USAID Boycott Off Target

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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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 past several weeks, I have watched with growing interest the increasing number of signatories to a Palestinian petition calling for the boycott of all U.S. financial and material support, in particular USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) 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 U.S. naturally forces us to reevaluate how we deal with the U.S. 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 U.S.-made and -supplied helicopter gunships, bulldozers, and M16s were used by Israel to raze our communities, I fail to fully comprehend the growing number of Palestinian political factions, personalities, and nongovernmental organizations joining the understandable popular outrage at U.S. support by calling for a boycott of all U.S. assistance. Such a symbolic protest against U.S. 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 of assistance.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 past 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 Intifadas we faced have left thousands handicapped and thus such a project is facilitating our handicapped strugglers’ and ex-prisoners’ abilities 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 rebuilding 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 U.S., UN, EU, and Russia. One may ask, is the Palestinian Authority wrong in giving its blessing to 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, U.S. 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 U.S. 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 it is not. Most probably the PA is aligned with the USAID strategy and activities; otherwise it would have called for a national boycott itself. If the boycott goal is to change U.S. 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 the policies of the U.S. government. Attempting to redirect U.S. foreign policy without engaging in U.S. 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 DC, 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 past 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 River Accords.

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, 2002.

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.

Source: http://www.usaid.gov/wbg/budget.htm

Today, the U.S. government continues to witness a Palestinian struggle with a non-cohesive strategy with regard to U.S. involvement. Worse yet, some Palestinians are now content with trying to expose Palestinian NGOs 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 U.S.? 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 1980s? 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 their own.

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 lawyers 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 of maturation.

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 U.S. 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 U.S., learned and has been doing since the 1950s while we have stood by and watched. We are having this exchange of thoughts while our Palestinian representative in Washington DC 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 U.S. aid that we are receiving, given the U.S.’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.