Middle East Eye / July 21, 2023
During the past 30 years, international aid has been used as a tool to discipline, silence, and maintain control over Palestinians.
Since the Oslo I Accord was signed in 1993, international donors have expended more than $50bn in foreign aid in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). That funding has been channeled through a western development model that was designed, at least on the surface, to foster Palestinian economic and institutional development.
The western architects of that model had hoped that if they could “catch the Palestinians up” to Israel developmentally then peace could take hold once two liberal democratic Israeli and Palestinian states existed next to each other in the Levant.
But the model explicitly ignored the colonial nature of Israel’s rule – the inherent devastation caused by rapacious colonial structures of control – and put the onus of peace-building on the backs of the Palestinians, requiring them to change to meet nebulous standards of development defined by Israel’s closest western allies before peace would be allowed to take hold.
Yet, the funding was accepted in goodwill by the Palestinians who put their faith in the Oslo Peace Process to lead them to freedom while using donor funding as an opportunity to establish their own institutions after decades of direct Israeli rule. The Palestinians’ ultimate aim was to establish their own state and be free once the US-sponsored Oslo process passed through a “transitional period” that was not to exceed five years, concluding as early as 1999.
That aid was key to the (colonial) logic of the western model, used as a tool to reform (read: civilize) the Palestinians and support them through a transitional period of Israeli rule, to reach a point where they could sustain themselves independently in peace next to Israel.
No closer to freedom
Though the funding was used to establish a semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA) and limited Palestinian institutions of self-rule, like in health and education, neither Oslo aid nor the Oslo process brought Palestinians any closer to freedom and self-determination.
It never allowed them to build an economy to support them in their struggle against the occupying power that is colonizing and removing them from the majority of their remaining land (roughly 22 percent of historic Palestine).
Instead, that funding was used almost immediately to compensate for economic losses imposed on the Palestinians through punitive Israeli policies like closure, settlement building, and restrictions on trade.
Aid became a lifeline to the OPT when the peace process descended into extreme violence during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2006.
Western policymakers then updated their development model, focusing on the Palestinian security sector. Their view was that if the PA could coordinate with Israel and provide it security by reigning in “violence” by Palestinian armed factions then renewed peace efforts could get underway.
Once more, the onus for reform and peace was placed squarely on the Palestinians, based again on an underlying and racist colonial assumption that it is they who are most prone to violence, unlike liberal-democratic Israel.
Western policymakers and developmentalists renewed their work on redesigning other aspects of Palestinian institutions and society. The new model incorporated notions of aid effectiveness, good governance, and transparency that became popular in the aid sector during the 2000s in response to the devastation caused by neoliberal (and neocolonial) aid systems that existed during the “lost decade” of the 1980s and Washington Consensus in the 1990s.
Many well-intentioned developmentalists invested significant time and resources into making the updated Oslo development model work, and it was “so successful” that even the World Bank felt that the Palestinians were ready by 2011 to run their own state.
However, in 2023, Palestinians are even further away from self-rule than 12 years before.
For more than a decade I have been tracking aid with my colleague, Jeremy Wildeman. There are differing perspectives on why the Oslo-aid-for-peace models failed so abjectly after 30 years and $50bn of funding. That includes some perspectives that it has not necessarily been a failure. For instance, there are the aid instrumentalists who believe the Oslo model was, and is, inherently sound but that it was the externality of “politics” that got in the way of it succeeding.
Neocolonialists, by contrast, are aid realists who understand how aid can be wielded as a tool to successfully discipline, silence, and maintain control over Palestinians, and support the status quo of Israeli and western interests.
Then there are the “critical instrumentalists” who share the instrumentalist’s faith in the Oslo aid model, but, in contrast, focus on the politics of the Israeli military occupation of the OPT, Palestinian human rights, Jewish settlement building, and international law, as primary obstacles that need to be addressed, for development and peace to take place.
Finally, there are the critics who, like ourselves, do not believe the aid model is a liberating process but rather a non-indigenous tool of external domination that needs to be viewed with suspicion and ultimately resisted.
Principles of aid effectiveness, like those found in the Paris Declaration in 2005 and Accra Agenda for Action in 2008, can be used as an anti-colonial device to assess how western donors are operating in regions of the Global South, like the OPT.
One of the most important principles is that donors be transparent and have information freely available about what they are spending their funding on. This is because it is fundamental for any sovereign people to comprehensively understand what foreign funding is entering their society and towards what end it is being spent, in each donor’s interest.
It is also a maxim of good governance and the liberal institutionalism donors purport to be developing for Palestinians, to transparently show where funding is coming from and how it is being used by their government.
Tracking Palestinian aid
Wildeman and I have attempted, on multiple occasions since 2016, to track donor funding in the OPT.
The overarching aim of our work has been to track and analyse that aid and to build a comprehensive, publicly accessible database of all aid flows. Making meaningful information accessible is a critical and crucial step towards systems of democratic good governance that Palestinians yearn to fulfil, on the path towards autonomous rule.
To this end, in 2022 we conducted a research study for the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Network, tracking 41 notable donor actors who accounted for around 90 percent of OPT aid in the years 2017-2021. These actors have played a determining role in how Palestinian institutions may be structured and how they serve Palestinian society. What we discovered was a distinct lack of aid transparency in 2022, which had gotten noticeably worse compared to similar past surveys we carried out in 2016 and 2017.
In 2022, we collected data in three different ways: (1) by approaching the donors and their missions in the OPT directly for information about their aid spending; (2) by reviewing donor websites and cataloguing online reports of their OPT aid spending; and (3) by carrying out an extrapolation of datasets found in the OECD Query Wizard for International Development Statistics (QWIDS) database.
What we found was less than 30 percent of the donors we approached provided us with the data necessary to understand what they, and the international community, are funding in Palestine.
Meanwhile, far from being transparent and easily accessible, the data available on their websites could be quite challenging to locate, if it existed online at all, and might not be available even in English, let alone the Arabic necessary for indigenous ownership over the aid process.
Finally, the QWIDS database provides a broad overview of aid funding in the OPT, by the limited number of donors who provide that information to the database.
The result of our study was that, after a significant investment of time conducting research by experienced researchers of Palestine aid, we came away with a very limited sense of what international donor aid looked like in the OPT 2017-21.
Our main takeaway was that donors were not making an effort to be transparent or accountable to Palestinians, at a time when there has been a visible decline in the western-backed PA’s institutions and systems of good governance, amid an intensification of Israel’s colonization of Palestinian lands.
While donors may believe that they are helping Palestinians through their aid spending, it is their inaction in addressing and tackling the root causes of what they call a “political stalemate” that contributes to the violent status quo, when combined with Oslo aid that is structured in such a way that it actually helps Israel offset the costs of its occupation and subsidizes its ongoing colonization of Palestinian land.
This appears to be a worst-case combination of instrumentalists ignoring the fundamental political problems driving conflict in the OPT and neocolonialists using their model to support Israeli colonialism.
Meanwhile, it is important for Palestinians that foreign aid entering their territory be accurately measured in order for them to have the information necessary to understand what it is funding, be able to take ownership over it and their own systems of governance, serve their actual needs and empower them to finally be free of Israeli rule.
Palestinians should reject any aid that does not serve these ends. Donors should meanwhile allocate the resources necessary to track and make information about their OPT aid spending easily accessible to all Palestinians.
Currently, that is not happening and there is no system to make sure they are doing this.
In such circumstances, Palestinians should view western donor aid with deep suspicion given the West’s long track record of favouring Israel’s perceived interests at the expense of Palestinians. This could mean rejecting western donors who refuse to be transparent or to do no harm in occupied Palestine.
Alaa Tartir is a Senior Researcher and the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)