Does the International Aid System Violate Palestinians’ Rights?

“Self-determination” is a fundamental principle of international law that enshrines the rights of individuals and peoples to freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development, and the obligation of all States to respect and promote realization of this right in conformity with the provisions of the UN Charter. For the Palestinian people, the lack of statehood, continued military occupation, and dispossession are key obstacles to self-determination. A less obvious obstacle to Palestinian self-determination is the international aid system itself.

Palestinians in the occupied territory are the largest per capita (not absolute) recipients of international aid, but despite the billions of dollars spent, “development” has not resulted. While the 60-year long conflict with Israel is the obvious source of the problem, the international aid system is exacerbating hopelessness and helplessness by objectifying beneficiaries and making them feel like beggars. Palestinians’ lack of control over nearly all aspects of their lives—including how resources are used on their behalf—contradicts all enabling factors for health, democracy, sustainable development and non-violent social change.

Dalia Association, the first Palestinian “community foundation” was established in 2007 after founders conducted over 150 interviews with Palestinian civil society activists, development professionals, and philanthropy experts. We found that governmental donors’ well-funded agendas are suffocating indigenous leadership, local initiative, and self-reliance. Palestinian civil society has lost credibility and impact through its dependence on international aid. Many Palestinian NGOs have become accountable to donors and alienated from the grassroots. Volunteerism, once vibrant, has given way to passivity as millions of people have come to rely on food aid, free shelter, and handouts. In other words, our research found that the international aid system disempowers Palestinians and denies their right to self-determination in the development process.

Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory receive aid on the basis of two entitlements. First, they receive humanitarian assistance rendered necessary as a result of the continued military occupation. The Fourth Geneva Convention affirms the right of civilians in times of armed conflict to request and receive aid. This right is based on the broader obligation on states to respect and ensure respect for the right to life of all individuals in a conflict area, including the right to live as normal a life as possible and have their vital services and facilities protected from harm.

Second, Palestinians receive international development aid on the basis of their right to development. The Declaration on the Right to Development (1986) emphasizes that "the right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all peoples are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized." Significantly, it goes on to emphasize the right to popular participation in development.

Following the adoption of the Declaration, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights explained that the right to development imposes obligations both on individual States - to ensure equal and adequate access to essential resources - and on the international community as a whole- to promote fair development policies and effective international cooperation” (emphasis added). At the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, these principles were reaffirmed by the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, which is based on the idea that “Democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing. Democracy is based on the freely expressed will of the people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.

Other agreements in international law also address the manner in which aid is to be given. For example, the UN Charter grants all peoples who have not yet gained independence, including Palestinians, the right to receive aid that “…recognize(s) the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount, and accept(s) as a sacred trust the obligation to promote to the utmost, within the system of international peace and security…the well-being of the inhabitants of these territories.” International law recognizes that all states have a positive obligation to help others gain their right to self-determination, including economic development that leads to economic independence.

Realizing the importance of economic independence in the context of decolonization, the UN General Assembly in 1962 adopted Resolution 1803 concerning the permanent sovereignty over natural resources. This resolution clarifies that the rights of developing countries extend beyond “aid” to other mechanisms of international cooperation. It considers “…that it is desirable to promote international co-operation for the economic development of developing countries, and that economic and financial agreements between the developed and the developing countries must be based on the principles of equality and of the right of peoples and nations to self-determination…” and “that the provision of economic and technical assistance, loans and increased foreign investment must not be subject to conditions which conflict with the interests of the recipient State….”

UN General Assembly Resolution 1803 (1962) further states: “International co-operation for the economic development of developing countries, whether in the form of public or private capital investments, exchange of goods and services, technical assistance, or exchange of scientific information, shall be such as to further their independent national development and shall be based upon respect for their sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources.” It recognizes that “Violation of the rights of peoples and nations to sovereignty over their natural wealth and resources is contrary to the spirit and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and hinders the development of international co-operation and the maintenance of peace.”

Critics argue, however, that the international aid system has developed primarily to serve donors’ political and bureaucratic interests rather than serving the rights and needs of beneficiaries. They say that regardless of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and refugee law, and regardless of the good intentions of many individuals inside the system, the international aid system actually undermines local leadership, local agendas, grassroots participation, and the dignity that comes with self-reliance, responsibility, and equality. It does so by putting decisions over how resources are used into the hands of non-locals, applying standards of transparency and accountability to local actors that are not applied to donors and their agents, ignoring local circumstances (including the challenges of working under occupation), and failing to implement donors’ own principles and guidelines about professionalism and good donorship. Dalia Association’s own research found, for example, that donors’ procedural requirements (e.g., applications in English, financial reporting in donors’ accounting software, certain procurement rules) often disqualify a majority of civil society applicants, and those that do apply and are funded spend far more time, effort and money servicing donors than they do serving their constituencies.

Recently, some attention is starting to be paid to the ways that the international aid system must change to promote participation of beneficiaries. For example, the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, signed by major donor countries and organizations, describes several key elements of “effective aid” including “ownership,” “alignment” and “mutual accountability.” However, since the Declaration was published, progress has been less than satisfactory. A recent watchdog report based on civil society critiques of the Paris Declaration concluded, “Donors remain reluctant to make pledges which limit the control they enjoy through holding the purse-strings of aid payments. There are still very few examples of contractual arrangements for aid which correspond with the goal of mutual accountability between donors and recipients.” Among other recommendations, it says, “Donors must respect recipient country ownership of the development process,” and “Donors must greatly improve the predictability of their aid and deliver it in ways that help build national systems.” It also says, “Aid terms must be fairly and transparently negotiated with participation of and accountability to poor people.”

Unfortunately, real, equal participation in aid-funded development by civil society lags even farther behind that of governments. Even in well-functioning democratic societies, the needs of grassroots and marginalized citizens are often poorly represented. Civil society organizations have emerged to speak up for those will less power. As long as civil society actors are not fully respected and included as development actors, the grassroots and marginalized citizens they represent will be even further excluded.

There are other agreements, codes and standards of practice that oblige donors and other actors in the aid system to improve practices in response to beneficiaries’ rights, for example, the Sphere Project and the “International Non-Governmental Organizations Accountability Charter.” Also, in 2005, donors convened high-level discussions that resulted in the “Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States,” in which they committed to: 1. Take context as the starting point; 2. Do no harm; 3. Focus on state-building as the central objective; 4. Prioritise prevention; 5. Recognise the links between political, security and development objectives; 6. Promote non-discrimination as a basis for inclusive and stable societies; 7. Align with local priorities in different ways in different contexts; 8. Agree on practical coordination mechanisms between international actors; 9. Act fast … but stay engaged long enough to give success a chance; 10. Avoid pockets of exclusion. However, “Principles,” Declarations, and “Guidelines” are inadequate if not accompanied by appropriate enforcement mechanisms. Ideally, such mechanisms would enable victims of donor-wrongdoing to claim and receive compensation.

In sum, many of these efforts at aid reform, even if well-intentioned, have had limited impact because donors have mostly failed to comply both with their legal obligations stemming from the right to self-determination and the right to development, as well as their self-proclaimed practice guidelines. Unfortunately, there has also been a lack of grassroots and civil society efforts to hold donors and other aid actors accountable. Rights cannot be merely granted, they must be claimed. It is time for Palestinians to claim their right to participate fully and equally in controlling how resources are used on their own behalf.