Re-inventing European aid to Palestine

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Over the past 20 years, the donor community has invested more than $24 billion into “peace and development” in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), making Palestinians one of the highest per capita recipients of non-military aid in the world. Multilateral and bilateral European aid has constituted the major bulk of this aid. However, despite its short-term “successes”, this aid has failed to achieve its three main objectives: lasting peace, effective and accountable Palestinian institutions, and sustainable socio-economic development. Critics argue that this aid was “as much aid to Israel as it was to Palestinians”. Could it be, then, that European taxpayers’ money has effectively subsidised the Israeli military occupation of Palestine?

Contrasting aid disbursements with the socio-economic indicators of the Palestinians reflects the aid-development dilemma. The failure of aid can be attributed to a number of reasons, including: the economic framework dictated by the Oslo Peace Accords; the World Bank’s “Investment in Peace”paradigm for economic development; the “peace dividends” and “economic peace” approaches; the post-Washington Consensus neoliberal economic agenda adopted by all actors in the Palestinian aid industry; and, finally, the inability and unwillingness of influential actors such as the European Union to address the root causes of the cycles of de-development in the OPTs.

European policy makers and taxpayers should know by now that their aid has deprived the Palestinian economy of its transformative potential, which has deepened its dependence on the Israeli economy. If the EU supports Palestinian self-determination, then the it must acknowledge that the development process is not a technocratic, apolitical, and neutral one but rather a process that has to recognise the structures of power and relations of colonial dominance by linking development to Palestinians’ struggle for rights and the imperative to resist everything that challenges those rights.

Along these lines, a number of critical voices within Palestinian civil society have been offering viable alternatives that would help to reverse the cycles of de-development. For example, Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network has released a series of publications over the last few years that argue for the establishment of an economy of resistance and steadfastness, which follows a bottom-up and participatory development model. The idea here is to “focus donors on ways to counter dispossession, keep Palestinians on their land, and challenge Israel's occupation policies and practices without forfeiting the ability to function in the OPTs”, Nadia Hijab, Jeremy Wildeman, and I argue in Foreign Policy. We propose that donors consider the following: promote self-reliance in basic foods and reverse the decline of the agricultural sector; support co-operatives and local economic enterprises; and assist sectors such as IT that could break through the barriers Israel has erected around the Palestinian economy.

Moving on from its long-time role of “peace-process” financier to become an influential player is not the most convenient shift for the EU. However, this shift is the only option to pursue if the EU is genuinely concerned about justice in the Middle East. Borrowing from Dimitris Bouris and Nathan Brown, this shift means that it is not only Europe’s wallet that is attractive, but also its energy and ideas. Inducing such a dramatic shift in the EU’s role requires it to reformulate its politics before its aid regime and approach to intervention in this issue. After all, aid will never buy peace, just as economy will never buy politics.

The EU should not only stand for its normative values but also be honest to itself and to all actors with skin in the game. Its “off-the-record” discussions and decisions must lead to actions that help to overcome the hypocrisy and contradictions that have been inherent in its approach to the Palestinian-Israeli issue since the beginning. EU policy makers must be puzzled by the conventional wisdom of the aid-development industry and state-building venture that has created and entrenched the following pattern: “the US decides, the World Bank leads, the EU pays, the UN feeds, and Israel destroys”. Changing this equation must be the EU’s top priority. The EU, its members, and its officials know very well what they need to do and perhaps how. The question remains if and when they will act.

Alaa Tartir is the programme director for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and a researcher for the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. His blog post is the result of an event on the Middle East Peace Process recently co-hosted by ECFR and the London School of Economics. This post also appears on the LSE's MEC blog.

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