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Aid, Internationalists and Self Interest in Palestine
Oct 19, 2013
by Sav D’Souza
Chloe Ruthven’s excellent documentary The Do Gooders, which showed at this year’s London Film Festival, shed not an inconsiderable light on how ‘international aid’ works in operation in places such as Palestine.
The concept of “aid”, in its numerous guises, humanitarian, international, overseas, foreign or overseas all invoke a nice altruistic association but the reality as Ruthven found in Palestine is that aid is more about political control, power and influence.
‘NGOs are increasingly motivated by self interest, they need money, they need to pay themselves in their jobs and in order to get those contracts they have to keep quiet about what’s going on and that’s really shity to see. What they are doing is talking about it as a humanitarian crisis, when in fact what we have is a people where every aspect of their lives is being militarily and economically controlled and oppressed,’ said Ruthven.
Two aspects of the “valuable infrastructure” that Ruthven delved into were roads and water in the occupied West Bank. Roads it seems benefit US construction contractors and people with business and assets and not directed to what local disadvantaged people need or desire. Ruthven highlighted a more sinister aspect too – how when roads are built they cut of Palestinians, effectively by building two roads, an ‘apartheid road system’ as it has been called. ‘By using the main artery roads and preventing Palestinians from using them by this kind of road blocking system. Every time the Israelis build a bit of new road in the West Bank for the settlers, they cut off the village roads that come down and join that central road and so Palestinians can’t actually access it even though it’s in the territory,” said Ruthven. “At the same time USAID are also building Palestinian roads that are taking Palestinians further away from the main artery roads, and yet telling the Palestinians they are coming to help them” added Ruthven.
Then there is huge amounts of money spent on flashy water pump systems, complete with typical USAID obligatory PR fanfare overdrive, which in practice appear nothing more than a grand vanity project. As Ruthven explained ‘All the engineers know that there is no water, it’s like you can build the flashiest Ferrari engine but if there is no petrol! In my probing it became clear that everyone knows this up front so it’s not like they made a mistake.’ In her movie Ruthven is seen having just such a discussion with an engineer about water in the region, the engineer telling her about the situation resulting from the Oslo agreement which meant that Israel was assigned two aquifers and Palestine one, adding that when Palestinians want to drill or do anything to get more water they have to ask for Israeli permission which is invariably refused. It was at this point in the film that a USAID representative nervously efficiently calls time on the conversation. In 2009 an Amnesty International report was highly critical of the “discriminatory water policies and practices are denying Palestinians their right to access to water.”
One of the main issues around aid to Palestine, but that could also be just as applicable for numerous other countries, is that it comes with strings attached and so is deeply politicised. Current systems of aid provision are carefully controlled and managed and dictated by Western organisations that know best. Not really much democracy at play in the sense of what local people think, want or need.
Already living in an occupied land which is both restrictive and prescriptive, Palestinians have to deal with “Do Gooders”, the entourage of “internationalists”, NGOs and the likes of USAID, when what Ruthven’s film shows is that want they want is the right to self determination, to work out between themselves how to improve their lives on a daily basis and look to the future. Too much to ask for? Maybe they lack the wisdom of the more sophisticated westerners to achieve this?
A good example of what can be achieved is a grassroots organisation called the Dalia Association. Dalia is a Palestinian community foundation which is addressing and reacting to the problems they face by involving people in the decision making process, using resources to try and achieve their goals and being self accountable as a community and not external bodies. Ruthven went to visit the organisation in her film where she interviewed a member of the organisation who told her that they had refused to sign a potential grant application worth $200,000 as it stipulated that there could be no ties to organisations such as Hamas.
Although Hamas is seen as a political party that has support all over occupied Palestine and means different things to different people in the region any association to them means that your organisation will not get funded, and individuals will not get a job working with the Internationalists due to Hamas being deemed a terrorist organisation.
At the moment there are 144 humanitarian organisations working in Palestine, of which 51 are UN agencies, 78 international NGOs and only 15 local organisations. Any local organisations require a number of internationals on their board to be deemed legit and get funding.
Palestinians seem to be having a different conversation between themselves about what they need and want than that which are being offered through foreign aid. Tired of the same old status quo which ultimately does nothing than continue the cycle of aid dependence and control, grassroots organisations like Dalia are trying to forge a different way.