Aid and Development

Here’s the deal…

When something bad happens in the world, like an Israeli bombing of Gaza, we  run to the news every morning to find out what we missed. We turn off the music on our commute and turn up the volume on the news. We chit chat about the tragic stories we’ve heard at work or with friends. We spend longer than usual to read the analysis in the Sunday paper. We might even feel distraught, pull out a credit card, and send money to help injured children or provide food aid.

Then the crisis ends or a different crisis replaces it on the front page. We figure everything is basically okay in Gaza. We put Gaza on the backburner in our minds.

This is normal. We can only keep our attention on so many crises at one time. There are lots of problems in the world, and we have our own problems and personal priorities too. This is understandable.

But it’s also a problem. It means that in-between “newsworthy escalations,” what goes on in Palestine, and especially in Gaza, is virtually unseen. Yet, things in Gaza are not “basically okay.”

In fact, Gazans are bombarded by inhumanities, illegalities and indignities. Every single day, Palestinians, old and young, are being shot for “crimes” such as farming or tending animals on their own land near Israel’s “Access Restricted Area.” Every single day, sick people are denied permission to leave Gaza to receive medical care and students are denied permission to leave Gaza to study. Then there is the filthy, salty water that comes out of the tap, the drones that add to the feeling of imprisonment, the hopelessness of growing up a refugee with so few opportunities…

But that’s only half the story!

There are amazing and inspiring things happening in Gaza too. These are stories of individuals and groups that are taking action to improve their communities, to resist oppression, to bring joy to one another and the world. You won’t see those stories on the news – not during times of crisis and not in-between. Real human stories just aren’t newsworthy.

But you will hear some of those stories on my blog. This month, every day in the run-up to my birthday on May 5, I’m releasing one clip of an interview with a Palestinian from Gaza talking about whatever they want you to know.

These clips are a birthday gift from me to you. Please don’t think about it as being bombarded. Look at it as an opportunity. Now, while Gaza is not on the front page, in the quiet of your home, with a very small commitment of time, you can listen to Palestinians from Gaza telling you in their own words what their lives are like.

And if you are so moved, please do pull out your credit card, but not for emergency services that leave no lasting benefit for the population. Give, but give in a way that challenges the siege. Dalia Association’s Gaza Fund (which I am opening with this campaign) is itself an act of resistance. First, we are refusing to allow Israel to split Gaza from the rest of Palestine. We insist on working together to claim Palestinian rights. Second, we are opening a Fund that Gazans themselves will control, under the umbrella and with the support of Palestine’s community foundation. This isn’t “aid” in the sense of charity for have-nots. The Gaza Fund is an initiative for self-reliance, an investment in local capacity, a network for long-term collective self-development.

If you’re not sure yet whether or not Gaza is worth your investment, watch the 1-minute introductions of my new friends from Gaza.

Introducing Najla

Introducing Hekmat

Introducing Amal

Introducing Sameeha

Introducing Nahedd

Introducing Ghada

Introducing Thoraya

Then, consider contributing to the Gaza Fund at Dalia Association. If you give by credit card, please use the pull down menu to earmark your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution for Gaza. If you want to give by check, wire transfer or cash, contact me or Dalia Association at info [at] Dalia [dot] ps to find out how. I will acknowledge every single gift on my blog.

And whether or not you contribute money, please take one political action to help end the siege. For example, write a letter to a political representative or the media letting them know this is a concern you want them to address. And remember to sign up with one of the Palestinian rights groups so you are updated regularly about Gaza and other Palestinian issues.

For the next three weeks or so I’ll be sending slightly longer video clips that address substantive issues: electricity, family separation, youth unemployment, early marriage, and more. Once released, these will always be available for you to watch and share on my YouTube channel at

So here’s the deal…

If we work together when Gaza is not in the news, maybe we can make change that will prevent the next “newsworthy escalation” altogether. And just maybe, by working together in these “quiet” times, we can build a movement to demand a just peace so that everyone can get on with the business of developing, loving and being happy.


An Alternative to International Aid

This article first appeared on Open Democracy. It is also available in Arabic, Spanish and Hebrew.

The global proliferation of community foundations is no accident. Community philanthropy is reclaiming traditions of sharing that have been undermined by individualism and materialism, and is simultaneously an act of resistance against neocolonial interference in the guise of “aid.” There is growing awareness among communities in the global South that dependence on international aid binds them to a system that favors Northern interests; increasingly, they consider “poverty” a construct created by those same interests and perpetuated through the aid system.

In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, international aid constitutes an estimated 36 percent of GDP, and there is literally no aspect of the economy that is independent of Israeli control and international influence. The Palestinian Authority (PA), a pseudo-government residual from the Oslo era, is the biggest beneficiary, with an estimated one-third of the Palestinian population dependent on the public payroll. As a result, the PA answers to international/Israeli orders, and has almost no accountability to local communities. Sadly, international NGOs fail to live up to their civil society mandate. Instead, they compete with local NGOs for funding, staff and beneficiaries. Add the approximately one billion US dollars per year of funding that goes through the United Nations, over which local people have very little influence, and the picture is complete: A massive, misguided, self-perpetuating “humanitarian” system that not only constrains local agency, but also undermines traditional systems for interdependence and self-reliance.

While critiques of international aid are becoming mainstream, there is still little awareness about community foundations as a viable alternative, even in thediscourse about funding for human rights. In responding to local challenges and opportunities, community foundations and other community philanthropic organizations offer communities a dignified and creative way to organize their resources towards collective self-reliance for generations to come.

Palestine’s community foundation, Dalia Association, grew out of two challenges: continued Israeli occupation, dispossession, and colonization; and dependence on politically-restricted international aid. Dalia’s founders perceived that both these forces deny Palestinians the right to control their own development agenda. Today, Dalia’s work is organized around a concept that has evolved through our years of work: self-determination in development. The concept of self-determination in development frames self-reliance in human rights terms and links the right to development with the Palestinian national cause.

In fact, when I assembled the founders back in 2007, I didn’t fully grasp how aid colluded with Israeli occupation, dispossession and colonization. I was focused solely on money. “If only Palestinians had their own money,” I thought, “…the wasteful, irrelevant and unsustainable activities posited as ‘post conflict development’ would stop.” But my group of co-founders quickly disabused me of my naïve and simplistic approach. Self-determination is not about having a big endowment. It’s about responsibly and intentionally utilizing the resources we have, mobilizing other resources by modeling credible, inspiring practice, and working transparently, democratically and accountably to pursue our own priorities over the long haul.

In the last seven years, Dalia’s work has grown and flourished with experimentation in three related pillars. The first pillar of Dalia’s work is an innovative, unrestricted small grants process we call “community-controlled grantmaking.” Dalia mobilizes resources for grassroots community groups in villages and refugee camps, but we don’t make grants like a donor. Instead, we facilitate democratic and transparent community decision-making by the local community. They decide who gets grants and how much each grant consists of. A committee comprised of community members is formed to monitor grantees to ensure they work with integrity and for the good of the community at large, not for any factional, family or personal interest. Grantees mobilize local resources to expand their projects, and Dalia provides constant and on-gong support in the form of coaching on planning, budgeting, procurement, marketing, etc. In this way, small amounts of money can transform a whole community: local civil society is strengthened in its commitment and ability to respond to local priorities, and the community practices the right and responsibility to hold civil society groups accountable and support them with local resources.

The second pillar of Dalia’s work is philanthropy development. We recognize the need to expand the culture of philanthropy beyond religiously-motivated giving and charity to include support for the sustainability of local institutions. We also recognize the need to build systems to make local, diaspora and private sector philanthropy safer, cheaper and more credible. The challenges are enormous: lack of trust in local institutions, underdeveloped legal and regulatory frameworks, and the chilling effect of the war on terrorism. But as a community foundation whose vision is to achieve independence over generations, Dalia is positioned to address these challenges no matter how long it takes. We are currently promoting the idea of “funds” in the name of companies, families, villages or causes. Unlike “donor advised funds” that are common in US foundations, these funds are a true partnership between contributors and the community. Contributors decide what to give (cash, materials, or services, in any combination) and they can engage as much or as little as they want with communities, but the communities are the ones to decide how to use their development resources. The challenge is to keep decision-making local, while encouraging contributors to engage beyond writing a check.

The third pillar—advocacy to reform international aid—has changed over time. Dalia has become more selective in its targets. Rather than attempting to influence major aid actors for whom Palestinian interests are clearly not a priority, like USAID, Dalia encourages Palestinians to refuse that type of funding and instead engage with (and thereby influence) international actors that practice true partnership and are motivated by human rights commitments.

In 2013, Dalia Association was recognized for its unique strategy when it won the Arcus Global Social Justice Prize, in part for this inspiring 10-minute film.

I still find that I have to explain Dalia’s work to people who are skeptical. Many of them can barely imagine a vibrant, independent and accountable civil society in Palestine, and the concept of an organization dedicated to helping other NGOs achieve sustainability and community accountability is even stranger. To those people, I like to explain Dalia’s work with a much simpler metaphor, the potluck. At a potluck, everyone brings what they can, however modest, but everyone feasts. Everyone is a giver; everyone is a receiver.

Just imagine if every one of the over 10 million Palestinians in the world, and other supporters of Palestinian rights, contributed whatever resources they can – money, ideas, contacts, materials, faith, culture, services – for the good of locally-controlled development in Palestine! A man in Chicago could donate computers to a school in Jerusalem. A woman in Gaza could translate a press release for an equal rights demonstration in Haifa. A company in Jenin could donate grant money for a women’s committee in a village near Hebron. A solidarity group in Spain could send occupational therapists to teach Gazans. A youth group in Jaffa could perform the poem of a refugee in Lebanon.

Dalia Association is a matchmaker, a motivator, a convener, and a hands-on supporter to ensure that resources are used effectively, with integrity and reported transparently in order to inspire further giving. Our vision for Palestinian development is one that re-weaves relationships among the disparate parts of the Palestinian community and offers every single person and group the opportunity to give.


A Response to Paul Farmer’s “Rethinking Aid”

This post originally appeared on

Perhaps I am skeptical because I live in Palestine among a people whose rights to self-determination have been denied for 65 years and who experience daily violence, theft of natural resources, impoverishment, inaccessibility of services – all while being among the largest per capita beneficiaries of international humanitarian and development aid. But from where I sit, I don’t see too much hope for post-2015 development, which is driven by a deceptively benign-sounding ideology that manages only to alleviate symptoms of disease that it simultaneously perpetuates.

I call the ideology “starting from scratch,” and it is especially disappointing to hear this ideology expressed by highly-regarded aid reformers like Paul Farmer. His recent article re-thinking foreign aid says that aid is needed to alleviate human suffering, and he calls for more aid to be delivered through local public systems. It’s a worthy-sounding argument, but it starts from scratch, ignoring the causes of continued vulnerability of children, of illiteracy, of inaccessibility of basic infrastructure and services.

An Oxfam tank, the only thing left standing after Israel demolished donor-funded structures at Al Farisiye, West Bank.

Can we know how aid affects problems without also understanding what is causing the problems? Without analysis, not only of the historical roots of current problems, but also of the ways that need is recreated and perpetuated in the very fabric of today’s global society, we end up with an unexamined assumption that poverty just “is.” This implies that poverty is somehow innate or genetic to those who experience it. With that worldview, any effort to address poverty is going from nothing to something, from stasis to action, because we are “starting from scratch.”

But there is an alternative ideology. More and more aid critics and development justice activists espouse the view that development is an ordinary, instinctual, human process that, if allowed, will proceed naturally with the momentum of gravity and humanity. We are not “starting from scratch” but rather joining ongoing processes driven by inherent strengths and utilizing historically-nurtured assets and capacities. Working from this ideology, the task of the international development community should be first and foremost to get out of the way. The second task should be to stop others from getting in the way. Only then should the international development community embark upon the third task—to humbly inquire if there is any way they can help. I call this ideology “supporting responsibly,” and if taken to heart, this would require a fundamentally different approach to international “development” work.

Development actors would need to find the existing developmental energy–which means recognizing its value–analyze and confront the obstacles that impede those natural forces, and remove the obstacles (which will likely require them to give up privileges). This is political work, systemic work, and self-work. It is not comprised of conducting assessments, running workshops and producing reports. Working from the “supporting responsibly” ideology would require development actors to be self-reflective, power-aware, and sensitive listeners, never competing with, ignoring or looking down on “locals” and certainly not trying to transform them.

Sadly, Paul Farmer, like so many other well-intentioned development actors, seems to be caught in a trap of oblivious self-righteousness that I consider part of the problem. He says the phrase “Local solutions for local problems” is “a commonly encountered liberal piety of development work.” He explains: “Many problems originate outside of people’s own communities: most trade regimes, all epidemics, and just about anything to do with climate change.”  This is true! But he goes on to argue that vaccines, pedagogic materials and shoes should not be manufactured locally. To me, this is a non sequitur. If Farmer admits the problems originate outside, then they should be solved outside (in other words, fix the trade regimes!) rather than alleviating the symptoms with externally imposed, short-term fixes, that enable the perpetrators to keep on causing damage.

Moreover, Farmer’s wrong-headed “starting from scratch” ideology leads him to say, “If we are able to strengthen in-country capacity so recipients can manage their own affairs, one day we will eliminate the need for anything other than partnerships.” But if he spoke from the “supporting responsibly” ideology, he would say, “If we stop actively and intentionally destroying in-country capacity, then surely recipients, like all human beings, can manage their own affairs, and until then, anything we do except in full partnership with locals will be contradictory to that goal.”

Without understanding aid-givers’ role in creating the problems they seek to address, then it’s impossible to assess if and how aid may be “helping.” To use a harsh analogy: Should home invaders pat themselves on the back and take credit for letting hostages eat from their own refrigerator?

The expiration of the Millennium Development Goals provides an opportunity for those who claim to care about development to think about what’s next. I suggest we think first about how we got to the state of inequality, unnecessary suffering, and climate devastation that we find ourselves in now.


Though you’ve never heard of Red-Dead, you should care

One advantage of living here in Palestine is that I often hear about problems or trends long before they hit the news. For example, one full year ago I proposed (unsuccessfully) to a fellowship program that I do a series of articles about Sudanese workers who live in Palestinian villages inside Israel. Few people knew about the phenomenon, but I saw them every time I visited my in-laws: young men selling themselves as day laborers, isolated and without support, their stories untold. Nowadays, coverage of asylum seekers in Israel and their poor treatment is front page news. I still haven’t seen anyone cover the Palestinian connection, though.

Today I want to raise a different issue that is similarly under-reported. Red-Dead is the nickname for the project, “Red Sea-Dead Sea Conveyance Project (RSDSCP),” a $10 billion World Bank project that will carry water from the Red Sea to refill the disappearing Dead Sea. The World Bank claims the project will solve many regional water and environmental problems; Palestinian water and environmental experts disagree. I learned about this project when I worked with EWASH, a coalition of international and local NGOs working on Palestinian water rights. And I found it shocking to learn that such a costly, region-changing, risky project is moving forward with so little global scrutiny.

It might sound technical and boring, but it’s important! The World Bank pushed this through in a very non-transparent way, and the Palestinian Authority signed on without the approval of the Palestinian community. Besides being a huge waste of money–unacceptable in world where there is no much need–the long-term consequences of Red-Dead on Palestinian rights and prospects for a just peace are huge. Rather than tell you myself, I asked a friend and expert, Ziyaad Yusef, to explain Red-Dead in a straightforward way.

Screen Shot 2014-02-21 at 8.03.21 AM

The interview is 30 minutes and at the end he suggests you can get more information from these sites.

Please share your comments here, and please spread the word widely. We can still stop this harmful project. And we must.




Passing Judgment on International Aid: A Palestinian Community Court

This article was published in This Week in Palestine.

While the legally enshrined human right to self-determination has long been recognised as central to the Palestinian struggle, the human right to development – declared in a UN General Assembly resolution in 1986 and reaffirmed many times since – has not received the attention it deserves. Taken together, these two human rights suggest that Palestinians have a right to determine their own development agenda and to control the resources needed to implement it. 


Khawla from the Women's Center in Aqabet Jabbber (Jericho) showing a self-funded honey project

Khawla from the Women’s Center in Aqabet Jabbber (Jericho) showing a self-funded honey project

The formulation is new, but the essence of the “right to self-determination in development” is already incorporated into much of the global discourse on improving international development. Yet when development and aid actors talk about local ownership, results, transparency, and mutual accountability, they talk about them in terms of industry standards. Without invoking legal rights and obligations, these standards are impotent. 

Many Palestinians, like other aid-receiving peoples, voice complaints about international aid policies and practices, yet few frame the problems in terms of violations of human rights. And since there is no repository for these complaints and no mechanism to investigate issues or develop collective awareness of them, complainants have no recourse except to submit grievances to each individual agency. There is no mechanism for individual or collective accountability. 

If a mechanism existed whereby Palestinians could constructively raise their voices about violations of their rights in the context of international aid, and if information about persistent or egregious violations was made public, then Palestinian civil society would be empowered to pressure international aid actors for change. Alternatively, they could refuse certain kinds of aid. The very process of proactively making informed, collective decisions would challenge power imbalances with international actors and advance Palestinian efforts to claim their right to self-determination in development. This is the experience of Dalia Association, which has advocated reform of international aid over several years.

An independent Palestinian “community court” on international aid could constitute that mechanism. The community court could receive, investigate, and rule on a wide range of complaints that involve aid to Palestinians, bringing problems related to international aid under Palestinian scrutiny using international legal frameworks and local priorities. A sceptic might ask: What does criticism of the relevance of a UN agency’s mandate have in common with an accusation of unfairness in a government’s procurement policy, a complaint of waste by an international NGO, or the protest of a person who cannot afford to rent in a Jerusalem neighbourhood because of inflation caused by internationals? From the local perspective, and in a historical context, the source of these complaints is likely the same – unchecked international interference in the name of “development” and an absence of accountability to local communities for both intended and unintended outcomes. 

A local mechanism such as a community court could enable Palestinians to speak, not as mere recipients of services, but as global citizens on a par with other global citizens, and as rights-holders in relation to duty bearers. Rather than relying solely on criteria of best professional practice developed by international actors, they could refer to international human rights law, international standards and mechanisms, and could create their own criteria – drawing on the presumption that Palestinians themselves have the right to judge the value of development assistance. 

The community court would derive its legitimacy from popular participation; the jury would be comprised not of appointed experts, but of local people from diverse backgrounds who elect to participate. The community court would generate legal opinions and make systemic recommendations. It could also act as a dispute resolution mechanism and seek redress in the form of compensation, rehabilitation, and guarantees of non-recurrence. Given its emancipatory objectives, the ambit of the community court would be to seek justice rather than to act as a neutral broker. 

In sum, the proposed Palestinian community court would function as a rights-claiming mechanism. It would accomplish a major goal simply by dislodging the international aid community and its agents as the sole arbiters of good practice. Although lacking powers of enforcement, a community court may impose sanctions that could reverberate on the reputation of international actors. Also, donors and international NGOs may be swayed to reform by the potential threat of boycott by local partners. 

The impact of the community court would be to promote engagement by Palestinians in rights-claiming by raising awareness of international human rights law. Informed with facts and analysis, Palestinians would be empowered to act collectively and assert themselves as rights-holders in relation to those international actors who, by international law, have a duty to ensure the protection of Palestinian rights. Participation is both the means and the ends. 

A community court could create a database of complaints that would enable scrutiny of the behaviour of international aid actors, the evidence they rely on, documentation of the impact on local people, and their analysis of law. This process in itself would clarify and expand Palestinian expectations of “duty bearers” and define their responsibilities in practical terms, without which they could not be effectively held accountable. In fact, a Palestine community court could be considered an innovation in rights-claiming through its reliance on the rights to participation, assembly, information, and association. It would also enable the pursuit of other rights guaranteed to Palestinians under international human rights law such as the right to development and to self-determination. 

It is time that we recognise that change in this inertial global system will not come from the system itself, no matter how many conferences are convened, how many experts are hired, or how many reports are produced. Palestinians and other aid recipients around the world must speak out about their experiences and empower themselves to be the arbiters of which forms of international assistance are acceptable.