Monday, June 06, 2005
On Good Intentions
posted by: Anton Stephan at 2:24 PM
A recent move by the U.S. Congress has shifted what was to be $200 million to the Palestinian Authority and channeled it instead through U.S. aid agencies and Israel. This means that the non-governmental organization (NGO) scene in Palestine will get a $150 million boost. No doubt this is a good thing, right?

The fact is, Palestine is already inundated with development, humanitarian and faith-based organizations and the people who come along with them.

Here in Bethlehem, for example, dozens of organizations go around "capacity building," "assessing feasibility," and "promoting" and "sustainable-izing" this or that.

Many Palestinians tell me that that some of this aid helps and they appreciate it. But they also tell me in the same breath that they are often disgusted with it.

They say it often does much more harm than good, like creating dependency on donor organizations, excusing Israel as occupying military ruler of its responsibility to extend social services, and letting the world congratulate itself for "helping" Palestinians while losing sight of their freedom.

Over the years, these people and projects come and go. They come to work for a few months or a year, live Global North-salaried lives detached from the people who they have come to help, feel good about themselves and move on to the next poor-folk rescue project.

I usually hear this criticism come hand in hand with the disclaimer, "Oh, but the intentions are good." "These people come to help. They mean well," people say.

In the past, I was quick to give the very same disclaimer. Now, I struggle get the words out.
Are good intentions good enough?

Nineteenth-century Danish philosopher and theologian Sّren Kierkegaard wrote:

It is the most dangerous thing for a person to go backwards with the help of good intentions, especially with the help of promises; for it is almost impossible to discover that one is really going backwards.


And so it is with the one who, rich in good intentions and quick to promise, retreats backwards farther and farther from the good. With the help of intentions and promises, he maintains the honest impression that he is moving towards the good, yet all the while he moves farther and farther away from it. With every renewed intention and promise it seems as if he is taking a new step forward but in reality he is only standing still, no, he is really taking another step backward.
Didn't the colonizing British government think they were modernizing and helping India? Did not the Dutch settlers think they were bringing civilization to black people in the Western Cape of southern Africa?

Perhaps international and local organizations working in Palestine have their lexicon and intentions in order, but what issues are they addressing?

A school was recently built in a village near Bethlehem with funds from USAID, the U.S. government development agency. It is now under demolition orders by the Israeli military for being too close to the Israeli segregation wall, and will likely be destroyed by a military subsidized in large part by the United States government. U.S. taxpayers pay for it both ways, but are the Palestinian kids in the village benefiting?

If donors were to pull out and force Israel to follow international law, some Palestinians may suffer when the aid doesn't come. But if things continue this way, Israel will continue to escape responsibility on the backs of taxpayers around the world at the expense of Palestinian emancipation.

It was the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire who wrote:

This is why their [oppressor's] generosity is false. Humanity is a "thing" and they possess it as an exclusive right, as inherited property. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their "generosity," the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this "generosity" which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty.
True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life" to extend their trembling hands.


Palestinians quite rightly criticize the corruption in the government and organizations that funnel funds into the pockets of the few. But Palestinians are harsh in saying often, "sha'ib mutakhel-lif" ("our backward people"), and we as Palestinians will never be able to get it right by virtue of being Palestinian. This notion is supported by much of the work that is done by international organizations which ignores innate Palestinian creativity and ability.
Freire goes on to say:

This lesson and this apprenticeship must come, however, from the oppressed themselves and from those who are truly in solidarity with them. As individuals or as peoples, by fighting for the restoration of their humanity they will be attempting the restoration of true generosity.

Around the world, exiled Palestinians are leaders in business, arts, politics, and academia. A few examples show the wide diversity: A Palestinian family founded the Arab Bank. The late Palestinian scholar Edward Said is considered one of the great minds of our time. A Bethlehemite Palestinian immigrant became president of El Salvador last year.

International organizations congratulate themselves for helping Palestinians and they must be very proud. With the air of a savior, they are building capacity for a people who seem to already have it.
Is it that Palestinians need a $200 million boost to this bloated system of so-called development projects or is it that we instead need support in the struggle for liberation?


by Omar Tesdell
May 17, 2005
17 Comments
Anonymous James Bowen
This article makes a very important point. However,
the first paragraph is confusing. Here is an attempt to explain:
the difference between the $150m and $200m figures is due to the fact that $50 million of the overall sum were diverted to Israel, to build terminals for people and goods at checkpoints surrounding Palestinian areas. See this Washington Post article.
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