Aid and Development

Gaza under fire: What does it mean for philanthropy?

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.



B- for my Gaza birthday campaign but an A for effort

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.


Israel’s Creative Dispossession Tactics (Aljazeera)

This article first appeared in Aljazeera.

Even Palestinians can’t help but be impressed by Israeli ingenuity in circumventing the law in their colonial quest.

At first, the visit by the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) to Jabal Al-Baba on April 9 seemed routine. A Bedouin community in the E1 area, Jabal Al-Baba has had 18 demolition orders pending since February. Residents were not surprised, then, when officials delivered stop-work orders on three more insulated residential structures. Under Israeli law, these structures can be demolished – but only after a 21-day delay, during which residents have the right to appeal to the Israeli courts.

But the Israeli authorities didn’t wait for the legal process to run its course; they returned to Jabal Al-Baba and retrieved the stop-work orders they had distributed just hours before. “We were happy,” said Suleiman Kayyed Jahalin, a member of the community. “We thought the Israelis had changed their minds and weren’t going to demolish our homes after all. We were wrong.”

A representative of an international NGO that delivers aid to the community described how the Israeli Civil Administration returned several hours later with soldiers and dismantled the three homes. Once dismantled, the ICA didn’t have to wait for their demolition orders to survive a legal challenge; they simply confiscated the parts of the houses under an Israeli law that entitles them to confiscate building materials, equipment or cars without any advance notice.

Caption: Israeli Civil Administration dismantling Bedouin homes funded by the European Union and France, 9 April 2014. Credit: ACF (Action Against Hunger) Project Officer

Caption: Israeli Civil Administration dismantling Bedouin homes funded by the European Union and France, 9 April 2014. Credit: ACF (Action Against Hunger) Project Officer

Although Israel dismantled and confiscated the homes rather than demolishing them, the result is the same: human beings that lived in shelters are now homeless. A total of 111 additional members of the Ras Al-Baba community live under impending threat of having their homes demolished. In fact the United Nations reports that most of the 2,800 Bedouins residing in the E1 area have demolition orders against their homes (plus two schools). These Palestinian communities are considered among those most at risk of forced displacement.

The three residential structures were constructed in February with funding from the European Commission Humanitarian and Civil Protection Department (ECHO) and the French Consulate and were valued at approximately 2000 Euros. Representatives from the donor agencies and other diplomatic staff toured the site on April 11, but the Office of the EU Representative was only willing to say, “The EU has well-known concerns about demolitions, which it has expressed on many occasions in line with our overall Area C policy. The EU will raise this issue with the relevant Israeli authorities.”

Palestinian human rights advocates are disappointed that European donors have failed to act boldly to hold Israel accountable. It seems that many humanitarian actors have bought into the notion that demolition of donor-funded projects is “sensitive” and should not be addressed head-on.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has tracked Israeli demolition of donor-funded projects since 2011. They report that 317 donor-funded projects were demolished between January 1, 2011 and the end of 2013.

In another recent incident, a truck with donations from the Italian government arrived at the school in the Bedouin community of Khan Al-Ahmar on February 27. According to the principal, “A drone sailed around taking photographs and twenty minutes later, the Israeli Civil Administration showed up with three carloads of police and confiscated all our new playground equipment and construction materials.” They even took the truck in which the aid was being delivered.

Some human rights advocates describe the confiscation of playground equipment as ‘silly’ while others call it ‘evil,’ but one thing is certain: such confiscations are illegal. Diakonia, a Swedish faith-based development organization that promotes respect for international humanitarian law, refers to the Fourth Geneva Convention when it concludes that international humanitarian law “…specifically protects against the requisition of property of relief organisations and prohibits the diversion of relief consignments from the ‘purpose for which they are intended, except in cases of urgent necessity….”

The Italian Consulate did not respond to a request for a statement.

The stakes are financial, legal and moral. The confiscation and demolition of humanitarian aid may result in forcible transfer, which may be considered a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

International and Israeli NGOs have documented Israeli tactics, which include denial of building permits to structures where no master plan exists, refusal to respond to community-supported master plans submitted for approval, stop-work orders for construction lacking building permits, seizure or confiscation of equipment or materials, and demolition of structures. Palestinians are often charged a fee for the demolition of their home or offered the option to self-demolish in order to reduce their fines. Seizure, confiscation and demolition lead to displacement of Palestinians, especially in Area C, and facilitate Israel’s illegal settlement activities.

Thousands of Palestinians are affected by Israeli confiscations and the demolition of property, resulting in growing humanitarian concern. However, with rare exceptions, most international donors are subdued in their criticism of Israeli demolitions in general and do not speak out publicly about the demolition of taxpayer-funded projects. To be fair, they are stuck between conflicting interests. On the one hand, international donors are legally- mandated by international humanitarian law to address the humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Area C, whether or not Israel approves. To ensure the sustainability of their humanitarian projects, they would have to obtain permits from Israel. However, the Israeli planning and permit regime in Area C is illegal and it may also be illegal for donors to grant it validity by seeking Israeli permits. Moreover, donors who build without Israeli permits and see their funded projects demolished may expose themselves to criticism for spending taxpayers’ money irresponsibly.

Increasingly, local and international aid critics are saying that by failing to hold Israel accountable, donors alleviate pressure on Israel to agree to a sustainable and just peace and are therefore complicit in the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights. They also note the spike in demolitions of Palestinian property that coincided with the renewal of US-backed peace talks. Diplomats and officials are also starting to speak out, too, but so far, only off the record.


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.