Nora Murad at Aida Refugee Camp in the West Bank

Nora Lester Murad, PhD
Jerusalem, Palestine

Even well-meaning individuals sometimes fail to ‘get’ how certain ways of giving can entrench rather than challenge the power imbalance between givers and receivers.”

Palestinian women sometimes respond to international feminist critiques with a rhetorical question: “Why would I want equal rights with my husband when he has no rights?” It is a provocative question. It is based on a belief that is common in Palestine and elsewhere: Women’s struggles are intimately intertwined with struggles for national self-determination, human rights for all, and peace.

Dalia Association approaches self-determination from a unique vantage point. We target the right to self-determination in development. By this we mean that each community has the right to democratically and inclusively decide its own values and priorities and the processes it wants to use to pursue its own ambitions.

Nothing is more fundamental to leading your own development than having control over how resources are used on your behalf. Unfortunately, this right is commonly disrespected – not only by Israel, but also by donor countries (e.g., U.S., European countries, other Western donor countries, Arab and southern donor countries). Even well-meaning people sometimes fail to “get” how certain ways of giving can entrench rather than challenge the power imbalance between givers and receivers.

For example, while a donating country or NGO may think food is important, and while transfers of food to poor populations may alleviate hunger in real terms, this approach risks harming the very people they seek to help. This harm may be: 1) undermining local farmers’ ability to sell food because food aid is imported and distributed for free; 2) denying local people the right to decide if what they want is food, rather than water, medicine, or any other need (not to mention being able to choose the kind of food they want to eat); 3) distracting local and international attention away from the political causes of hunger to charitable responses to the symptoms; and 4) focusing attention on local people’s deficits (e.g., hunger) rather than their assets (e.g., local people’s ability to grow and distribute food, make decisions, be leaders of their own development).

Nora Morad with Olive Farmer in the West Bank village Saffa

Perhaps it sounds ungrateful or unreasonable to complain about aid, which is intended to be helpful, even if the system is imperfect. But the system is more than imperfect, it is broken. Look at the evidence: Peoples who receive aid over long periods tend to remain poor, dependent, and conflict-ridden. This isn’t in spite of aid, but, in many cases, because of the way that aid is administered: in the interests of the givers, not the receivers.

The answer can’t simply be a halt to international aid. People would die. Conflicts would worsen. There must be a combination of dramatic reforms to the international aid system and building alternatives to aid, including local, diaspora, and private sector philanthropy. One innovation in this area is the community foundation, a local organization that focuses on resource mobilization. Dalia Association is Palestine’s first and only community foundation.

Resources (not just money) that Dalia mobilizes do not “belong” to Dalia. They belong to the Palestinian community. Dalia holds them in trust for the community and facilitates transparent, democratic processes to enable communities to decide how they wish to use their development resources. The process ensures that all segments of the community – various political perspectives, faith groups, all ages, rural and urban, and various educational backgrounds – work together peacefully towards objectives they define together. In some communities, working across lines of difference is the most transformational aspect.  And the role of women in these processes is always key.

In Dalia Association’s grantmaking programs, “Women Supporting Women” and “The Village Decides,” women have actual power to decide how resources are used. Small grants are unrestricted, and they come with real support and assistance by other grantees and Dalia Association. Women’s groups that receive grants have the power to implement their own development initiatives the way they want to. Of course, power is accompanied by accountability. Women are accountable to one another as peers, to the women and others they serve with their community activism, and to the larger Palestinian population on whose behalf they have accepted to receive grants. They are also accountable to Dalia Association and the original donor of funds (international or local) through formal mechanisms, but often this is secondary. Where there is transparency and strong local accountability, reports and financial statements often do not add much.

Women’s contributions are not confined to the grantmaking programs. Women are central in Dalia Association’s advocacy to reform international aid. Recently, hundreds of grassroots civil society activists – including women’s leaders – articulated their complaints about the international aid system and made recommendations for reform.

Women are also central to Dalia Association’s work in philanthropy development. Women give. They mobilize others to give. They contribute to increasing trust in the systems that support people to give.

So, although we may not see peace in Palestine in the short term, the long term has great potential. Palestinians are mobilizing to realize their right to self-determination in development, and holding donors and one another accountable for the effective use of resources. They are taking leadership of their own development agenda, including mobilizing the resources to make their work sustainable. It will certainly take time, and genuine international support is much needed in the meantime, but there is no doubt that Palestinians, led by women, are strong enough to see the process through.