In a Void: International Aid and Palestine

By Alexander Costy – Jerusalem

Aid workers are supposed to be the good guys in international relations. Their work is steeped in ethics. They try to do what’s good for people, or at the very least, to do no harm. Yet international assistance can produce contradictions that make even the most seasoned aid professionals cringe.

As far back as the 1940s, Marshall funds meant to support civilian reconstruction in Yugoslavia were used to violently suppress opponents of the emerging Tito regime. In the 1990s, international aid enabled warring factions in Angola to divert their domestic oil and mineral revenues toward military operations, while up to 2 million civilians languished in a state of chronic hunger, insecurity and displacement. Aid professionals usually blame such twisted outcomes on the "politics" beyond their control.

In the Occupied Palestinian Territories, well over $12 billion in international assistance has been spent over the past 15 years. Yet, for most Palestinians the economy is worsening and public institutions are more fractured than ever. Statehood seems more elusive today than at any time in the past. In this context, there is a standing argument that the primary function of international aid has been to subsidise Israel’s occupation. Here too, well-meaning aid experts can be forgiven for wringing their hands, resorting to ready arguments about neutrality and urgent needs, and for regarding, once again, "politics" with grave suspicion.

But aid needs politics in order to work. It performs best when it is allocated for clear purpose and within an agreed political framework. In the Palestinian context, the main intent has always been to support the Palestinian Authority (PA), not Israel, to discharge social, economic and security responsibilities in the areas under the PA’s jurisdiction as agreed within the political framework of the Oslo Accords. Clearly, the investment has been toward a two-state solution, not continued occupation. But with the erosion of Oslo as a framework for international aid, these distinctions have blurred. Sadly, Oslo has been neither revived nor replaced, and many aid managers genuinely wonder what it is, exactly, that they are working toward in the long run.

In practical terms, working in a political void has had troubling effects on the ground. A bewildering array of plans – rapid-action, early recovery, medium-term, public sector reform, emergency response, etc. – have been produced almost without respite over the past four years, often simultaneously, by the PA and international organisations. They seek to draw aid funds in this direction or that, are often at logical odds with one another and mostly serve to justify new spending where there is little real progress to show. In the meantime, new (or newly repackaged) "boutique projects" meant to produce quick and easy wins on the ground, to "roll out success from the bottom up," are proliferating. Because they confer visibility in the thick fog of the crisis, they may be difficult for some donors to resist. But it is difficult to tell what bearing they have on the overall logic of the conflict or on its eventual resolution.

But most worryingly, the political void has prompted a growing reliance on emergency financing instruments functioning outside the very institutions that are central to the Palestinian state-building project itself. This can be seen in the rapid growth of multilateral programmes in recent years: between 2004 and 2007, the size of the United Nations’ annual humanitarian appeal for Palestine more than doubled. The overall value of UN programmes grew from some $430 million in 2006 to an estimated $550 million in 2008. This represents about 30 percent of the PA’s own annual budget.

There is no question that the UN is an effective and reliable implementing partner. But we are left to wonder about the state-building logic of encouraging multilateral budgets to grow as the PA’s own revenue base shrinks rapidly.

Although they may openly shirk political interference, most aid professionals privately recognise the need for a decisive politics (whether they agree with it or not) to guide the aid effort. Given the deep uncertainties of the moment, this will not happen overnight. But in the meantime, foreign politicians who release large amounts of money should understand that they are not just managing a difficult crisis. The long-term effect of an aid-dominated economy is to undo mutual relationships between leaders and ordinary people. Leaders’ accountabilities are diluted because key spending decisions are made in faraway capitals. And because they can barely affect these decisions, ordinary people become disenfranchised, feeling more like refugees than potential citizens of a new state.

If this rupture deepens, it will be difficult to overcome. If anything, the post-Oslo years have shown us that without a sound political logic, aid can only provide diminishing returns over time.

-Alexander Costy has worked in conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. From 2004 to 2007, he was head of coordination in the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Daily Star. (The Daily Star, 3 October 2008, Copyright permission is granted for publication.)

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