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….”

My trip to Gaza 2015

The Gaza Strip from April 2-8, 2015 (but it felt like one year)

 This is Kamal in front of his home in Beit Hanoun.



Kamal LOVED his garden and tried to help me imagine how beautiful it used to be. Later he showed me pictures on his phone and his colleagues at Oxfam went on and on about what a beautiful garden it had been and how much work he had put into it. This is what is left.



Kamal became very emotional when his cat jumped from behind a piece of metal into his arms. He said he felt ashamed that he was no longer able to take care of his own cat.



I had seen photos like these before — destroyed factories in Shujaeya. But seeing this factory (ice cream? juice? I forgot) with Kamal made it totally different. I could see reflected in his eyes how it used to be with people working, trucks coming and going, life in action. I could feel the tragedy in a way I hadn’t before.



This severely damaged nonprofit organization served people with disabilities. I found the name of it ironic given all the death: The Society for the Right to Life.


The only action in Shujaeya in the late afternoon were these young men picking up rubble. They took turns posing for pictures delivering rubble to a middleman who would sell it to be ground up and re-used.




I especially liked these two — cousins I think — who held up stones and said, “Five shekels! Tell the world that we work for five hours to earn 5 shekels! And every time they said, “five shekels” they broke into a hysterical laughter that made me laugh. Hard. Amazing.


And here’s a photo from a friend’s house that speaks volumes about the challenges of living in Gaza where electricity comes for 6 hours and then not again for 18 (or 8 on 16 off during good times). How do you use the bathroom at night when there is no electricity?


Still, Gaza is stunningly beautiful. From this balcony, you can see the least affected part of Gaza City, and it looks especially good because the destroyed buildings in the lower half of the photo have been cleared away (unlike Khuzaa and other places) — they were police buildings.


It was a productive trip. Here I am with the  Steering Committee members from Gaza of our new initiative, Aid Watch Palestine (Jaber Qudih, left; Ibrahem Shatli, middle and Amal Zaqout, far right) and Heba, our team coordination assistant (2nd from right).


And here I am with Heba and 7 of the 9 writers who will write “glimpses of daily life” stories for the Aid Watch website (at a lovely new cafe).


And although I was really, really, really busy, I did spend a little time going around to talk to people about the reconstruction situation. Here is a cement distribution warehouse that was closed (smack in the middle of a work day).


And here is another cement distribution warehouse that was open but not operational. The manager let me take photos of the empty warehouse and explained that he expected a new shipment “any time now.” He gave me lots and lots of information about how bad the cement situation is, including how he personally had been assessed for cement back in September, but he has yet to receive any information about whether he’ll be getting any cement or when. He also talked about the irony of how people who need cement badly get approved after waiting long period but then don’t have the money to buy the cement, or they borrow money to buy cement and then sell it at a profit on the black market to buy food, since they don’t have enough money to do the repairs to their home anyway.


There was some steel (also tightly controlled because it is considered “dual use” by Israel).


And yes, the place was monitored by camera.


We finally found one cement distribution warehouse in Jabalia City that actually had cement!


Customers were very happy to get it, but there were surprisingly few.


But the manager of the facility was not so happy. He said he’s obligated to accept truckloads without inspecting them, and when he finds damaged materials like these, he’s not allowed to return them. That’s the problem with monopoly.


Then we stopped in to watch some work being done to construct a temporary shelter caravan funded by Jordan.


I was told this is a high quality caravan because the walls are insulated, unlike some of the others.


The caravan is a big improvement over the makeshift home the family is living in now on the site of their demolished home.





The mom was younger than I am but had 11 children (two died in the last war and one permanently disabled). Her grown daughter was sweeping the dirt floor when I arrived. They made me fresh lemonade.


I really liked this woman. Her name is Ghalya.


In case you were wondering, Hamas signs are visible. One time the car I was in was stopped at a checkpoint. The officer said he wanted to remind us to pray for the prophet.

United Nations and international NGO signs are also everywhere like at this World Health Organization voucher distribution center (which was not too busy, for reasons I don’t know).



I was very fortunate to be hosted by dear friends, Najla and Jason Shawa in their super comfortable home — despite the difficulty I had keeping track of which water was for drinking, which for hair washing, and which for body washing. I got to play with baby Zoozoo and meet Najla’s famous (and super nice) mom, Rawya.



As I posted on Facebook earlier today, there is only one word to describe what is happening in Gaza: betrayal.




Israel devastated Gaza, but “aid” helps keep it that way

This article first appeared in the Huffington Post.

Marking six months since the ceasefire in Gaza, 30 international aid agencies joined together to issue a statement titled, “We must not fail in Gaza.” At face value, this warning is a responsible step by credible international humanitarian and development actors. Yet, a deeper reading reveals that the statement is neither candid nor wholly truthful. How can we solve the appalling conditions in Gaza or elsewhere if aid actors actively participate — including through this statement — in mystifying the public about what is really going on and where responsibility lies?

Accountability cannot be achieved without honest, critical, constructive discussion about what is really happening. We must tell the whole, complex, discomforting truth, even if it leads us to conclude that “aid” isn’t as helpful as we want to believe it is.


It is not wholly truthful to say, “We must not fail in Gaza” when we have already failed in Gaza. Nearly 2 million people remain essentially imprisoned under military occupation in one of the most densely populated areas of the world. The international community has legal, moral, and professional obligations to hold Israel accountable for these and other violations against Palestinians, but it does not do so. Admitting failure could allow aid actors to stop investing intensive efforts and massive resources in a flawed system. It could open up discussion leading to radical change.

It is not wholly truthful to say 100,000 Palestinians remain displaced when there are nearly 7 million Palestinians displaced. Like other oft-repeated statistics, the number “100,000” actually hides the bigger picture. This number does not include those still displaced from the last Gaza war in 2012; and it does not include those without homes because the Israeli blockade bans sufficient materials to meet the natural growth in demand for housing. It certainly does not include the total number of Palestinians who are not home because they have no homeland. Confronting the problem holistically could allow aid actors to extract themselves from complicity.

It is not wholly truthful to say that the international community is not providing Gaza with adequate assistance because little of the $5.4 billion pledged in Cairo has reached Gaza, as if Palestinians are merely entitled to compensation for recent war damages. In fact, the international response is inadequate because “aid” is offered as consolation for 67 years of statelessness. In fact, decisive political intervention is the only way to achieve a long-term solution.

The recent statement by aid agencies is written in the sophisticated, passive language for which the aid system has become known:

The Israeli-imposed blockade continues, the political process, along with the economy, are paralyzed, and living conditions have worsened. Reconstruction and repairs to the tens of thousands of homes, hospitals, and schools damaged or destroyed in the fighting has been woefully slow.

But whose responsibility is it to reconstruct homes? It is the responsibility of the very same aid actors who signed the statement! Why is it their responsibility? Because they have been contracted to do so by governments that are legal duty bearers, given Israel’s failure to act to ensure the wellbeing of Palestinians under occupation. These actors accept that responsibility, claim the authority to fulfill that responsibility, and are compensated to fulfill that responsibility.

So how can United Nations agencies and tens of international non-governmental organizations declare, “…we are alarmed by the limited progress in rebuilding the lives of those affected and tackling the root causes of the conflict” as if they were mere bystanders?

We must do better! Rather than blame others and plead powerlessness, every one of us, in every sector — public, private, international and local — should reflect honestly about the role we play in maintaining this failed system. We must summon the courage to risk change.

Here is the text of a statement those same agencies might have published had they been willing to speak truthfully. (These are sentiments already whispered in the back rooms of most agencies working in Palestine.)

The Joint Statement by Aid Agencies That Should Have Been Published

We have failed. The recent Gaza war is simply more proof that we, the international community, refuse to exert effective pressure to implement any of our hundreds of UN resolutions relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling into question the credibility of our commitment to a global governance system where all people can enjoy freedom, equality and basic rights.

“Aid” has not been an effective tool to offset or mitigate this failure. Taking Gaza as one of many examples, we have accepted funding on behalf of Palestinians and we have paid ourselves handsomely to achieve objectives that we knew to be unachievable within the constraints of our system. We hereby admit that the aid system should be dismantled and radically re-envisioned as a form of solidarity driven by a commitment to justice.

Because we are truly as committed to justice and the rule of law as we always claim, we intend to remain in Palestine with Palestinians until their rights are achieved. We do this as true humanitarians not as careerists, so we will not accept compensation beyond what we need to subsist by local standards.

Furthermore, we will not allow ourselves to be used or blocked. We will insist that our governments act in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations (especially Chapter seven, Articles 41 and 42) giving effect to UN decisions via economic, diplomatic and other measures.

We will rebuild Palestine so that it can be free of the need for aid: enjoying territorial integrity, with control over its own natural resources and borders, and able to receive Palestinians from around the world if they choose to become citizens.

We will do this because true help in a situation of inequality requires us to take a stand on the side of justice. We understand this will require us to take risks, but we are driven by our conscience to do what is right.