NGO ‘industry’: a boon or bane in Gaza?

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Erez Crossing
Erez Crossing, from Electronic Intifada

Yesterday was the Islamic holy day, and in Gaza, that means a big meal after the mid-day call to prayer. Among my “circle,” everyone — Palestinian and international friends alike — gathers at the home of the Abusalamas, a moderate-to-liberal family that has “adopted” me since my six-month stay in 2010. After our fill of rice and chicken, and while we sipped Turkish coffee and mint tea, the talk turned to the increasingly unhealthy dependency of Gaza on international NGOs — and how that paternal relationship is reflected in the behavior of their employees.

Many international employees of NGOs in Gaza live life in a metaphorical bubble, exempt from the hardships of their “beneficiaries.”

International NGOs in Gaza — such as the UN (in the form of UNRWA), Oxfam and MercyCorps — are an industry. Yes, they are here to dispense aid, and to sponsor various projects promoted as helping Gazans break the oppressive yoke of occupation and re-establish their economic independence. But the occupation has gone on so long —- 60+ years — that the original purpose of temporary relief and skills-building for the future has morphed into the polar opposite: perpetual dependency. After all, what they are essentially doing is relieving Israel of its responsibility to care for and protect occupied populations (as dictated in international law), and allowing the rest of the world to avoid guilt from their own relative inaction.

While there are several hundred indigenous NGOs operating in the Gaza Strip — just twice the size of Washington DC — they are “poor sisters” compared to the international “conglomerates.” In part, that is because they don’t know how to promote themselves to a Western audience, and don’t have the resources for professional help with Web design and English translation. Another factor is their inexperience in satisfying the rigorous demands of external grantmakers for third-party budget audits and evaluation reports (which is also related to resources). A third stumbling block is the fear of being accused of financing terrorist activity due to the U.S. Treasury Department’s prohibition on supporting the Hamas-led government of Gaza. (This prohibition — which stops UNRWA from engaging directly with the local authorities — is not only hypocritical but unethical. The Hamas party won a majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament fair and square, by all standards. In addition, United Nations resolutions and international codes of conduct state that among the core principles of humanitarian assistance are impartiality and respect for sovereignty — requirements that the refusal of many donors and countries to deal with the Hamas government clearly breach. As one of my fellow internationals [Julie Webb from New Zealand, who writes for Scoop Independent News], put it in one of her commentaries, “humanitarian need should be the determining factor, not politics or our desire for regime change.” You’d think we would have learned from the 10+ years of Iraq sanctions that even if it was moral, collective punishment doesn’t work; if anything, it only rallies the people around their government and props up the elite.)

The result of the contortions to which the international community puts itself to avoid working with members of Hamas is a near usurpation of local authority by international NGOs. (In fact, I believe that by cutting Hamas off from so many of the functions of normal governments — including the attendant ability to create jobs and raise revenue — we have virtually forced it to become as extreme as some of its elements now are. But that’s another blog post…)

I once became so aggravated by this forced reliance on internationals, when they have a plethora of local NGOs that could provide for their own, that I developed a proposal in response. I would use my skills in communications and marketing to develop English-language profiles of local organizations that meet certain quality criteria, complete with photos and videos, then develop a Web portal to showcase them to progressive individuals who would rather give directly to them than to the conglomerates. What better way to help the people help themselves? All I needed was a U.S. charitable organization to serve as the “funnel,” thus removing the “terrorist connection” worry for individual donors. I even envisioned organizing delegations of donors who wanted to see their money at work firsthand, bringing them to Gaza to do volunteer work for a week — and thus converting them into “ambassadors” when they returned home. However, I have been unsuccessful to date in finding the relatively small amount of funding needed, or an appropriate NGO partner.

One of the other consequences of the pseudo economy created by the reliance on international NGOs is a legitimization of the Israeli occupation. Every rule set down by Israel (such as the restrictions on who goes in and out of the Strip through the Erez terminal) they obey — so much so that it becomes “normal.”

Part of the problem is domestic politics. UNRWA, for instance, is reliant on funding from large Western governments such as the United States. I have seen firsthand the extent to which that ties its hands. I was present when John Ging, until recently head of UNRWA in Gaza, visited the U.S. Congress to solicit support during the immediate aftermath of Operation Cast Lead — the massive Israeli attack of 2008/9. He wanted to talk about the survival needs of children, and the hearing attendees asked instead about whether the Holocaust was being taught in Gazan schools. It is mentalities like this that forces UNRWA to pretend like Hamas does not run a legitimate local government.

However, the problems are even more systemic. The top positions at UNRWA and other international NGOs here in Gaza are reserved for internationals, who typically earn much higher salaries than their Palestinian counterparts, don’t know Arabic, eat at a small list of approved restaurants (too expensive for most Gazans to afford), rent the best apartments by the sea, drive around in what seems to be hermetically sealed white vans, and every weekend, go in and out of the Gaza Strip through Erez for their “rest and recreation” breaks. Most seem utterly immune to the fact that the 1.6 million Palestinians who live their are deprived of that “privilege.”

Lydia, a Dutch woman who is volunteering her time at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, is so incensed by the bubble these internationals seem to be living and working in that she wants to organize a protest on Thursday nights and Sunday mornings outside of the Erez entryway. “I think we need to remind them that while they sail in and out with ease, hundreds of Palestinians are denied the same, basic right,” she said.

Of course there are some rational reasons behind this exceptionalism. Internationals who come to work in Gaza sometimes leave families behind, and thus need higher pay to compensate for frequent visits home, etc., etc. But it’s worth the question: Are they aware of the distance they have created between themselves (and thus their organizations) and the people they are serving? And of the impression that creates among the masses? (I say the “masses,” because even in a small, closed society like Gaza, there is a rich elite, such as the Shawa family that owns so much of the real estate in the Strip.)

According to Lydia, the only international NGO she hears consistently good reports about from the Gazans themselves is MSF [Doctors Without Borders] — mainly because they identify needs at the grassroots level, follow through on their commitments from start to finish and are transparent to the local population about how their funds are used

I recently attended a discussion of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated so much of the population, and the observations were similar. NGOs flocked to provide relief, such as the Red Cross, but two years later, there were still vast tent cities — right across the street from the resorts frequented by the aid workers. If they had ever been asked, the so-called beneficiaries of these programs would have given them an “F.” But that’s the point — they were never asked. The NGOs essentially have no accountability. So…here’s a novel idea: Why not conduct a survey of the people, asking them which NGOs provide what they think is needed, and produce results that are valued on the ground? In other words, an NGO report card? As a (small) donor myself, I sure would like to see that…

Note: In case you are wondering, when I enter Gaza, I prefer the Rafah crossing from Egypt, which is increasingly open to Palestinians. The one time I was given a six-month pass to go in and out via Erez, I used it only once — turning down the opportunity for “R&R breaks.” Frankly, just the thought of the Erez terminal — with its long spooky tunnel — makes my stomach clench. When I am in Gaza, I live with families, being careful to include those who live outside of the more “cosmopolitan” (if you can call it that!) Gaza City. And, I have no income to speak of right now, so no, I don’t tend to eat in elite restaurants either! I go where the average Palestinian goes….

About Pam Bailey

Pam Bailey is founder of and international secretary for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor. She is based in Washington, DC, and travels to the Middle East frequently.

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