Palestine has scarce resources to face the enormous challenges in a
struggle that has now continued for over five decades. Operating
with a scarcity of resources is true of our Palestinian Authority (PA),
the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), the non-governmental
organizations (NGO's) that make up civil society, and our local and
national institutions. For this reason, it is imperative that all
available resources be mobilized in efforts that have the greatest
potential political, social and community return.
Like many others during the last three weeks, I have watched with
growing interest the increasing number of signatories to the
Palestinian petition calling for the boycott of all US financial and
material support, in particular USAID support. The petition started
with a small newspaper ad of 12 names, then grew to 25, then 39,
until now it assumes three quarters of a page in the daily newspaper
and lists over 504 proud signatories. Part of my interest in this issue
is my respect for many of the individuals and institutions that have
signed on to the boycott.
The terror and physical destruction that has been wrought daily by
Israel under the political and diplomatic cover of the US naturally
forces us to reevaluate how we deal with the US at all levels.
Although I can fully understand the refugees of the Jenin Refugee
Camp or the residents of the Old City of Nablus rejecting USAID-
supplied food and blanket relief handouts only days after US made
and supplied helicopter gunships, bulldozers and M16's were used by
Israel to raze our communities, what I fail to fully comprehend is the
growing number of Palestinian political factions, personalities and
non-governmental organizations joining the understandable popular
outrage at US support by calling for a boycott of all US assistance.
Such a symbolic protest against US complicity in the Israeli
occupation will not bring this occupation a moment closer to ending.
First, let's understand the origins and goals of USAID. This is how
the USAID website explains it:
"The 1961 reorganization of America's foreign aid programs resulted
from an increasing dissatisfaction with the foreign assistance
structures that had evolved from the days of the Marshall Plan, to
which USAID and U.S. foreign assistance policy traces its roots.
By the end of World War II, Europe had suffered substantial loses,
physically and economically. Responding to Europe's calls for help,
the international community established the International Monetary
Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and
Development (the World Bank) on December 27, 1945. On April 2,
1948, through the enactment of the Economic Cooperation Act, the
United States responded by creating the Marshall Plan. While the
IMF and the World Bank were created as permanent institutions, the
goal of the Marshall Plan was specific: To stabilize Europe, not as a
permanent program for European recovery but as an emergency tool
On September 4, 1961, the Congress passed the Foreign Assistance
Act, which reorganized the U.S. foreign assistance programs
including separating military and non-military aid. The Act mandated
the creation of an agency to administer economic assistance
programs, and on November 3, 1961, President John F. Kennedy
established the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
USAID became the first U.S. foreign assistance organization whose
primary emphasis was on long-range economic and social
development assistance efforts. Freed from political and military
functions that plagued its predecessor organizations, USAID was
able to offer direct support to the developing nations of the world."
That, at least, is how USAID defines itself. However, many others
say USAID is an arm of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
This may be absolutely correct. I have no means to prove or
disprove this claim, and at this point in our struggle, I don't think it
really matters. If ten years ago, pre-Oslo, someone would have told
me that the CIA was openly and explicitly involved in our national
development process I would have been knocked off my chair.
Today, however, after our leadership has proceeded, without public
revolt, to negotiate and tirelessly promote the Tenet Plan (a plan
designed by the CIA head himself), and after direct CIA involvement
in building our national security apparatus (again with no public
revolt), it is a bit late to call for a boycott of USAID assistance. Many
times this assistance has brought support and relief to average
citizens. Although foreign meddling, especially American, in our
internal affairs is hard to swallow for all of us, the fact of the matter is
that addressing our organizing and political efforts toward USAID has
as much chance of changing US policy as does boycotting the
excellent Israeli journalist Amira Hass or Israeli activist Neta Golan
to try and change Israeli policy of occupation.
Given that the current call to boycott USAID came after Israel's
Operation Defensive Shield it is interesting to review what USAID's
role was before this latest incursion. Post-Oslo, USAID funded the
following programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip: economic
growth, water resources development, democracy and governance,
maternal/child health, community services, and higher education
program and training. Popular opinion is that USAID projects are
used to infiltrate our society and tilt our political views away from our
national goals. This may be true for some of the funded projects, but
the two largest USAID-funded programs in the Palestinian Authority
over the last six years have been water resources (over $231 million)
and improved community services (over $128 million). An example
of the latter was 55 public buildings and schools that were made
accessible to the handicapped. I see no political return in boycotting
this type of project. Just the opposite, one may argue that the two
Intifada's we faced have left thousands handicapped and thus such a
project is facilitating our handicapped strugglers and ex-prisoners
ability to participate in society.
Another important fact concerns the list of partners that have been
engaged for years with USAID projects, again with no outpour of
institutionalized Palestinian criticism. Reputable organizations like
the Arab Bank, Bank of Jordan, PALTRADE, ANERA, PASSIA,
AMIDEAST and the Arab American University in Jenin among many
others have all been deeply involved with USAID. In addition, the
pool of local partners to some of the international firms - firms such
as Chemonics International, Inc., Deloitte, Touche, Tohmatsu, The
Services Group, Development Alternatives, Inc., CH2Mhill, CARE
International, Save the Children Federation, Price Waterhouse,
Catholic Relief Services, YMCA, UNDP, UNWRA to name only a
few - that have been awarded USAID projects in the Palestinian
areas employ hundreds of Palestinians and offer livelihood to
thousands of Palestinian family members. I can agree, and have
previously said publicly, that some of the contractors could be doing
a better job in defining and managing USAID-funded projects, but
boycotting the funding source only facilitates a further monopolizing
of the process by a handful of firms and does not lend to bringing
better services to the average Palestinian who is in dire need, now
more than ever, of support.
Moreover, and what led me to writing this article, is that the
Palestinian private sector is working with USAID to support the
rebuilding of our destroyed infrastructure and increasing our
development capacity. The Palestinian private sector justifies this
coordination given that all donor countries have agreed that USAID
would organize the donor relief and development funds to the private
sector. This centralized approach to managing donor funds is a
direct result of the quartet committee of the US, UN, EU and Russia.
One may ask, is the Palestinian Authority wrong in giving its blessing
to such a strategy that aims to bypass it? Maybe, but if so, the 500
plus signatories should be calling for the Palestinian Authority to
change political track and not try to stop the funds that will always
find recipients no matter how many sign on to the boycott. The
success of the development of strong indigenous Palestinians
institutions has more to do with the leadership and strategies of
these institutions than with the funding sources, US or otherwise, that
may always attempt to compromise them.
The more relevant discussion is why so many are focused on a
blanket boycott of USAID. What is the goal? If the boycott is a
public denunciation of the US policy following Operation Defensive
Shield to bypass the Palestinian Authority in the disbursement of
relief and development funds, then one would expect the Palestinian
Authority to be leading the boycott. But they are not. Most probably
the PA is aligned with the USAID strategy and activities; otherwise
they would have called for a national boycott themselves. If the
boycott goal is to change US policy then the boycott effort is
targeting the wrong address. USAID is a result of a political policy
and does not, in and of itself, define policy of the US government.
Attempting to redirect US foreign policy without engaging US politics
is a losing endeavor. Refusing USAID funds misdirects the scarce
resources we have. Those resources would be much better utilized
if directed toward building a Palestinian political lobby in Washington
D.C., revamping our entire approach to the media, and mobilizing
our Palestinian Diaspora around the globe into political mechanisms
that generate U.S. foreign policy change.
The individuals and organizations that have signed on to the USAID
boycott would be well advised to look where the money has been
going and learn how to redirect it, if need be. A popular boycott, in
our environment, will not create a political reorientation but will, on
the contrary, only allow more of the same wheeling and dealing. If
international and/or local contractors are designing their
development programs at the behest of USAID, then boycotting
USAID will only further entrench these contractors and their
misaligned programs. On the other hand, if full engagement were
made with USAID, professionally and legally, there would be a better
chance that USAID funds get channeled into Palestinian-defined
priority projects with more accountable contractors.
The following is what was at stake over the last six years:
USAID Program Budget Analysis (1993-2002)
Following the signing of the Oslo accords in September 1993, the
U.S. government provided $375 million between 1993 and 1998
through USAID to implement a program of development in the West
Bank and Gaza.
In 1999, the regular USAID operating year budget was maintained at
$75 million and in 2000 its level increased to $85 million. In 2000,
the U.S. Congress appropriated an additional $400 million to USAID
West Bank and Gaza to facilitate the implementation of the Wye
In 2001, USAID West Bank/Gaza's operating year budget remained
at approximately $85 million. USAID funding for the West Bank and
Gaza between 1993 and 2001 totals approximately $1 billion. Of this
amount, $540 million had been obligated through September 2000
and approximately $460 million will be obligated by September 30,
Using the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Planning and International
Cooperation's (MOPIC) comparative data, the U.S. is, by far, the
highest disbursing bilateral donor in the West Bank and Gaza.
Today, the US government continues to witness a Palestinian
struggle with a non-cohesive strategy with regard to US involvement.
Worse yet, some Palestinians are now content on trying to expose
Palestinian NGO's that have made use of USAID money in their past
work by issuing communiqués condemning those that have (like the
report recently issued regarding PASSIA). This should not be
permitted. Most organizations that have been recipients of USAID
funds are respectable institutions that have no hint of not being
nationalistic or patriotic. It is a shame that they be stained only
because of their funding source.
To apply the logic of the boycott to other funding sources one may
ask, why do we accept Saudi Arabian assistance, Jordanian
assistance, and the like. Have these countries facilitated our
struggle more than the US? Are the governments of these countries
positive factors when we reflect why we are where we are today?
Have we forgotten Black September, the Fez Summit, Camp David
I? Or does our collective memory skip the tragedies of Tel Al Zater,
Jafer Prison, and the attacks on our Palestinian refugee camps in
Lebanon in the 1980's? The fact of the matter is that we don't have
to like entities that provide financial support any more than a
businessman has to like every one of his clients. As long as our
agenda is clear and not jeopardized by any funding source we can
be sure that funding will be made available by those sources that are
really trying to help. We will not need a boycott for those that have
or had a hidden agenda. They will exit our market and society on
USAID is a bureaucracy that needs professionals that know how to
maneuver within it. Prospective Palestinian recipients of USAID
funding, including the Palestinian Authority itself, should hire a
lawyer familiar with the USAID process. Israel and private Israeli
entities do this. Israel has its own attorney negotiating the deals for
them and making sure that the Israeli-defined agenda is not
jeopardized. In the past, countries like Jordan did not do what Israel
did. Jordanian representatives sat and waited outside the regional
office of the USAID Assistant Administrator for Near East South Asia
region, while Israel's lawyer barged in ahead of them. It's how the
game is played. We must reach the political maturity to realize that
we are not selling out if we take funding on our terms. Likewise, if
the Palestinian Authority would engage the community in how best to
utilize foreign aid, it may find that many of the signatories to the
USAID boycott have a significant contribution to make to the process
In today's world of Realpolitik, the name of the game is not
maximizing our national emotional satisfaction but rather having the
strategies, insights and political shrewdness to reach our national
objectives. Changing US policy is not achieved by boycotting
USAID but by creating the political infrastructure that changes policy,
i.e. lobbying, media, and mobilizing money, votes and volunteers.
This is what AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in the US, learned and has
been doing since the 1950's while we have stood by and watched.
We are having this exchange of thoughts while our Palestinian
representative in Washington D.C. was evicted from his office
because the PLO could not pay its office space rent. An alternative
to boycotting USAID would be to make an issue regarding the
crumbs of US aid that we are receiving, given the US's direct
involvement in our continued state of occupation. Also, we should
be building the institutional capacity that would enable less reliance
on foreign contractors to manage the aid that we do receive.
We can continue to appease our emotions or we can engage in
politics. The choice is ours.
May 20, 2002
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American businessman living in the
besieged Palestinian City of Al-Bireh/Ramallah in the West Bank and
may be reached at email@example.com. He has no vested interest
in USAID or USAID-funded projects.
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