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Looking Beyond the Pale: International Donors And Civil Society Promotion in Palestine
Palestine has been the recipient of unparalleled amounts of funding by international donors. The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) has received the lion's share of this external funding, but significant amounts have also been earmarked towards civil society promotion in the last fifteen years. The purpose of this article is to briefly assess the impact of donors over civil society promotion, and the lessons that could be learnt from past experience to improve the interaction between donors and local organizations.

Assessing the Development of Civil Society in the 1990s

The 1990s has seen a major and well-studied revival on a global scale of the concept of civil society, as international concerns began to focus on the democratic transformation of many polities. In Palestine, the trajectory this concept took is highly interesting because it reveals the influence of international donors over Palestinian sociopolitical life in the last fifteen years. The notion of "civil society" in the Palestinian context first emerged in academic writings around 1990, and was incorporated into the parlance of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) actors around 1994,(1) namely, the period marked by the Oslo Accords and the creation of the PNA. Expectations were high then both in Palestine and elsewhere, about the positive role civil society should play during these transitional stages.
Rema Hammami was the first to spot the tensions and the potential risks behind widespread discourses about civil society in the Palestinian context. The overuse of "civil society" by certain actors (mostly from NGOs of the secular left factions) was hiding a phenomenon of "professionalization of politics," whereby NGOs gradually shifted from popular self-organization into a form of elite work funded by foreign donors.(2) Put differently, many of these popular grass-roots committees that were so essential to political factionalism turned into professional client-oriented and elitist development institutions during the Oslo years, thus drifting away from playing a more direct political role.
It became a commonplace to say that there was a mushrooming of NGOs during the Oslo years and that this proliferation corresponded with the arising need for a vibrant civil society. Nevertheless, one should examine the facts that lie behind some of the celebratory statements regarding the triumph of NGOs and, in this respect, four qualifications can be made about the overstated positive role of NGOs and the expectations regarding civil society.
First, NGOs are not the equivalent of civil society, but only a tiny portion of it - besides trade unions, youth clubs, religious associations, charitable organizations and, for some, political parties. Surely NGOs have become a very active sector of civil society in the Palestinian territories but they only represent the tip of the iceberg. (The same is also true of many "south" countries.) Therefore, the substance of civil society, which basically encompasses such elements as a venue for sociopolitical participation or collective action, a privileged sphere independent of direct state control, a bottom-up participation as opposed to top-down imposition, etc., is common to many other types of organizations.
Second, the most active NGOs are the ones that have the capacity to address and adapt to the jargon and complex reporting techniques required by most international donors. These more successful NGOs - in terms of fund-raising - ran and do run the risk of gradually losing touch with their own people, because they tend to adjust more to the agendas of their donors, to whom they are accountable for funding, rather than to focus on the population's real needs, despite claims by NGOs to be grass-roots organizations.
Third, if many new civil society organizations were created during the Oslo years, many also closed down or became inactive. It is usually estimated that around 1,400 NGOs existed around 1993, but a recent survey counted a little less than 1,000, with more than a third of the organizations established after the coming of the PNA.(3) This means there was a very significant turnover in the composition of civil society organizations. Some of the older organizations were either subsumed into the PNA (as in the case of some of the NGOs closer to Fateh), while some others simply disappeared. Again the ones able to emerge or to survive were most likely the ones that had the possibility of access either to some form of external funding, or to domestic political sponsorship.
Fourth, the term "civil society" has become an identity marker of Palestinian political life, and thereby expresses a different content than the widely described effort to resist the state's sole control over its population. This can be exemplified simply by the fact that the denomination "civil society" - the Arabic "al-mujtama al-madani"- is not used by all the sociopolitical actors. Many prefer "al-mujtama' al-ahli" (civic society), while others have recently suggested a new entry to the political vocabulary in the occupied territories by juxtaposing "madani" (civil) to "jihad," understood broadly as "struggle" or "effort."(4) This rhetorical diversity illustrates how various political factions differentiate themselves around the concept of civil society: secular leftist prefer the first version, while the mainstream nationalists and relatively conservative charitable organizations stick to mujtama al- ahli (this is, for example, the denomination chosen by the PNA for its Ministry for NGO Affairs). Finally, some Islamic militants prefer al-jihad al-madani (or civil struggle) to stress the fact that hegemony over civil society's action should not be limited to the secular leftists and mainstream nationalists. Therefore it can be maintained that both the term "civil society" and its rhetoric have become deeply entangled with the issue of political factionalism inside the territories.

The Role of International Donors

The above-mentioned limitations demonstrate the gradual erosion that has occurred in the meaning or the substance of civil society in the occupied territories since the early 1990s. It is the contention of this article that international donors have probably played a catalytic role by accelerating or reinforcing some of the trends described earlier, and that international civil society promotion has not always acted in favor of the emergence of a democratic polity. Let us now see how these donors have influenced each of the processes described above.

1. NGOs are not equivalent to civil society. One can notice that the global enthusiasm about and the over-expectation placed upon civil society -in particular the NGOs - have often led to disillusionment in the long term. It is not enough to promote professional advocacy or development NGOs in order to foster civil society, and even less to automatically achieve a democratic system. International donors also need to work on profound and long-lasting changes in political institutions and structures to assure that a diversity of civil society actors are enabled to play a potentially positive role towards the stability of democratic governance.(5) In the Palestinian setting, this is manifested in the abundance of advocacy institutions and programs funded by donors. Though advocacy can be important at some point and for a variety of reasons, there are also basic issues, like education, access to health, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, etc., that must be covered and guaranteed for the majority of the population. Priorities might have been misplaced by some donors.

2. Accountability to external donors. International donors are almost exclusively present in the central zones around Jerusalem and Ramallah and, to a lesser extent, in Gaza City. The result is that the local civil society organizations that are furthest removed from these central zones encounter tremendous difficulty to access donor funding, and this jeopardizes their survival.(6) The consequence is a sort of internal hierarchy among local organizations whereby the ones based in the central zones have direct access to important funding and work, in turn, with smaller local organizations. Even when serious efforts are made to reach the peripheral and deprived zones, this is done through a form of centralization, which generates a sort of clientelism between larger professional NGOs and smaller organizations. Such an approach favors a top-down interaction between donors and local organizations at the expense of accountability to the local population and bottom-up political participation.

3. High turnover and many new NGOs. Many donors ride the fashion waves, like empowerment, awareness-raising, children's rights, mobile clinics, or mental health, etc. This translates into the emergence of a large number of new civil society organizations, often with overlapping or similar activities, with the ensuing risk of a good deal of duplication in project funding. A corollary of the risk of fashion-oriented funding is that it goes to short-term projects, making it difficult to obtain a long-lasting impact on society. Therefore what donors promote is more a plurality in terms of numbers rather than in terms of quality of work and a healthy competition amongst civil society actors. Moreover, the creation of many new professional NGOs, as a result of the large amounts of money made available by donors, has contributed to the loss of the voluntary spirit that was so characteristic of the mass-movement organizations that arose around the late 1970s. Many NGOs are now guided much more by market principles than by voluntary participation in their activities.

4. "Civil society" as a political identity marker. Donors have actively contributed to the promotion of a very limited version of civil society. Such a version entails a more managerial functionalist vision of civil society where NGOs are expected to deliver services, to function as procedural support to complement the role of the PNA, rather than being a creative venue to define in a bottom-up manner initiatives that really respond to the needs of the local constituencies.(7) As a consequence, organizations that did not share the priorities or modalities requested by most donors (e.g., success of the peace process, imposition of normalization programs, fashionable topics, etc.) have distanced themselves from the term "civil society," further highlighting its function as an identity marker,8 instead of it being a substantive concept that would federate collective efforts towards a more democratic polity.

The Second Intifada as a Watershed

The second intifada has probably functioned as a cathartic moment for civil society organizations. Intense criticism was being leveled at the beginning of the second intifada against larger and more successful NGOs for their failure to relate to the needs of the population, and for responding instead to the shifting priorities of international donors. Because of the hardship created by the massive Israeli military reoccupation of the territories and the destruction of the most vital Palestinian infrastructures, the various NGO sectors reacted to the situation in different fashions.
For the large professional and elite NGOs (largely those that were historically linked with the leftist parties or the independent ones), the second intifada was an opportunity to re-create more direct links with the grass-root constituencies whom they had come to consider over the Oslo years more as clients or, in some cases, as a political réservoire, rather than as direct participants in a mass movement. This is manifested in open calls by some NGO leaders to repoliticize the work of these larger NGOs, and in the advocation for a return to a message that speaks directly to the Palestinian population instead of addressing donors' agendas.(9)
For charitable organizations (very present in smaller communities, refugee camps and rural areas), there was a sort of nahdhah or renaissance of their activities. Because of the severe closures imposed on the territories, Palestinians had to increasingly tap on local resources. The privileged access and more popular legitimacy that charitable organizations have with remote communities was a good opportunity to offer the services and the support needed by the local populations.
Finally, for Islamist caritative organizations (in particular Hamas charitable organizations), the second intifada was another important occasion to offer social services - described by many of very good quality - to the more needy segments of society. Part of the success of Hamas in the municipal elections of the spring of 2005 is undoubtedly linked to this service provision which goes hand in hand with an ideological message that seems to resonate with the local population, as well as to address their expectations for effective changes against widespread corruption.

Conclusion: Looking Beyond the Term 'Civil Society'

In this context of continued and widespread hardship, it might seem odd that many donors have kept pushing on the same civil society button as in the 1990s. Although efforts were made to address the emergency situation and to offer job-creation schemes, many donors kept funding activities related to reform, good governance, and empowerment. By doing so, they were working with the same beneficiaries of the 1990s, namely a rather thin layer of professional NGOs.
These organizations, however, are not the unique vectors and promoters of civil society, although they are the ones that make the most frequent use of the name and the rhetoric. It is therefore a mistake to associate civil society only with them. Many others do actually promote the substance of the concept of civil society, but they achieve this using a different discourse and through different programs. Most importantly, even if charitable organizations have sometimes adopted a somewhat paternalistic mode of internal governance, they can function as an important relay to convey protests of sociopolitical nature to the PNA, and can also serve as a cordon sanitaire against a further rise of Islamist organizations.
Therefore donors should look beyond the pale and concentrate more on the substance of civil society and not only on the name or the rhetoric. It is counterproductive in the long run to work only with professional organizations that have the capacity to adapt to the technical requirements and finesse of big donors, because this creates an island of elite organizations (if not personal empires (10)) that gradually become undemocratic in their internal functioning. An effort should be made by international donors to consider more closely the variety and depth of Palestinian civil society, even if they are charitable or religious associations - religious by no means automatically signifying militant. They should also give more serious attention to local ways of collective-action organization, such as local self-help, different forms of deliberation, balance between popular legitimacy and technical expertise, rather than working quasi-exclusively with self-proclaimed civil society champions.
Thus, donors could contribute to the fostering of a pluralism of content rather than a mere pluralism of numbers within civil society. By providing more long-term funding, and/or by helping to put into place endowments for NGOs and other less visible civil society organizations, (11) they could also play a role in refocusing the work of civil society organizations towards long-term programs and priorities in agreement with the most urgent needs of the population.


(1) For a thorough analysis of the evolution of civil society, see B. Challand (2005), The Power to Promote and to Exclude: External Support for Palestinian Civil Society, PhD Diss., European University Institute, Florence.
(2) See R. Hammami (1995), "NGOs: The Professionalization of Politics," Race & Class, 37 (2), 51-63.
(3)See e.g. MAS (2001), Ta'dâd al-munazhamât ghayr al-hukumiah al-filasteeniah fil-dhifah al-gharbiyah wa qitta' ghazza (Mapping of Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), MAS Report, Ramallah, p. 20.
(4) Mhd. I. Al-Madhoun (2004), "hal al-qiwa al-islamiyah 'ajizah 'an al-musharakah al-mujtama'iyah al-fa'alah?" ("Can Islamic Forces Have an Effective Social Participation?"), al-Quads al-Arabi, July 27, 2004.
(5) This conclusion is reached not only in the Middle East. See O. Encarnacion (2003), The Myth of Civil Society, (Palgrave Macmillan), for similar conclusions about Spain and Brazil, or S. Mendelson & J. Glenn (eds.), The Power and Limits of NGO: A Critical Look at Building Democracy (Columbia University Press) for Eastern European cases.
(6) Various interviews with smaller Palestinian NGOs based in peripheral zones.
(7) See B. Challand (2005), Benevolent Actors? International Donors and Civil Society Support for Palestinian NGOs. Paper presented at the 6th Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, IUE, Florence.
(8) An evidence of that is the fact that civil society is attacked not only by mainstream nationalist and Islamist factions, but also by some Palestinian radical left exponents criticizing the conditions imposed by most donors. See, e.g., the writings of Adel Samara.
(9) See S. Abdel Shafi (2004), Civil Society and Political Elites in Palestine and the Role of International Donors: A Palestinian View, EuroMeSCo Paper (33), 12ff.
(10) On that aspect, see the doctoral research of Caroline Abu-Sada on agricultural NGOs (forthcoming, Sciences Po, Paris).
(11) Endowments would allow generating internal income and giving more financial stability and space for autonomy to civil society organizations.

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