Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA’s Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor in the Middle East, Matt Hilton, explores the frustrations of aid projects in the highly insecure and politicised environment of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Poverty is not written in the stars; underdevelopment is not one of God’s mysterious designs
Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA knows that poverty is political. It is not a natural state or simply bad luck. Poverty is created. Our challenge is to work with people and their communities to identify how they are kept poor and how to create change. We can provide direct assistance to support local organisations to implement their own programs. But money is not the only issue. Poverty is created through politics and by inequities of power. Our work with those in the global South therefore cannot just be about aid, it also needs to be complemented by practical solidarity - by campaigning, awareness raising, advocacy, and exchange of learning.
The situation here in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) is intensely political. The development issues here are not straightforward and are caught in the ever-present context of the Israeli occupation and its resulting restrictions on movement, land, water, construction, markets, education and health.
This context of the Israeli occupation challenges our very notion of what NGOs and international aid can do in such environments of insecurity. Gains made can so easily be destroyed by arbitrary decisions - in fact there is a real open question about whether aid should be needed here at all if Palestine were allowed to be free. Recent estimates suggesting that the occupation costs the Palestinian economy $6.9 billion a year in lost opportunities, a figure that far dwarfs official development assistance from countries like Australia.
Aid and politics cannot be separated, evident in the frequent attacks on aid to Palestinians from conservatives and pro-Israel spokespeople in the Australian media and in politics. What is needed is a dual approach to working with people to improve their lives; to work with communities the context of the occupation but to work to ensure that the factors create poverty are removed.
APHEDA has a long term commitment to working in the Occupied Palestinian Territories with programs in the West Bank and Gaza, and with Palestinian refugees in Lebanon since our founding more than 25 years ago. One current project, funded by the Australian Government agency, AusAID, is a food security project in villages in the Tulkarem district of the West Bank and the Khan Younis district in the southern Gaza Strip with the MA’AN Development Centre. MA’AN is one of the strongest and most vibrant secular and politically independent national organisations in Palestinian civil society today, with a holistic approach to development, politics and a special focus on the environment and human rights. We have a long relationship stretching back to 1989.
This project is working with farmers to boost their agricultural production, utilise organic methods, save water, increase incomes and ultimately build household and community resilience in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Implementing a coherent project across these two regions is difficult. But it is incredibly important to try and prevent the slow slide towards thinking of the Gaza Strip as different to the West Bank. Any future Palestinian state, however it may come about, must include both areas, which are currently geographically non-contiguous. MA’AN organises monthly videoconferencing with all staff in both offices to maintain continuity as travel between the two areas requires permits from Israel which are rarely granted. For example the MA’AN project manager has not been able to visit the Gaza Strip since the project began three years ago.
So who am I? I have been sent here for a few months to assist and advise on the monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of the program. Whilst it is tempting to slip into ‘aid speak’, M&E is essentially a simple concept – it is the process of ensuring the project is on track along with continuous reflection and adjustment (monitoring) as well as taking stock of the project at certain points to look at what has been achieved, what has been done well and what needs to be improved (evaluation). We focus on assessing the real impacts of the project on the lives of participants and their communities.
My first visit from Ramallah to the project area villages was an eye opener. To simply leave Ramallah, I had to pass through Israeli military checkpoints and show my passport – this confused me as I thought we were in the West Bank and ‘in Palestine’. My colleagues soon set me straight that in fact Area A (under Palestinian civil administration) only amounted to several disjointed and small urban islands of partial sovereignty. The vast majority of the West Bank (82%) is still fully or partially controlled by the Israeli military. Even in Area A, the Israeli army frequently enters to arrest people under ‘administrative detention’, described by Amnesty International as “a form of detention without charge or trial. Its use may result in arbitrary detention and if prolonged or repeated, can amount to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment”.
Driving north to the Tulkarem district, my education continued. Illegal Israeli settlements dotted the landscape, often at the top of the mountainous West Bank terrain. I knew about settlements but was shocked by how many there were and what they looked like – essentially like uniform housing developments you might see in the frontier developments on Sydney’s fringes, except ringed by barbed wire fences and fortifications. As we drive between these hills, the telegraph posts are covered in Israeli flags whilst Israeli police and military vehicles patrol up and down.
Soon enough, we arrive in Al-Khafriyat region of Tulkarem and take a cup of tea with local farmers. These farmers are skilled, experienced, hardworking and have been farming the land for generations, evident from the thick trunks of centuries old olive trees. So why are APHEDA and MA’AN working on a food security project in a land that has been producing food for thousands of years? The answer goes back to the illegal settlements and the issue of land confiscation. When a settlement is built in the West Bank by Israel, it does not happen in a bubble – settlements after all need to be built somewhere. And for these farmers this has meant constant confiscation of their best agricultural lands and water sources by Israel to construct both the settlements themselves as well as the buffer zones, with absolutely no compensation. Previously fertile and productive lands lie barren and unused on the other side of the barbed wire fence, within sight of their owners.This is also true of the Separation Wall which is now ten years old. More than a tenth of Palestinian land, (based on the 1949 border) has been ‘annexed’ behind the wall which has cut off many farmers from their traditional lands.
This region has also historically had close economic and social connections with neighbouring villages and towns in Israel. With the tightening restrictions on Palestinian access to Israeli labour markets following the Second Intifada (2000), the region has faced rapid increases in unemployment – in official figures quadrupling to 25% by 2008. Baseline surveying revealed that almost 80% of Palestinian households were living under the absolute poverty line and more than one third of families had exhausted their coping strategies, typically selling land, jewellery and buying food on credit. Many workers have now returned to their land to escape unemployment and to provide for their families.
The economic constraints of the Israeli occupation and blockade, and the loss of farm lands and water sources, are even more acute in Gaza, where 1.6 million people, half of them children, live in poverty greater than in the West Bank.
In light of the daily challenges of the people, the project seeks to build food security among insecurity. Our strategy is to work to boost food production at the household level as well building the capacity of local community-based organisations that will remain in the community long after our project has finished. A key part is making investments in agricultural infrastructure, including irrigation systems, land rehabilitation and greenhouse construction. Next year, the project will begin building a modest length of agricultural roads to facilitate farmer access to their fields. We are working with farmers to utilise whatever land they have left – increasingly on land that was considered marginal, such as steep and rocky slopes. We also work with poor women to diversify their livelihoods and generate independent income through training, such as in organic farming or beekeeping.
And our results speak for themselves – our statistics show that women pariticipants in this area have increased their incomes by an average of 25.6%. This region now has an additional 10,500m3 of rainwater harvesting capacity by increasing the number of ground-water cisterns by 28%. Across the Gaza Strip and West Bank, we have constructed more than 316 greenhouses and distributed 480 beehives. We have increased the amount of total agricultural land in use by our farmers by almost 4% in the Al-Khafriyat municipality and more than 7% in the Khan Younis district in the Gaza Strip.
But the way the Israeli occupation obstructs development is very frustrating. For example, just last month it was announced that the Ariel settlement we passed on the way in to Tulkarem, will expand again and will confiscate even more land from the Palestinian villages. This will further impoverish farmers and make them more dependent on aid. Our project tries to build strong community resources and give households economic and agricultural opportunities, but it is difficult knowing that such gains are so tenuous.
We choose to work with communities to articulate their own responses to this insecurity and I am convinced our project is increasing the food security, self-reliance and resilience of communities. But ultimately, building food security here won’t remove the forces that keep people poor when those gains are so fragile in the context of the occupation. There needs to be a political solution that involves justice for the Palestinians, free access to their land and natural resources and the right to earn their own livelihoods.
That is why fighting poverty can’t just be about aid money. Practical solidarity, such as our project building resilience, must be accompanied with advocacy, education and a commitment to combating the forces that keep people poor and vulnerable.