Playing chess with refugees' lives

Playing chess with refugees' lives
4 min read
03 Apr, 2015
Comment: Governments pledging big donations at conferences are unable to front the cash to match their promises, blighting any chances of success refugees and aid workers may have had.
Donors pledged $5.4 billion at the most recent conference to rebuild Gaza [AFP]

In the headlines this week has been the United Nations' impassioned plea for $8.4 billion in aid for Syrian refugees.

Its envoy warned that without sufficient funding and political will, there would be a "horrifying and dangerous humanitarian catastrophe".

However, it is difficult to read this appeal, issued on the eve of the donors' conference in Kuwait, without grim scepticism.

Historic mistakes

If recent history teaches any lessons, these donors' conferences are more show than substance.

It was only six months ago that, at another donors' conference held in Cairo, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sounded a similar alarm.

This time it was about the 1.8 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. "Gaza remains a tinderbox," Ki-moon said. "The people desperately need to see results in their daily lives."

Delegates representing some 50 nations and 20 regional and international organisations pledged $5.4 billion in response.

For reasons never publicised or explained, half of the amount for Gaza was earmarked for Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority.

Egypt, Israel and the United States have all decided that the PA should be the governing power, regardless of what the residents want.  

Today, nearly seven months later, only five to ten percent of the pledged money has been released, and the delivery of construction materials into Gaza is even further behind.

According to the ministry of public works and housing in Gaza, less than four percent of the 1.5 million tons of cement needed for reconstruction have gotten into the Strip.

At this rate, it's estimated that it would take more than ten years for all of the targeted homes to be repaired and rebuilt.

In January, the lack of international funding caused the UN Relief & Works Agency to suspend payments to tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza for repairs to their damaged homes.

This is despite the fact that its spokesperson said that people were literally sleeping amongst the rubble and children were dying of hypothermia.

The collective sense of depression and hopelessness among the residents of Gaza is palpable and growing - leading to speculation that another war is only around the corner.

What is at the heart of this abysmal performance of donors and the UN alike? How much of the lack of follow-through on all those grandiose promises is unique to Gaza, and how much is a predictor for what to expect for the millions of Syrian refugees?


The "facts on the ground" in Gaza are not conforming to the playbook dictated by the neo-colonial powers.

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority are not in control of Gaza, and there is no sign that Fatah (the ruling party in the PA) and Hamas are anywhere close to operating a unity government - in spirit let alone name.

In other words, the people of Gaza - 64 percent of whom are under the age of 25 - are being held hostage in a high-stakes political chess game.

If relief is really the motivation behind the donations, the working government and existing civil society institutions should be acknowledged and enlisted - not ignored in some kind of regime-change power play.

No matter what the population in question, donor conferences are typically more show than substance.

In The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster, Jonathan Katz wrote: "It is a rule of donors' conferences that pledges are not typically delivered."

Katz said that huge pledges are announced by foreign ministries, such as the US state department. But then they need to be approved domestically by lawmakers who are less interested in diplomatic heroics and more about keeping the money at home.

There is, he says, the "sleight of hand" that goes into pledging:

"One beloved donor tactic is to pledge money already allocated for an existing project. Another is to count debt forgiveness as part of pledged funds. And then there's the fact that once the enthusiasm abates, the donors just simply move on to other things."

If that is the case, it is time for the media to do their job and hold them to account, which means following the story throughout the months that follow, not just on the day of glittery promises.

There are too many individuals at stake - human lives behind the numbers - not to get this right.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.