Funding Palestinian civil society: to what end?

Funding Palestinian civil society: to what end?
Comment: Foreign funding for Palestinian NGOs comes with strings attached, says Areen Swaitat.
4 min read
10 Apr, 2015
With money comes influence [Anadolu]

Civil society organisations play a central role in a democratic society through projects addressing democracy and freedoms. This is why the discourse of these organisations is based on participation and democracy and on building movements to ensure social and legal rights for all marginalised elements in society.

Their success depends on the impact they have and the changes they bring about at the cultural and intellectual levels and the extent to which target groups cooperate with them.

By general agreement, civil society organisations play a prominent role in the diffuse geography of Palestinian society, but many disagree on the nature of this role. These organisations depend primarily on foreign funding to implement projects that reflect their goals or the goals of their funders.

The dearth of Arab institutions supporting their work in Palestine means they rely heavily on funding made available through foreign governments or non-governmental organisations, often church-based.

Funding of this nature imposes restrictions and conditions in accordance with specific policies that correspond to the global agenda dominating the funding sector, that of liberal capitalism. The donors project this agenda on to Arab societies, particularly Palestine, through various Palestinian NGOs.

These global policies transform the role of NGOs, turning them into new agents for shaping the national and social values and ideals of the Palestinian people. It is clear that their greatest impact lies in the conceptual field of conflict-resolution and the mechanisms of dealing with the existing situation in conflict zones in accordance with donors' own standards and policies.

     In most cases, donors impose their agenda on the Palestinian people

In most cases, donors impose their agenda on the Palestinian people, or on those segments of it which adopt the discourse of foreign parties whose goal is to wield influence, effect change and contain the largest number of groups within the framework of the global capitalist system.

The history of civil society organisations in Palestine dates back to the early 20th century. At first, they were funded from Islamic and Arab sources, as well as political organisations and parties, then later by the United Nations’ development programmes.

These donors constituted part of the economic reality of Palestinian society. After the Oslo Agreement, however, foreign financial assistance and grants grew exponentially. This highlights a global interest in the ability to influence the Arab-Israeli conflict through emphasis on development and building the institutions of the Palestinian Authority.

Foreign funding went through another surge after the Al-Aqsa Intifada, focusing during the years of the uprising on relief work and responding to a state of emergency.

This funding continued to correspond to a global agenda as abundant donations for non-governmental and non-partisan labour sector institutions following this wave enabled civil society organisations to compete with and to present an alternative to political parties in shaping the public’s political consciousness.

There is no doubt that the most sought-after group in this process is Palestinian youth.

The danger of 'normalisation'

The discourse of foreign donors varies according to Palestinian geography. In Jerusalem and 1948 Palestine, donors tend towards efforts to impose programmes for peace and coexistence.

In the West Bank and Gaza, there is an attempt to mitigate and dilute the conflict, say by accepting the occupation while trying to improve living conditions.

In the Palestinian diaspora, the tendency is towards realism and hypothetical solutions to the problem of the refugees.

There are plenty of examples to illustrate this, such as the projects provided by Christian Aid and the Danish organisation DanChurchAid to a number of Palestinian institutions that claim to focus on the Right of Return and citizenship and refugee rights.

The goal of these projects is to sell young Palestinian refugees the concept of "normalisation", under the pretext of imagining and dreaming of return, in partnership with Israeli institutions and activists that are not necessarily anti-Zionist.

It remains to be said that we ought to be careful not to assimilate notions that serve Western, non-national agendas and to reject "normalisation" projects. We should build civil society organizations whose bedrock is a Palestinian youth committed to the national cause, not distracted from it.