue the dialogue. I think one’s position about whether aid is mostly-working-and-sometimes-not or mostly-not-working-and-sometimes-working depends on what we believe aid should accomplish. For me, “aid” in the sense of “help” should not be about implementing activities or buying outputs, but rather about people claiming their rights and being able to live well and normally. With my definition (which you may or may not share), systems of “aid” that perpetuate the inequality between givers and receivers are inherently flawed. That’s where I’m coming from.

      That said, please note that I’m not advocating a blind boycott of all assistance. I’m not saying we should “just” work for free and eliminate all “professional” funding. I am saying, though, that “receivers” should be in charge of what aid comes and what doesn’t, and it should be based on their own criteria, their own objectives. I’m advocating for a qualitative shift in where decisions happen around aid, so that “locals” can play their rightful role as leaders of their own development agenda.

      What do you think?

  2. Lamya says

    I love this post!!!!! And largely the thinking behind it. Its a difficult reality to confront given decades of aid reliance, but Palestinians are steadfast in their resistance and now they must demonstrate similar resistance to aid/projects that are further devastating Palestinian land and livelihood.

    • Nora Lester Murad says

      It has been really difficult to convince Palestinians that they can rely on themselves. The occupation has really taken a toll on communities’ self-confidence and strength. But we keep trying!

    • Nora Lester Murad says

      Thanks, Team Tamale for reading. I notice that you are working in Ghana. What is Ghana’s experience with dependence on aid. We’d love to hear your views!

  3. iamid says

    Thank you for a thought provoking article today and for the considered responses to the questions people put. Received opinion is not necessarily well-conceived opinion.

    • admin says

      I’m glad you found the article worthwhile. I hope you’ll stay involved in the discussion as we hash through next steps.

  4. Ben says

    It would be really, really wonderful if the Palestinians could relinquish their earned status as a corrupt, completely dysfunctional social and economic society (that applies to both nationalist and Islamist-led political forces, by the way) and leave decent international aid groups to aid societies that actually deserve support and won’t piss it all away. I don’t expect that will happen–and don’t anticipate it’s going to do much for your BDS/one-state dreams in any case–but the less the world has to keep doing what your people are patently unable and unwilling to do for yourselves, the better.

    • admin says

      Not sure how to answer this comment, Ben, except to say that there are problems like there are everywhere, but we won’t really know how well Palestinians can do until they have peace and justice and the opportunity to succeed or fail on fair terms. If you ask me, I think there are plenty of smart, creative, honest, hardworking and professional Palestinians to marginalize the rest. In fact, you see proof of that in the amazing contributions of Palestinians to the societies they live in around the world, not to mention what they are able to do despite all the challenges under colonization and occupation.

  5. says

    “D”evelopment comes when people awaken from fear and they can look forward to a future in which they feel secure, valued, and honored. Thanks for reminding us all Nora, no matter where we live, that community and connection is what will ultimately bring this about.

    In all of the seemingly mundane acts of planning, coordinating and monitoring development projects and partnerships, it’s time to acknowledge the deep and profound difference between delivering services and social change. And if the aid industry and the public, as a whole, remain divorced from this, we are missing the whole point.

    • admin says

      Wise words, Jennifer! I agree with you 1000% I have learned so much about this from your amazing work on YOU are doing the real social change work — redefining what “development” means in today’s world and giving it back to the people.

  6. Issa Rabadi says

    dear Nora
    your ideas represents part of mine and i believe in such ideas. only one comment; the ” problem” is not technical and i am afraid its not simple. BUT we should start emphasizing on such facts and alternatives to become well known and possible within the Palestinian community. good luck

    • admin says

      Issa, I agree that the problem is political, not technical, and it is complicated. But sometimes people react to that by saying “there’s nothing we can do. The future is in the hands of the ‘leaders'” and they stay passive. That’s a problem. It lets the “leaders” do whatever they want without any consequence or even scrutiny. I’m suggesting that REAL politics means that WE take things into our own hands. To start with, we should control our own resources and change the facts on the ground to which the “leaders” have to respond. Of course that’s not all we have to do, but it’s a good start. And it my view, it’s not less political, it’s differently political. What do you think?

  7. Yash Tandon says

    This is a brilliant action oriented programme of alternatives to aid dependence. The eight suggested measures are challenging but doable. One step at a time. I find the example of “resource sharing” between the bus driver and the fruit seller a place to begin. It can start with neighbourhood communities exchanging labour for example exchanging one hour of child mindig with one labour of providing lesson on the history of Palestine; or five hours of digging to a kilogram of olives, or two chicken

    The place to begin would be to boycott the use of shekels as money in communities. This could be the beginning of a “third intifada”.

    I write as a Palestinian “solidarity” worker. Only those who live in Palestine would know what to do. And so I find Nora’s article timely and inspring.

    • admin says

      Thanks, Yash. Your encouragement, as the internationally known author of books about ending aid dependence, means a lot. I hope you can also share your experiences with success stories in Uganda and around the world. It will help us to know what others are doing.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *