“In this policy brief, Al-Shabaka Policy Member Nora Lester Murad examines aid through the lens of “complicity” and exposes shortcomings in current legal frameworks. She argues that regardless of the limitations of applicable law, international aid actors are fundamentally responsible to those they seek to assist and must be held accountable for the harm they cause or enable. She identifies the areas in which questions need to be asked and concludes with some of the steps that Palestinian civil society and the international solidarity movement should take.”
This piece was first published on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace.
It is 3am and my left index finger taps involuntarily on the laminate desk because I’ve been told by someone I respect that I am wrong or just crazy (but oh so politely) to find it very strange that the distinction between what is “humanitarian” and what is “developmental” in terms of aid is so arbitrary and from my point of view illogical because (stay with me here) there is a “Humanitarian Imperative” that obliges international actors to provide tents for Palestinians in Gaza and food so they don’t starve, at least not quickly, but there is no “imperative” for those same actors to demand – I’m talking about actions not words – that Israel allow building supplies and equipment in through the checkpoint which they control or that they allow yummy, beautiful, quality Gaza products into the world market so that Palestinians in Gaza can support themselves rather than be 80% dependent on aid (that was a pre-war figure) and please don’t start now about Egypt because OF COURSE Egypt has control over the crossing at Rafah and is complicit in obstructing trade and aid—though never say the word “denying” trade and aid, I don’t know why, maybe because then it’s a crime against humanity? (I am not sure if that is true) and anyway, what does that have to do with the sense of betrayal and isolation and hopelessness that is driving thousands of Palestinians to seek to escape illegally by sea and drowning! drowning! Those young people who stayed alive through the hell of bombardment, the shaking of the ground, the thundering of the skies, the collapse of the world around them for the third time in the last six years and now they so urgently want to escape that they push themselves onto rickety boats (flashing images of Haitians flailing in rough waters), my God, the world is going to hell, and yes I started that last verse with an indictment of Egypt, against whom I feel even more powerless than I do against Israel, which is pretty darn powerless, but this is, obviously, a digression from my main point which had to do with how totally bizarre and sick it seems to me that the “Humanitarian Imperative” is not a HUMAN imperative (forget law now, law makes my head hurt and all those people who say that my arguments are weak because they aren’t grounded in law make my head hurt too because my arguments are grounded in JUSTICE PEOPLE, yes JUSTICE which is an imperative, no?) I mean, isn’t it imperative for us as human beings to prevent the injustices that lead to the humanitarian crises that then invoke the Humanitarian Imperative to respond in very limited ways? (stop telling me that humanitarianism cannot and should not be political and that the whole point and value of humanitarianism is that it is not subject to politics when that only makes sense to me between 9am and 5pm and not at 3am when I can see so clearly that nothing is more political than saying “our job ends when people eat” and I know you’re frustrated that I’m “twisting” what you mean, that we are not limited to humanitarianism but that it protects a minimal space for required intervention on non-political grounds OKAY OKAY I get that but it is sooooooooooooooooooooo not enough in today’s world where we are the perpetrators of the humanitarian crises to say that we are only obligated to respond to the symptoms—and if I am the only one who sees that then I am truly insane) And anyway, isn’t action imperative for us too – to protect the sanctity of our own humanity, if not the law – and what I mean by that is that every time we use this sterile terminology to justify not doing something that we know to be right in our [she pounds very hard on the squishy place above the belly button that processes everything] then we are less, less, less AND the people, in this case Palestinians, that we let down, because they are now absolutely sure that they can’t rely on anybody in the world to hear and realize and act on the fact that they are suffering terribly (I already said that I know that they are not the only ones in the world!), not due to a tsunami or an earthquake but from the unnecessary and immoral acts of an OECD and UN member state that enjoys all kinds of upgraded trade relations and cultural exchanges and stuff that Gaza is denied, denied, denied, denied, but it is ME I remind you who is naïve and confused when I say that this has got to stop people, the WHOLE mess of inequality and violence—economic, cultural, sexual, physical because it’s so very tiring (if you can’t tell) trying to understand the world we live in today and what my role in it is as someone who is compelled by a Human Imperative and who is angry and disappointed that we’ve found so many legal, professional and administrative ways to not get involved when we’re needed like telling 1.8 million traumatized human beings (who, by the way, would share a piece of bread with you if it was the only thing they had) that “we’re only obligated to provide you with tents and not to use all means necessary to ensure that you live with dignity in homes that are safe and that when you go to the beach you can swim in water that is not polluted by raw sewage and that you feel no compulsion to drown yourself because you feel alone. I want to say to the Palestinians in Gaza, to the Bangladeshi sweat shop workers, to the kids who go to school barefoot in El Salvador, to homeless women on skid row in Los Angeles: you are not alone (and I really wish that someone would tell me that I am not alone at 3am) but then again, I might just be wrong or crazy (but not in the legal sense!).
This article appeared on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace where I will be contributing monthly.
I’m a critic of “poverty porn,” the selling of poverty to increase donations. It dehumanizes “beneficiaries” (a word that itself is dehumanizing), but even worse, it’s a slippery slope. Engaging donors on the basis of crisis means you always need a new crisis to keep them engaged; successful philanthropy becomes dependent on having a steady stream of victims.
That’s why I tried a different approach when I designed my Gaza birthday campaign. I was turning 50 and wanted to do something that would matter for Gaza. I decided to ask my friends and family to do three things: 1) make a financial gift to the Gaza Fund at Dalia Association, a community-controlled fund at Palestine’s community foundation; 2) write a letter to a political representative or media outlet calling for an end to the siege; and 3) sign up for an organization’s newsletter, to get ongoing news about the struggle for Palestinian rights.
My thought was that asking for three things would demonstrate that meaningful philanthropy isn’t about giving away money and feeling better, it’s about engaging in meaningful ways. To make it real, I gave my friends and followers a gift too (in the spirit of “pay-it-forward”): I released a short video clip with a Palestinian from Gaza every day for the 31 days proceeding my birthday.
I intentionally started the campaign when Gaza was not in the news, and I used that in my appeal. I suggested that we should seek to empower Palestinians to be better able to withstand or even prevent the next escalation, rather than giving money only when Gaza is in the news.
Well, I only raised a little over $1,500, not the $5,000 I was hoping for, and the vibrant exchange of ideas about campaigns and organizations and strategies for lifting the siege – that didn’t happen at all. Some of my failure is likely attributable to the limitations of my network and my social media skills, but not all. I fear that people really don’t want to give to an issue that’s not “hot,” even if it’s likely to explode soon.
Another piece of evidence to consider is the announcement, reported in Newsweek, that the Algerian soccer team plans to donate their World Cup winnings – a reported $9 million – to Gaza. The announcement came after the most recent round of Israeli bombings of Gaza, named Operation Protective Edge, hit the news.
We will have to wait and see before we conclude. Will the Algerian soccer team actually pay, or will their $9 million go the way of so much aid that pledged but not delivered? If they do fulfill their commitment, will they give their contribution to an expensive and impotent international intermediary as many aid recipients complain? Or, will they really make history by recognizing that while Palestinians need money, they need political support even more, and that money they do get should be allocated by Palestinians according to Palestinian priorities and monitored locally by those intended to benefit.
Whether or not the Algerian soccer team does the correct and courageous thing, I intend to try my experiment again. I’m not ready to give up on Gazans’ right to self-determination in development, including their right to control their own development resources. And I’m also not ready to give up on the common donor. There must be people out there who understand that it’s more effective to give before a crisis, and that philanthropists who want to make a difference must make a commitment to stay engaged over the long-term – regardless of what’s making headlines. Meanwhile, I hope that those who give now, hearts broken by the senseless suffering, take the time to give well.
Thanks to my newsletter subscribers and website followers who hung in with me as I bombarded you all with video reminders about life in Gaza each day leading up to my 50th birthday. I hope you made time to watch some of them, and I hope you came away with a new interest in Gaza. I hope the videos reinforced your impression that Gazans matter – not only during attacks, but also in between the attacks that bring Gaza to the front pages of the news every year or two.
I want to give a special thanks to my new friends from Gaza who agreed to be interviewed and to share fascinating and little known aspects of their lives with me, and by extension, with the world: Najla Shawa, Hekmat Bessiso, Amal Sabawi, Nahedd Kayyali, Ghada Ageel, Thoraya El-Rayyes, and Sameeha Elwan.
My Gaza birthday campaign was a success in some ways. The videos brought some new visibility, and a different kind of visibility, to the issues, and they reached some new people. They’ll remain on my YouTube channel forever, and may continue to be seen. Still, I must admit that my birthday campaign fell short of my hopes in many ways.
I wish there had been more sharing of political actions taken to the end the siege. But even as I say that, I admit that I don’t really know what actions might be effective. The siege on Gaza is part and parcel of the Israeli occupation, which is pat and parcel of the Israeli colonization project. That’s not an easy mountain to move.
I also wish we had raised more money. Thanks to the generous contributions of Marga Kapka, Dorothy Bennoune, Pat Walsh, Anonymous, Carolyn Quffa, Mary Onorato, Vicki Tamoush, Pauline Solomon (and some from me), we raised over $1,500. But I’d hoped for at least $5,000. What is $5,000 going to do, you may ask, when the needs in Gaza are so huge? Shouldn’t we raise massive amounts of money to feed and house people? Actually, I’m a critic of “humanitarian aid,” especially for long terms, and especially in human-made crises like that in the Gaza Strip. In those cases, political action that enables Palestinians to claim their rights is more effective. And that’s what the Gaza Fund at Dalia Association will do – enable the pilot of a new community controlled grant process that respects Palestinians rights to lead their own development agenda. The fact that Dalia Association is willing to undertake this logistically challenging and emotionally intensive work is itself an act of resistance against the siege that seeks to split the West Bank from Gaza, as if one could sever a heart from its arteries without doing mortal damage.
There was one unexpected but fabulous outcome! A small group of university students in Gaza found me through my campaign. They are teaching themselves to do advocacy and public relations. They asked me to lead a weekly training by skype, and I’m having a grand time doing it. I don’t know whose learning more, them or me
And fortunately, the effort isn’t over. Dalia Association published an interview with me about the Gaza Fund and they will continue to receive contributions (of money or any other resource) indefinitely. The Gaza Fund has become a standing program, part of Dalia’s creative initiative to promote rights and self-reliance through philanthropy and civil society strengthening.
On a more personal note, I admit, the birthday campaign didn’t make me feel any younger or any better about turning 50 in a world that is so violent, wasteful and immature. I don’t feel any clearer about what I want to do with the next phase of my life either. Will I go back to working on my neglected novel? Hammer away at the strange and disempowering world of freelance journalism? Having transitioned to a less involved role at Dalia Association, do I want to start something new? I have no answers to these questions. Your opinions/suggestions/feedback/encouragement (in the form of words or chocolate) are always welcome.