Last week, prospects for Palestinian development took a step backwards. On Monday, Australia announced that it would stop direct aid to Palestine, citing concerns by Australian MPs over whether the money was being used for so-called "martyr payments". The move was slammed by the Palestinian Authority (PA) which accused Canberra of bowing to US pressure and labelled the move "part of a campaign launched to smear the Palestinian leadership".
Australia had previously provided 10 million Australian dollars ($7.4 million) of funding annually to the World Bank's Palestinian Recovery and Development Trust Fund, which enables donors to support the PA's institution-building activities and development projects. Australian money will now be redirected to the United Nations' Humanitarian Fund for the Palestinian Territories, which provides health care, food, water and sanitation to vulnerable families, but not development projects.
Also last week, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry issued a statement warning against dealing with the Palestinian cause as a humanitarian issue. The statement criticised the US administration under President Donald Trump for "reproducing Israeli proposals and positions" which treat the Palestinian question as "a population issue in need of relief programmes". The statement added that this approach directs attention away from the "root cause of this suffering represented by the [Israeli] occupation."
In treating the Palestinian issue as a humanitarian one, Australia, the US and others have contributed to a regression, rather than a development, of the terms of debate surrounding Palestine. This relapsing into out-dated modes of discussion does Palestinians no favours, painting them as helpless victims rather than able partners for change. This could hurt prospects for progress in real political, economic and social terms for years to come.
The aid model was pronounced dead long ago. For decades, "developed" states donated billions of dollars in aid to the "developing world", yet time and again this approach proved ineffective, contributing to a perpetual cycle of reliance, de-development and deadlocked discussions on how to drive real change. Dambisa Moyo's 2009 book "Dead Aid" painted a damning picture of this model, lambasting it not only as ineffective but "malignant".
"Poverty Inc.", a 2014 documentary film which set out to expose the corporate and self-serving nature of the international aid model, reiterated this in feature-length proportions. The film pointed to the saviour complex often inherent in the aid paradigm, which many see as colonialism in a modern guise. A case in point was Band Aid, which, in 1984, released the hit single "Do they know it's Christmas?" in a bid to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine that afflicted the country during its protracted civil war. A subsequent cover in 2004, dubbed Band Aid 20, met with criticism for its reductionist portrayal of the African continent as a "land where nothing ever grows, no rain nor rivers flow" inhabited by a monolithically "helpless", "deprived" population.
In a Palestinian context, the West Bank and Gaza have become overwhelmingly reliant on aid. According to a 2011 report by UK-based Portland Trust, a non-profit organisation that works towards Palestinian economic development, aid to the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) "increased by almost 500% in the last decade, exceeding $3bn in 2009." The report also found that "with a GDP of only $6.2bn in 2009, aid effectively represented just less than half of the [Palestinian] economy" and supported "42% of recurrent government spending."
A 2017 article by Dr Alaa Tartir of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network demonstrates that, almost 10 years later, the problem persists. Quoting figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which show "over $35bn in aid has been spent on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip between 1993 and 2016," Tartir argues that
the development paradigm in Palestine must urgently be shifted from one that considers development as a technocratic, apolitical and 'neutral' approach into a model that recognises structures of power, relations of colonial dominance and rearticulates processes of development as linked to the struggle for rights, resistance and emancipation.
Like African nations before it, Palestine needs a paradigm that enables it to work as an equal partner for the future of its own development. This will only be possible when discussions move on from framing the Palestinian population as helpless victims reliant on aid from foreign donors. In reallocating its funds from the World Bank's Palestinian Recovery and Development Trust Fund to the United Nations' Humanitarian Fund for the Palestinian Territories, Australia has subscribed to this out-dated aid model. It has denied agency to the Palestinian Authority and other organic bodies,
preventing them from choosing when, where and how such finances are spent.
Of course, the World Bank and PA are not without criticism. The World Bank has often been seen as a part of a neo-liberal world order dominated by Western powers, and criticised for its collaboration with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which places stringent conditionality on recipients of developmental assistance. Likewise, the PA has come under heavy criticism for its bureaucracy and inefficiency, being seen as a subcontractor to Israeli orders and a central perpetuator of the wildly inflated Palestinian public sector. Yet for all their faults, is such a system not preferable to an aid diktat bent on providing handouts, without considering their detrimental impact in the long term?
Ernesto Sirolli, director of the Sirolli Institute and veteran in the field of international development, gave a TED talk in 2012 entitled "Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!" Although his talk is humorous in nature, Sirolli emphasises an important point: only a country's inhabitants know what is best for their own development. Sirolli argues that "the first principle of aid is respect" and when you find yourself faced with the question of whether to give aid or support, you should "shut up and listen" to what local people have to say.
Only those who live the daily reality of their situation know what is required to initiate change. In ignoring what Palestinians have to say, the international community violates the first rule of development: to begin discussions from a place of mutual respect. Palestinians do not need to be told what is best for them. They want to be supported, not pitied. They want to be in control, not controlled. The terms of discussion must reflect this reality, or risk alienating those who can build an autonomous and prosperous state.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.