Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the Palestinians have been among the world’s highest per capita recipients of non-military aid. This aid was meant to advance the peace process with Israel through Palestinian state-building under the Palestinian Authority (PA), and by cultivating a democratic civil society through funding Palestinian non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Over the past twenty-five years, the failed Oslo aid regime has produced neither peace, nor an independent Palestinian state. Instead, dependence on foreign aid has dismantled the Palestinian economy, reinforced the unpopular PA government, and demobilized Palestinian civil society by distancing Palestinian NGOs from grassroots resistance movements. Donors have depoliticized development and limited civic leaders’ abilities to mobilize society against the occupation, so that development has become a form of “peacebuilding as counterinsurgency.”
This article argues that a subset of foreign donors in the occupied Palestinian territories (OPT) are engaging in an alternative development practice centered on Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination, two key principles missing from Oslo aid model. The article will examine how these “solidarity donors” support Palestinian educational NGOs that work in the informal spaces around the donor-funded PA curriculum, to re-insert Palestinian history and identity into education. The two main features of solidarity donors are first, that they share Palestinian NGOs’ commitment to the principles of the popular education movement from the first intifada, namely reuniting education with resistance as a foundation for political mobilization. In contrast to the Oslo aid model where NGOs are accountable to donors, solidarity donors hold themselves downwardly accountable to NGOs’ priorities. Second, because solidarity donors share a common cause with these NGOs, they establish longer-term funding relationships with them, giving NGOs greater autonomy over their educational programs. This approach differs from the project-based approach to development aid, which forces NGOs to align their priorities with their donors in order to receive funding. Against the backdrop of the failed Oslo aid model, this solidarity-based approach shows how foreign aid can support Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination so that development expands, rather than restricts political freedoms. Solidarity aid has not replaced the prevailing Oslo aid model, but exists alongside it, and has the potential to transform aid practice and development from within.
However, “solidarity aid” is not immune to the tensions and contradictions of the donor-driven development paradigm. Although “solidarity donors” make a positive contribution, the vast majority of Palestinian aid still follows the Oslo model. While “solidarity donors” give aid with fewer political conditions, they still have the ultimate say over how their money is spent. Finally, civil society organizations’ reliance on donors inevitably means that regardless of overlap in their values and priorities, donors continue to play a significant role in setting the agenda for civil society and in shaping activist spaces.
Palestinian NGOs and Popular Education
Palestinian education continues to be a site of external intervention because of its relationship to Palestinian nationalism and resistance. Under the British Mandate, contemporary history was excluded from the curriculum, and Palestinian teachers were forbidden from publishing educational materials outside of the British-controlled curriculum.[i] After the 1967 war and start of the Israeli occupation, the Jordanian curriculum was taught in the West Bank, and the Egyptian curriculum in Gaza. Similar to under British rule, neither curriculum taught Palestinian history or instilled a sense of Palestinian identity, and so informal learning continued outside of schools. During the first intifada (uprising), Israel closed Palestinian schools and universities for weeks to months at a time, fearing that they would become centers for political organizing. These school closures prompted neighborhood popular committees to organize ad hoc schools that united education and resistance.[ii] In these hidden spaces, the “popular education” movement experimented with participatory learning, teaching Palestinian historical narratives missing from the school curriculum under the occupation.
The first-ever Palestinian Ministry of Education was established in 1994, one year after the Oslo Accords, and the donor-funded Palestinian Curriculum Development Center published its first curriculum in 2000. Shortly thereafter, an Israeli watchdog group alleged that the textbooks were anti-Semitic and incited violence against Israel. This led Italy to cancel its support for the curriculum, and the World Bank to temporarily demand that the PA divert its textbook funding to other projects.[i][iii] Several joint Israeli-Palestinian and US studies later discredited these allegations, but the controversy over the textbooks showed how external actors continued to intervene in Palestinian education even after the PA was established.
However, the PA textbooks have also been largely sanitized of any political content deemed controversial by donors. Revolutionary Palestinian historical figures were removed from the textbooks, as were maps showing Jerusalem as the future capital of Palestine. The incomplete account of Palestinian history and identity in the school curriculum does not resonate with what students experience in daily life under the occupation, or learn through informal channels like family, friends, the media, and community education programs. The PA curriculum is therefore caught in a double-bind between the need to teach Palestinian history as a basis for national liberation, and donor demands for “peace education” to promote peaceful coexistence with Israel. The result is a curriculum that is simultaneously “too political” for donors, yet not political enough for the society for which it is intended.[iv]
As it had during the first intifada, Palestinian civil society has sought to meet the need to teach Palestinian history and identity to compensate for weak instruction in these areas in the official school curriculum. Although aid dependence and the “NGOization” of Palestinian civil society has distanced civic leaders from grassroots movements, a number of teachers and educational activists from the popular education movement during the first intifada have continued this work under the auspices of Palestinian educational NGOs.[v] Their goals as educators remain the same as their pre-Oslo predecessors: to reunite education with resistance in order to preserve collective historical memory and identity as a bulwark against cultural erasure and loss of land.
These Palestinian educational NGOs provide extracurricular theater, creative writing, and debate programs in and outside of schools to teach Palestinian history and cultivate a sense of collective identity using participatory learning methods from the popular education movement. The A. M. Qattan Foundation’s support for teachers and students in the creative arts, and the Teacher Creativity Center exemplify this participatory approach. The Freedom Theater in Jenin Refugee Camp similarly uses drama training and political theater to encourage “cultural resistance,” and The Tamer Institution in Ramallah, and Project Hope in Nablus publish stories and graphic novels written by young people about life under the occupation. These programs are examples of how NGOs use participatory learning to engage students in producing knowledge that sustains historical memory and cultural identity in the spirit of the popular education movement. In doing so, these NGOs are strategically repurposing aid to retain Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination over the content and pedagogies of education.
The Role of “Solidarity Donors”
“Solidarity donors” play an important role in making these NGOs’ work possible. Absent donor funding, it is likely that NGO leaders would seek other avenues to practice popular education, as many Palestinian educational membership-based organizations have done. Nevertheless, it is Palestinian educational NGOs’ strategic relationships with donors that allow them to reach wider audiences than they may have otherwise without external funding. These NGOs are also able to use their positions as more credible representatives of grassroots priorities (relative to other NGOs that do less political work), to hold donors accountable to Palestinian needs in education, rather than simply implementing donor agendas.[vi]
The first feature that distinguishes solidarity donors is that they share Palestinian educational NGOs’ belief that education under the occupation should raise political consciousness, understood as a revolutionary awareness of contradictions and injustice in political life.[vii] These NGOs and solidarity donors recognize the enduring need to unite education and resistance to combat the suppression of Palestinian history and identity under colonial and Israeli rule, and now under the Oslo aid regime. Because solidarity donors understand this need, they fund projects based on recipients’ priorities, rather than asking NGOs to implement a preset agenda. This was evident in the sixteen original interviews conducted with Palestinian educational NGOs and their donors in the West Bank between 2014-16, which are part of a larger study on the impact of foreign aid on political consciousness in Palestinian education.[viii] In these interviews, donors sought to distinguish themselves from other larger donors that depoliticize Palestinian education. According to one solidarity donor,
We are working according to their [the NGOs’] needs. We never come with a project and tell them “you will implement this project.” We have discussions about which kinds of problems they can solve through their activities, and what they think each kind of problem they have in society. We conduct this discussion, and after that, we make our program goal. They are the owner of the problems and solutions, not us.[ix]
This solidarity donor developed their priorities in collaboration with their recipients. Another donor expressed this in terms of their support for participatory learning, a core component of the popular education movement.
We are trying to involve students more. We want to push through this mentality of teaching where the teachers are the ultimate source of education, and students are only recipients, where the students are taught to be tame- to receive information, remember it, write it down on the test. You don’t think, you don’t question, it’s not your role. We are trying to break through this through our projects with our partners.[x]
Because solidarity donors and the NGOs they fund both value participatory learning, their collaboration with Palestinian educational NGOs extends the reach of this approach beyond what NGOs may have been able to accomplish on their own, or as smaller membership-based organizations. Donors’ interest in participatory learning also extended to how they perceived their relationships with recipients, which they envisioned as less hierarchical than the traditional top-down model of donor-driven development. Nevertheless, donors were unable to entirely extricate themselves from their inherently more powerful positions. According to one donor:
You want to establish a genuine, democratic, participatory approach. You want to minimize the gap [between donors and recipients], but you can never escape it. We try our best to minimize this power game, this unbalanced structure, by discussing, brainstorming a lot with our partners. Trying to arrive at common ground together, to work out ideas of mutual interest. To develop things together and not to enforce things, and trying to push the Palestinian agenda.[xi]
These excerpts show that what distinguishes solidarity donors from the traditional donor mindset is their desire to hold themselves downwardly accountable to NGOs’ priorities in politicizing education.
The second feature of solidarity donors is that they view development, like education, as a long-term process of socio-political change. Solidarity donors establish longer-term funding relationships with their recipients and give aid with few political conditions to give their recipients greater autonomy over their work. The interviews revealed that Palestinian NGOs also purposely seek out donors with more open-ended funding. A representative of a theater NGO described her organization’s criteria in selecting donors:
We are very critical with donors. We do not take money from USAID for example. We do not take money from Europeans if they want us to do something we do not believe in. We do not do it because we want to survive. Money becomes a tool to implement our ideas and beliefs.[xii]
Most of the NGOs interviewed refused to apply for USAID funding because they saw US support for Israel as hypocritical, and found USAID’s anti-terrorism conditionality insulting.[xiii][xiv] For the NGO quoted above, aid given with fewer conditions allowed them to credibly claim that the donor did not control their work. This gave the NGO the freedom to set their own agenda, and lent them a greater degree of social legitimacy in an environment where NGOs are seen as elite institutions that are out of touch with the Palestinian cause.[xv] NGOs saw “solidarity aid” as compatible with their visions for reforming education. When asked about how donor funding after Oslo impacted his NGO, a representative admitted that: “yes, the money changed me, but I [kept] working.” He pointed out that prior to Oslo, funding came from the Soviet Union, and asked “why is this funding good, and this funding is not?”[xvi] He saw aid as fungible—how the money was used, was more important than its source. Unlike the restrictive Oslo aid model, solidarity aid can support NGO efforts to reclaim sovereignty over education.
The Limitations of “Solidarity Aid”
These collaborative relationships between “solidarity donors” and Palestinian educational NGOs make it possible for popular education programs to reach a broader audience than they otherwise would. These partnerships, however unequal, demonstrate how NGOs can strategically repurpose aid so that it supports Palestinian sovereignty over education and development. Moreover, social movements ranging from the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, to the Zapatistas in Chiapas, to the Black Panther Party in the United States, have long understood the formative power of education to raise political consciousness and mobilize people against injustice. Palestinian educational NGOs contribute to cultural resistance by helping to maintain the cultural fabric of Palestinian communities fragmented by the occupation, reviving earlier pre-Oslo forms of community organization and mobilization. Although “solidarity aid” has the potential to challenge the depoliticizing and demobilizing effects of the Oslo aid model, there are two limitations worth noting.
The first limitation is that despite their overall support for popular education, solidarity donors still impose restrictions on NGOs. For example, one foreign donor objected to a theater NGO’s use of the terms “occupation,” “apartheid,” and “colonialism” in a play. This donor acknowledged that Palestine was occupied by Israel, but did not recognize the system of apartheid or settler-colonization of the West Bank. The NGO removed the donor’s logo from the production at the donor’s request, which allowed them to keep their funding and retain the controversial terms. Although this was a victory for the NGO, it underscored the power that donors still retain, and occasionally wield, over their recipients. Another theater NGO recalled a time when a donor asked them not to use the term “martyr” in a play:
[The donor] said “we will support you fully, but you cannot use the word ‘martyr’ in what the children have written about what they faced during the war.” They [the children] are talking about what they have lived: it’s testimonies. [The donor] is about the rights of children, and they told us “tell your children not to write the word ‘martyrs.’’ I was flipping out, I said “thank you, we don’t want your money, keep it for yourself. This is against your mandate, it’s not against ours.”[xvii]
Ultimately, this NGO declined donor funding for this play. Even when donors appear to share a NGOs’ mission, they have the final word when it comes to the content of these programs.
The second limitation is that regardless of solidarity donors’ willingness to support popular education, NGOs must still walk the line by separating their work in education, from overt political organizing. This meant that most of the Palestinian educational NGOs interviewed would not publicly support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement. BDS was launched in 2005 by a coalition of Palestinian civic organizations calling for an international academic, cultural, and economic boycott of Israel. A sign of the movement’s strength, Israel’s parliament passed a law in March 2017 banning foreign supporters of BDS from entering Israel. The US Senate passed an anti-BDS bill in 2019, which if passed by the House of Representatives, would bar state governments from contracting with supporters of the boycott. All of the Palestinian organizations interviewed supported BDS privately, but were quick to distinguish between their personal support for BDS, and their organizations’ work. One NGO director said he personally supported the boycott, but that the board did not discuss “political issues,” and had not taken a position on BDS.[xviii] Another NGO director reframed BDS as a question of supporting freedom and resistance and opposing the occupation. Her NGO did not participate in the boycott directly, but supported it indirectly as a member of the Palestinian NGO Network, which launched BDS. She added that her staff did not use Israeli products at the NGO’s activities, and that she encouraged her family to boycott Israeli products.[xix] This NGO’s employees participated in the boycott, but could not publicly support it through their organization.
“Solidarity donors” support these Palestinian NGOs’ critical education projects, which raise political consciousness and reconnect education to resistance under the occupation. Nevertheless, the top-down structure of the Oslo aid model constrains recipients’ agency, contradicting the democratic rhetoric of “participatory development.” The following policy recommendations are based on the foregoing discussion of the potential and limitations of the “solidarity aid” model.
- Donors should expand multi-year programmatic support for Palestinian NGOs (in contrast to short-term project-based funding). Longer-term funding gives NGOs greater autonomy to determine the content and direction of their programs.
- Palestinian NGOs should cultivate stronger connections to grassroots movements, and leverage these relationships to hold their donors accountable to NGOs’ priorities and to civil society more broadly.
- NGOs can also reduce donor interference in their projects by diversifying their donor portfolio to lessening their dependence on any single donor or group of donors. Where possible, NGOs should seek out donors that unequivocally support Palestinian rights, and be willing to exit donor relationships to maintain the integrity of their programs.
- Individuals and foundations can help release Palestinian NGOs from the political conditions of donors by directly funding critical education projects in the occupied territories.
Moving towards a “solidarity aid” model means strategically using aid to deconstruct the restrictions that donors place on recipients’ political freedoms. Donors, NGOs, and social movements all play a role in moving beyond the failed Oslo aid model and towards a solidarity economy centered on the right to self-determination. For more on “solidarity donors” and popular education, see Palestine and Rule of Power: Local Dissent vs. International Governance (2019).
[i] A. L. Tibawi, “Educational Policy and Arab Nationalism in Mandatory Palestine,” Die Welt des Islams 4, no. 1 (1995), 15-29.
[ii] Munir Fasheh, “Community Education: To Reclaim and Transform What Has Been Made Invisible,” Harvard Educational Review 60, no.1(1990), 19-36.
[iii] Fouad Moughrabi, "The Politics of Palestinian Textbooks," Journal of Palestine Studies 31, no. 1 (2001), 5-19.
[v] Melanie Meinzer, "Agents of Change? Critical IR, Foreign Aid and Political Consciousness in Palestinian Education," PhD diss. (2017); Islah Jad, "NGOs: Between Buzzwords and Social Movements," Development in Practice 17, no. 4/5 (2007), 622-29.
[vi] Melanie Meinzer, “Solidarity Donors and Popular Education in the West Bank,” in Palestine and Rule of Power Local Dissent vs. International Governance eds. Alaa Tartir and Timothy Seidel, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
[vii] Benedetto Fontana, “Liberty and Domination: Civil Society in Gramsci,” Boundary 2 33, no.2 (2006), 51-74.
[viii] Melanie Meinzer, "Agents of Change? Critical IR, Foreign Aid and Political Consciousness in Palestinian Education," PhD diss. (2017)
[ix] Donor (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. January 6, 2016. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[x] Donor (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. November 8, 2015. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xi] Donor (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. November 8, 2015. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xii] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. December 2, 2015. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xiii] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. December 2, 2015. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xiv] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. January 8, 2014. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xv] Sibille Merz, “‘Missionaries of the New Era’: Neoliberalism and NGOs in Palestine,” Race & Class 54, no. 1 (July 2012), 50–66; Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar, The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite (Institute of Jerusalem Studies & Muwatin, The Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, 2005).
[xvi] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. January 4, 2016. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xvii] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. December 2, 2015. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xviii] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. January 11, 2014. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.
[xix] NGO (Anonymous). Interview with Melanie Meinzer. January 8, 2014. Originally published in Meinzer 2019.