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In freezing aid to Palestinians, donors trample a well-worn path

‘Humanitarian aid, even of the most generous variety, can never be enough.’

The Palestine Red Crescent receives a batch of humanitarian aid from their Egyptian counterpart, at the Rafah crossing. We see the back of the aid worker who has their hands on their hips. They are wearing a vest with the Red Crescent logo on it. In front is a large truck with aid. Palestine Red Crescent Society/Handout via Reuters
The Palestine Red Crescent receives a batch of humanitarian aid from its Egyptian counterpart at the Rafah border crossing into Gaza, on 24 October 2023.

As Israeli forces lay siege to the Gaza Strip, many donor governments are following a familiar script – freezing development funds and leaning on short-term humanitarian aid that critics say can’t fill the void.

Several donors announced suspensions or reviews of development aid to Palestinians in the aftermath of the 7 October Hamas attacks against Israeli civilians. These include Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany – the world’s second-largest aid donor. The EU announced “an urgent review” of its assistance.

But they have maintained or boosted humanitarian funding as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza escalates – swapping long-term support that might help provide healthcare, for example, for emergency aid that is by nature a Band-Aid solution.

“This is not the time to politicise aid or contribute to collective punishment of civilians,” said Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, warning against development aid cuts.

But it’s a pattern repeated around the world, analysts and humanitarian officials say.

From Afghanistan to Niger, or Burkina Faso to Palestine, donor policies that cut off communities from aid are increasingly the norm, in a trend dictated by geopolitics, sanctions, and coups. This is worsening the fallout for besieged populations, while heaving an unrealistic burden on humanitarian responses.

“Humanitarian actors are being asked to pick up the pieces. It's impossible.” 

Nearly half the people in fragile and conflict-affected states live in situations where big aid donors are “politically estranged” from those in charge, according to research published in April by Chatham House, the British think tank.

In the face of coups, disputed elections, or charged public opinion at home, the mostly Western donor governments that fund much of the international aid system are putting their money where their geopolitical interests lie.

“You are seeing this more fractured global environment shaping issues around development assistance,” said Renata Dwan, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House and the report’s co-author.

One aid official said suspensions have become donors’ “default response” to signal geopolitical displeasure.

After the Taliban returned to power in 2021, for example, major donor governments froze funding that had propped up the public sector under the previous Western-backed authorities – along with billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s reserves.

The country faced multiple humanitarian emergencies regardless of who was in charge, but the sudden funding freezes plunged Afghanistan deeper into crisis.

“Humanitarian actors are being asked to pick up the pieces. It's impossible,” said the aid official, who asked not to be named in order to preserve relations with donor governments. “I mean, it's not the role of an [international NGO] or the role of a UN agency to run the ministry of health.”

Often, fraught relations between donor governments and those in power are intertwined with a history of violent colonisation and post-colonial meddling.

France, along with the United States and others, suspended aid to Niger following a July coup.

Neighbours Burkina Faso and Mali threw their support behind Niger, warning against a threatened military intervention. France, formerly the colonising power in all three countries, swiftly responded by also cutting development aid to Burkina Faso. It had already suspended aid to Mali a year earlier.

What happens after aid is frozen

Over the long term, aid suspensions take a clear toll on populations, Dwan said.

  • Aid and estrangement in Palestine

    Palestine is an example of how “political estrangement” affects aid over the long term.


    Sanctioned Hamas won 2006 legislative elections, and took control of Gaza in their aftermath. But sanctions and donor aid policies have punished all Palestinians: Budget and development support to Palestinian authorities – not Hamas in Gaza – has since dropped from $2 billion to about $550 million last year, according to the UN’s trade and development body, UNCTAD.


    Critics of the international aid system point out that it has done little to oppose the Israeli occupation that is causing many of the humanitarian and development needs in the first place.


    Israeli occupation and the years-long blockade on Gaza have created aid dependency and a chronic humanitarian crisis. Gaza, UNCTAD said, is in “de-development”: food insecurity and poverty rates were rising, before the current crisis.


    Donor aid, the UN body said, “helped soften the impact of occupation”.

Burundi, for example, fell five places on UN development indices after major donors suspended aid in 2015 over a political crisis, the Chatham House report said.

Madagascar lost nearly a third of its development aid following a 2009 coup. A World Bank study found that poverty grew, the number of children not in school “soared”, and child malnutrition jumped by 50% in some areas over the next five years.

Emergency aid alone can’t prevent a crisis from “imploding”, when the economy is in tatters and jobs and public services are scarce, Dwan said: “Humanitarian aid, even of the most generous variety, can never be enough.”

Instead, aid donors must find ways to stay engaged with development assistance, she argues. 

At home, this means weathering domestic politics by talking about why aid is needed and being clear about where it’s going.

And in states that receive aid, it could mean shifting who’s accountable for that aid – from the national level, if relations are strained, to local governments or civil society.

“We're not saying do development assistance as per normal, pretend that nothing’s happening,” Dwan said. “But try to think about what can be done to support populations in dire need, and to prevent this crisis from becoming much bigger.”

Humanitarians also need to be more honest about what they can and can’t do, she said. This might mean leaving donor money on the table when responses veer beyond their expertise – economic planning, private sector support, or utility provision, for example.

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