The article first appeared in The Hill’s Congress Blog.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Youzzeffi announced a donation of $50,000 for the reconstruction of Gaza’s schools. That was in October, in the wake of Israel’s summer assault that affected some 113,500 homes in addition to schools, public buildings, hospitals, utilities and other essential infrastructure.
As part of an investigation into Palestine’s broken aid system, I set about tracking down where Malala’s money is. One month later, I have few answers and my list of questions is growing. UNRWA, the agency responsible for Palestinian refugees and the recipient of Malala’s donation, could not tell me when anticipated repairs would commence or if Israel’s complex restrictions on importation of cement and other building supplies would affect the timeline. It is already nearly four months since the ceasefire agreement, and two months since the donation was made.
I had expected to find out that a portion of Malala’s contribution would go to high overhead costs and that some would be pocketed by Israel in the form of import taxes, security fees, and corporate profits. I did not expect to be unable to get reliable information.
Problems with transparency and accountability are not unique to any one agency. Rather, it is a consequence of an entire aid system that has an interest in protecting itself from scrutiny to avoid being exposed as complicit in the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.
US taxpayers give more than $400 million of their hard-earned money to Palestine annually. This supports dozens of aid organizations with noble mandates. But most US taxpayers would be saddened to learn that assistance delivered through the aid system may sometimes do more harm than good.
Off the record, everyone admits that real development in Gaza requires the siege to end and the occupation to cease. But why would Israel end the occupation when it’s so profitable? International donors pay to fulfill obligations that Israel has under International Humanitarian Law, and when Israel destroys donor-funded projects, the donors build again.
Instead of exerting political and economic pressure on Israel to recognize Palestinian rights, international governments offer aid to Palestinians as a sort of “consolation prize.” Then, when Israel makes the provision of aid difficult, the aid actors again fail to stand up for Palestinian rights. In trying to find ways around Israel’s siege, aid may actually entrench it further.
Rather than pointing the finger at particular aid agencies, the taxpayers in whose name aid is being given must demand accountability not only in terms of budget sheets but also in terms of impact.
This is not to say we should expect a quick fix. The urge for simple answers and fast spending is part of the problem. Our objective should not be to simply provide Palestinians with new schools. What we must demand is a bold plan that sees aid disentangled from Israel’s regime of siege and occupation. Rather than merely providing a stopgap until the next bombardment, the process of rebuilding must respect Palestinian rights. Moreover, the aid system must serve the interests of Palestinians in ways that are accountable to Palestinians, taxpayers around the world, and other stakeholders.
Aid actors have a hard job to do. They work in a highly politicized environment, with tremendous security risks, and often without political support from governments. Yet they are legally obligated as duty bearers and by ethical mandates that they must uphold, even in situations like Palestine where “pragmatism” suggests they compromise in order to deliver aid. By accepting billions of dollars in trust for the Palestinian people, aid actors agree to be held to these high standards.
If Malala really wants to help Gaza, she may want to do more than just give money. She may want to ask where it is. Asking for accountability doesn’t show lack of trust, nor does it undermine aid actors’ ability to perform. Asking for accountability is a way of ensuring that international aid doesn’t just do the best it can within a broken system, but that systems be built to ensure that aid actually helps not hurts.
An update from UNRWA posted March 23, 2015: http://www.unrwa.org/newsroom/press-releases/unrwa-reopens-school-khuza%E2%80%99-gaza