Grassroots platforms to fund aid and development projects have been sprouting up in recent years throughout the West Bank and Gaza, with more groups purposefully steering clear of EU or US money, and sometimes going it alone altogether.
This trend towards so-called community philanthropy is a major shift for a part of the world consistently ranked among the top recipients of aid per capita – one driven by fears that external assistance can be a vessel for foreign countries to implement their vision of what a Palestinian state should look like, instead of a Palestinian vision for that future.
While some internationally funded projects have built worthwhile and much-needed infrastructure in the West Bank and Gaza and provided emergency aid to a population living in a stagnant economy, critics say others have at best wasted money and time, and at worst set back Palestinian aspirations for self-determination.
Proponents of this view, including Besan Abu Joudeh, CEO and co-founder of BuildPalestine – an online platform that connects global entrepreneurs to small organisations that work in the Palestinian territories – often argue that relying on foreign aid is unsustainable.
This argument was bolstered by the recent withdrawal of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from the West Bank and Gaza. For decades, USAID has pumped aid into the occupied Palestinian territories to boost development and build capacity locally – with the stated aim of “a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. Its withdrawal is actually the result of a US counter-terrorism law, but came after major cuts to its programmes in the territories.
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The change has amplified the voices of people like Joudeh who are in favour of eschewing foreign aid for crowdsourcing or using other means to fund local projects – on the premise that her community has the right to control its own resources and development.
“The challenge with international aid is that it comes with institutions' own projects and priorities. Recently we saw that you can't even depend on it,” Joudeh said. “After USAID left, many organisations had to shut down. Our local non-profits should be sustainable, such that the changing political interests or international donors won't cause them to close up shop.”
“They are not the most polished, but they are the most impactful.”
Joudeh launched BuildPalestine in 2016. It grew out of her frustrations as a development worker disillusioned with the donor aid system in the Palestinian territories, where she saw the most meaningful transformations take place through the efforts of small, local organisations.
“They are not the most polished, but they are the most impactful,” said Joudeh. “But when you go to these organisations, you see that they're all struggling with funding. This is where the idea for BuildPalestine came from.”
The start-up crowdsources and funds projects through individuals or small foundation grants, as well as consulting and facilitating workshops for other organisations. It charges an annual membership fee for access to its network.
“There are many people who want to support small institutions in Palestine, so we thought of a way to help direct them to these small organisations,” she said.
Since its inception, BuildPalestine reports carrying out 28 projects that have raised a total of more than $260,000 from communities and individuals.
With the help of the start-up, a Palestinian ambulance worker in Gaza was able to source the funds needed to equip a neighbourhood with first aid kits and turn 35 volunteers into paramedics who can help the injured until an ambulance arrives. BuildPalestine also helped raise funds for al-Mada Association, a Ramallah-based music and art therapy centre.
The community foundation
Among the organisations BuildPalestine has supported is the Dalia Association, which bills itself as the first Palestinian community foundation determined to leave international aid behind. Established in late 2006 and run by seven staff members, it does not focus on a particular issue, but on strengthening local organisations.
“We work on mobilising local resources for community-controlled development; meaning the community votes for the initiatives they want, what solutions they want to see in that community, and where the small grants that we give should go,” said Dalia's executive director Aisha Mansour.
“The international aid organisations' priorities were not the priorities of the people on the ground.”
After the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 – the start of a path that was intended to end in peace with Israel and Palestinian “self-determination” – there was an explosion in aid aimed at undergirding the peace process and future state institutions.
This was not, Mansour said, necessarily a good thing. “Dalia was born in response to the aid coming after Oslo,” she explained. “The founders saw that the international aid organisations' priorities were not the priorities of the people on the ground, and the aid was detrimental in a way because it made society weaker. People were waiting for it to resolve their issues rather than mobilising.”
Among Dalia’s projects is Dukan – a Ramallah-based second-hand shop that aims generate income for Dalia, decrease waste, and support recycling efforts. Dalia also holds an annual “social change auction”, where individuals pitch a community development initiative, and attendees can support them by offering donations on the spot – a kind of live crowdfunding.
The idea of local participation in development and aid is not new: BuildPalestine and Dalia are just two examples of an increasing number of organisations working in community philanthropy.
Supporters say this approach provides communities with sustainable sources of local funding to meet their own goals based on local priorities – something that has not always been factored into international aid programmes.
“People know that the traditional aid is not sustainable, distorts the economy, among other issues,” Mansour said. “We're part of a global community movement that believes that real development happens locally with local resources by the indigenous community.”
“But we are also telling the international development aid community that if it really wants sustainable development, the way to go is to support community philanthropy,” she added. “You need flexibility, long-term thinking and vision – it's not something that happens in a two- or five-year project or a project that's designed by someone from the outside.”
But many believe that traditional aid still has a critical place in Palestine, especially when the local economy is at a standstill, having witnessed no real growth in 2018 as unemployment hit 31 percent, according to World Bank estimates. The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA, estimates that around one million people in Gaza and the West Bank are food insecure and need food aid to get by in 2019.
“It's no secret that in order for the Palestinian economy to have a chance, it's going to need the backing of international finance institutions, including the World Bank, the UN, and other traditional donors,” said a senior international development officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
“Palestine does need aid, it does need support.”
“These community-based organisations are on the front lines and fulfil a critical need, no doubt, but it's difficult for them to scale their activities to the level of need in the Palestinian territories.”
Even among its critics, there’s an awareness that international aid is still needed, but they say it should come with a caveat: It must be structured to support Palestinian self-determination and self-sufficiency and not subsidise Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.
There is also an acknowledgment that while USAID’s departure hurts and will be detrimental in the short term, it represents an opportunity to rethink the conventional approach to international aid.
“Palestine does need aid, it does need support,” Joudeh said. “But the reason why we need the aid is because of the Israeli occupation. The question is how do we channel this aid. It needs to be in a way that actually empowers local communities to tackle the issues they face.”
(TOP PHOTO: Diana, 13, and her younger brother leave their home in Gaza's al-Shati refugee camp to bring water from a nearby mosque for their family.)