USAID Boycott Off Target

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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:

Conversely, the Palestinian leadership is in over its head. President Arafat does not have a public or organizational mandate to negotiate anything other than the principles in the PLO Covenant. Some would even argue that with the total collapse of the Oslo Peace Accords, the reference points of the Madrid Conference, namely Palestinian acceptance of UN resolutions 242 and 338 and the PLO recognition of the State of Israel, are now also in need of reassessment. The US will continue to abuse this Palestinian political vacuum in order to promote its agenda of having Arab States (fearful for their own survival) pressure President Arafat into accepting less than what Palestinians rightfully and legally deserve. However, the US is mistaken to believe that in this period the Palestinian Authority President and his handful of personal aides or a few randomly appointed Palestinian civilians authoritatively speak for the Palestinian people.

“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.

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:

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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.

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Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian City of Al-Bireh in the West Bank. He is co-author of Homeland: Oral Histories of Palestine and Palestinians (1994). He contributed this article to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

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