Building Food Security Amongst Insecurity in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

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.

Our project  promotes food security at a household level

Poverty is not written in the stars; underdevelopment is not one of God’s mysterious designs

Eduardo Galeano

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.

Restrictions on movement restrict civil society and exchanges of ideas. The project convenes roundtables to bring together local and grassroots organisations

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.

Building agricultural infrastructure is essential to restoring the Palestinian economy

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.

World Refugee Day 2012 – Educating Future Leaders On The Thai Burma Border

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA Thai Burma Border Project Officer, Zoë Bedford, explains why she is so passionate about working with Burmese refugees at the School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY).

The students at SSSNY are adult students. They have come from arduous environments – some have lived for a time in Thailand as migrant workers, some are new to Thailand having just come out of Shan State for the program. They are a mix of young men and young women from 18 to their mid 20s. Continue reading

Umpiem Mai Refugee Camp Fire Recovery

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA project officer, Zoë Bedford, blogs about the Umpiem Mai refugee camp fire and how donated funds are being used to aid the recovery process.

I distinctly remember the moment I received the phone call on Thursday 23rd February 2012 telling me that there was a fire raging out of control in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp on the Thai Burma border. My blood went cold and I immediately thought the worst – that there would be a large loss of life. Thankfully that was not the case, however, the loss of people’s homes and property  – people who have already experienced loss when forced to become refugees – is extremely concerning.

Rebuilding starts in the Umpiem Mai refugee camp, Thai Burma border.

Image left: The aftermath of the fire. Image right: Families start to return to the site of their original home and are living under plastic tarpaulins and other salvaged materials. The families have assisted in cleaning up the debris and re-stabilizing the soil in preparation for rebuilding.

As the Thai Burma border project officer, I have been to the Umpiem Mai refugee camp and the other camps that house the more than 160,000 Burmese refugees living on the border between Thailand and Burma. Each camp has its own character, but in many ways they are so very similar. Two of these similarities are devastating should a fire break out. Continue reading

International Women’s Day 2012: Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty

On March 8 each year, communities around the world stop to reflect on the role of women in our societies, the ongoing inequalities that exist and strategies to overcome them.

Women continue to bear the brunt of global poverty and are estimated to make up around 70% of the world’s poor. With the majority of the world’s poor living in rural areas, rural women are clearly one of the most disadvantaged groups in the world. In rural areas, women do the majority of work as well as carry the burden of caring responsibilities for both young and old. Rural areas are also often where jobs, services and opportunities fail to materialise, where exploitation of people and the environment take place – exploitation which, ironically, the rapidly developing cities of the world depend on.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA and our partners see this every day, contrasting the bustling markets and shiny new buildings in the urban areas of the countries we work in with the reality of rural subsistence life – often separated by only a matter of kilometres.  There is, of course, a class dimension to this, with poor and rural women suffering what is sometimes called ‘structural’ violence – the impacts of a self-perpetuating societal system that oppresses poor women.

Poor rural women are actively discriminated against by their own governments, business and even non-government organisations. For example, it is estimated that women in Africa own only 1% of agricultural land, receive 7% of agricultural extension (technical agricultural support) and receive just 1% of agricultural credit.

Whilst women bear the brunt of social inequalities, empowering rural women, women farmers and farm workers is the key to a new global food system that prioritises people and can end hunger and poverty. Smallholder farmers, many of which are women, can be assisted to increase production through agriculture training, technical advice and land reform.

Erasing discrimination would be a start. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, if women received the same access to agricultural resources as men, there would be 100 million fewer hungry people in the world.

But this needs to be about more that technical solutions to agriculture. The food ‘security’ model that is currently popular emphasises production of food as the key issue and advocates for mass markets, mono-cropping, and genetically modified foods. Some argue that women are negatively affected by the accompanying intensive exploitation of labour and abuse of the lack of formal title to family farmland by local elites and transnational corporations. The food security concept, which is currently favoured by some development agencies, can perversely result in land-grabs, environmentally destructive intensive agriculture and heavy pesticide use.

And the global food problem is getting worse with the number of chronically hungry people in the world reaching one billion by 2009, up from 800 million in the nineteen nineties.

But there are alternative ways of empowering women to end hunger and poverty. Food ‘sovereignty’ is a model that emphasises the way food is produced. Peasant landholders are encouraged to produce food in environmentally sustainable ways that are essentially integrated and work in harmony with ecosystems – not exploit them. Women can utilise techniques such as agro-forestry (the complimentary planting of beneficial trees) to boost yields and produce large and nutritionally varied yields.

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA works with partners to implement women-focused rural development projects in Vietnam, Lao PDR, Cambodia, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and South Africa. Our projects focus on diversifying crops and increasing yields using organic methods to both improve nutrition and produce surpluses that can be sold.

One of our partners is the Trust for Community Outreach and Education (TCOE), established by Steve Biko in South Africa in 1983. It has an empowerment approach to development – a refreshing change to the welfarism of some other groups. It seeks to contribute to the transformation of the countryside through the building of an independent movement of the rural poor – made up of small farmers, land rights forums, producer co-operatives, small stock-holders and rural women’s groups -who are capable of articulating and advocating for their own interests.

A community garden in South Africa

Developing community food sovereignty through organic vegetable gardening at Kyamundi Township Primary School, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

With TCOE, we are working with grassroot farmers networks, such as the Mayibuye Land Rights Forum, to construct nurseries, seed exchanges, and backyard community vegetable gardens. It will create greater access for women to the economy and sustainable processes to produce food so that they can have improved control over their own development and destiny. It will also increase opportunities for youth to forge careers in farming and agriculture, skill up local farmers through training and create avenues for increased land access and resources for their continued development and food sovereignty.

Today on International Women’s Day we look at how far women have come but also reflect on how far there is to go to overcome institutionalised discrimination.

In a world of such plenty, it is astounding that in 2012 chronic malnutrition can still affect over one billion people. Empowering women and ending discrimination is not only a just goal in itself – it the key to unlocking sustainable development, ending hunger and building a just world for all.

Asbestos in Asia: Breaking Through the Silence in Lao PDR

Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA project officer, Matt Hilton, talks about the threat of asbestos in developing countries and APHEDA’s expansion of its asbestos disease prevention project into Lao PDR.

Australians know that asbestos kills. We are historically one of the highest per capita miners, manufacturers and consumers of asbestos in the world. Almost all public buildings and around one third of all private houses were built with asbestos. And the toll was heavy – by 2020, Australia will have had 13,000 cases of mesothelioma and over 40,000 cases of asbestos related cancer.

Broken bags of asbestos cement lie in open storage

Broken bags of asbestos cement lie in open storage at a factory in Laos.

Globally, it is estimated that 107,000 workers each year succumb to asbestos or asbestos related cancers. And the centre of this new epidemic is Asia. The World Health Organisation estimates that 60% of the 125 million people exposed to asbestos in their homes or workplace are in Asia. And that figure is set to increase – already half of asbestos consumption occurs in Asia with 90% of the global increase in consumption between 2000 and 2004 occurring in Asia. Continue reading

“Waiting, watching & warm caffeinated beverages” – Welcome to Gaza

Australian physio-therapist, Katrina Byrne, undertook a volunteer placement in the Gaza strip through Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA in April 2011. Katrina was placed at the El Wafa Medical Rehabilitation Hospital. Soon after starting her placement, Katrina sent us this blog reflecting on her time in Gaza.

Waiting, watching and warm caffeinated beverages – that’s Palestine in a nutshell. Whether waiting at check-points, for buses to fill up and begin their journey, or for a procession of singing Chinese Christians to pass, patience is a much needed skill here in Palestine. Luckily, whenever you stand still for more than a minute, the hospitality of Palestinians demands a cup of tea or coffee. Continue reading

Poetry from Afghanistan

When in the dark evenings
The wind is blowing
And you are restless about your children,
You go to find out
Whether they are sleeping peacefully,
At that moment of night I want you to think about my children,
That they are under bombs
And they don’t have any shelter
And there are no mothers to look after them.

This poem was sent out to the world from one of the weekly poetry readings in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar i Sharif, Kunduz, Jalalabad or any other city in Afghanistan. You can listen to 20 minutes of (translated) Afghan poetry via

APHEDA, in partnership with the Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan (SAWA-Australia) and the Afghanistan women’s organisation, Organization for Promoting Afghan Women’s Capabilities (OPAWC), supports a Vocational Training Centre for women in Kabul, where women and girls learn to read and write and are offered an opportunity to gain an income.