Say you’re going to Palestine and nearly everyone will vault their eyebrows at you. To most it’s a big deal, and they see flashes of media segments with stone throwing, tear gas, and bulldozers. The truth on the ground is much different. Traveling through Palestine as an international, you won’t find trouble unless you go looking for it. While difficulties due to the occupation are day-to-day realities, the kinds of oppression institutionalized here are less likely to make the 11 ‘o clock news.
Realities like checkpoints, road bypasses, dust, education, medical services, ID cards, permits, and visas are less likely to get the donors’ juices flowing. Blights like checkpoints and the wall affect people every day and for the long term. Walk through a checkpoint and tell me it wasn’t one of the most disturbing things you’ve done in your life. It won’t make the news like a clash in East Jerusalem, but it will deeply change your ideas about life in Palestine.
Political freedom is another issue, and because of the situation here it is difficult to fund grassroots initiatives without stipulating some clear baseline standards. USAID, for instance, conditions their money to those who work with, are approved by, and operate under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Organizations seeking to create broad appeal and be accessible to the entire population of Palestine will be excluded from funding.
Why is it that the Western mindset must be swayed by photos of gore and violence to commit their efforts? It’s possible one of the main reasons is that our attention span won’t commit the time necessary to understand the deeper, more complex issues that stem from conflict and post-conflict zones. When the killing is over, so is our interest. Therefore, those who want access to international support must tailor their proposals to appeal to such a soundbite mindset. Abroad, donors believe the situation is violent and are sadly ignorant to the deeper challenges.
Who is able or willing to confront the challenges of the civil society sector in such places? Can we discuss bureaucracy and corruption in such a situation? Can we have a discussion on the horrors of pornography and its impact in such a difficult society? Can we look at the conflict through a lens of colonial theory – or must we restrict ourselves to “development” terminology to ensure funding?
Ask any Palestinian NGO what the greatest challenge facing them is, and they will immediately tell you that the dependence on foreign aid is the biggest. Organizations must have access to financial auditors, English-speakers to write reports, and must play ball with government authorities to ensure access to funds. “I used to spend three days in the field and three days in the office,” one director told me. “Now I spend almost seven days a week in the office trying to keep the money coming.”
Meanwhile, a flock of internationals descends to direct development efforts on the ground. Since they are the donors, they are able to completely tailor the development process to their own international standards, spreading western values, processes, and procedures and demanding respect for them as the gateway to foreign money. Stuck between a rock (PA) and a hard place (Int. interests), Palestinian NGOs can only lie and juggle, taking them out of the field and into the office.