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International Aid System and Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 08.08.2008:

Does the International Aid System Violate Palestinians’ Rights?

By Dalia Association

Self-determination is a fundamental principle of international lawi 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 the realisation of these rights 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. Whereas 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 more than 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.ii

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 to request and receive aid in times of armed conflict.iii 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 to 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) emphasises 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 emphasise 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.”iv

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.”v International law recognises that all states have a positive obligation to help others gain their right to self-determination, including economic development, which leads to economic independence.

Realising the importance of economic independence in the context of decolonisation, 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….”vi

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 recognises 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.”vii

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 concerning 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.viii 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,ix signed by major donor countries and organisations, 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 states that “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 states, “Aid terms must be fairly and transparently negotiated with participation of and accountability to poor people.”x

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 marginalised citizens are often poorly represented. Civil society organisations have emerged to speak up for those with less power. As long as civil society actors are not fully respected and included as development actors, the grassroots and marginalised citizens they represent will be even further excluded.xi

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.xii 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 often 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.

Dalia Association advocates for changes in the international aid system using constructive engagement with donors and donor agents, and by assisting Palestinian civil society organisations to claim their rights from their funders. More importantly, Dalia Association aims to decrease civil society’s dependence on international aid by creating alternative sources of funding, including a permanent endowment, income-generating activities, diaspora engagement, volunteerism, and local philanthropy.

Dalia Association was founded by members of the Palestinian community from the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Gaza Strip, Israel, and the diaspora. We are diverse in terms of religion, gender, age, and politics, yet we are united by our commitment to mobilise, invest, and distribute resources according to local Palestinian priorities using community-based decision making.

Dalia Association uses the following means in order to achieve this.

Link people who have resources – expertise, ideas, contacts, equipment, money, and other assets – with community activists who need those resources to serve their communities.

Fund hopeful, inspirational, and sustainable civil society initiatives, including community efforts that only need a small grant to supplement their local resources. A permanent endowment will be built over time to ensure sustainable income for current and future generations.

Involve people of all kinds in expanding traditions of philanthropy, volunteerism, and working together to strengthen the Palestinian social fabric.

Advocate for an international aid system that respects and responds to local priorities.

As the first Palestinian community foundation, Dalia Association seeks to mobilise the abundant resources of the worldwide Palestinian community and its friends – resources such as steadfastness, traditions, creativity, faith, expertise, and money – and facilitate community-based decision making about how these resources should be used. In this way, we all become donors and we all become beneficiaries.

As an endowed community foundation, Dalia will provide an independent, sustainable source of funds with transparent and accountable mechanisms for local control and a vibrant community organisation in which Palestinians can themselves be donors and implementers of their own social change and sustainable development agenda. In this way, we promote sustainability of Palestinian civil society and its institutions.

Further, we are determined to help shape a dynamic and relevant civil society that is accountable to the people. We will develop new traditions of secular philanthropy and social responsibility alongside Islamic and Christian giving. We will re-inspire volunteerism not driven by factional politics, and re-inspire people’s hope and trust in self-initiative.

We welcome participation of all kinds, including financial support. For more information about Dalia Association, visit or contact Nora Lester Murad at or 0598-248-807 (English) or Saeeda Mousa at or 0599-734-357 (Arabic).

i United Nations Charter, Article 1(2), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Part I, Article I; United Nations International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Part I, Article I.

ii See “Concept Paper” available at

iii Article 30, Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilians in Time of War, 1949.

iv See

v Declaration Regarding Non-Self-Governing Territories, Chapter XI, Article 73, UN Charter (1945).

vi UNGA 1803 of 1962, available at

vii Ibid.

viii “Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament and the Council: Towards a European Consensus on Humanitarian Aid. SEC(2007) 781 and 781, dated 13 June 2007. See also “Principles of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement” and “NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes” (1994) and the SPHERE “Humanitarian Charter” and Minimum Standards.

ix Full text available at,2340,en_2649_3236398_35401554_1_1_1_1,00.html.

x “Turning the Tables: Aid and Accountability Under the Paris Framework” (available at

xi “Better Aid: A civil society position paper for the 2008 Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness” (available at &Itemid=1).

xii “Principles for Good International Engagement in Fragile States & Situations” (available by searching at

This Week in Palestine

August 2008

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