The Politics of Charity and Development

الثلاثاء 20 كانون الثاني 2009

Packing and Sorting Donations

Written by Ramsey G. Tesdell

When Israel attacked Gaza on December 26, 2008, only the ferocity and sheer carelessness for human life surprised someone with a deep connection to the situation in Palestine and Israel. My emotional engagement followed this process – shock, pain, despair, hopelessness, and then action. It didn’t take long for us to realize that we would need to make a concerted effort on all fronts, including humanitarian assistance, to avoid a continued calamity.

In emergency situations, it is often difficult to take a step back, examine the entire system, and attempt to distill the circumstances around you. As 7iber’s donation drive and volunteer drive enters the 3rd week, it offers an opportunity to reflect on some of the politics that surround charity work. As we began what we thought would be a small drive, the politics seemed insignificant.

As we struggled to understand the magnitude of generosity, we began to see that behind the images of caravans of lorries making their way to the border, the humanitarian workers handing out food, and the various officials commenting on the impending disaster, that a strange and often destructive structure of dependence existed along side these comforting images.

After absorbing the fact that we had collected 40 tons of food and clothing in 48 hours, we began sorting the items to be packaged and delivered to those who needed it most. It didn’t take long to get slapped in the face by the politics of charity.

First, we had to sort out all items that were produced in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Israel won’t allow cooking oil produced in Syria or powdered milk packaged in Lebanon because “they are terrorists.” In the warehouse, the joke went that the Israelis wouldn’t accept any donations from all the terrorist countries, also known as the Arab World. The list of countries grew to include Libya, Sudan and Iran.

To complicate matters further, the Israeli border agents would allow or reject an aid truck on a whim, without regard to consistency or pattern. A truck that had been rejected the day before would be allowed to pass the next with no reason given for the rejection or for allowing it to pass.

With a system as such in place, it was nearly impossible to plan, sort and pack donations.

Second, as our work continued, it seemed that coordination between agencies involved in the aid effort was seriously lacking. Everyday it seemed that new rules were handed down, and on many occasions, work that had been done the day before was undone and redone the next day due to aid agencies responding to Israeli demands or placing new regulations.

After the first few days of sorting, and word reached us that a few of the trucks we had packed had made it into Gaza, it felt like we were making a difference. But constant setbacks such as the Israeli bombing of the UNRWA warehouse, where some of our donations were being kept, and the disorganization of the system in whole, were difficult to overcome.

Perhaps naively, we entered the game of charity thinking that it was simply in place to help those in need – and in many instances, international aid and charity save lives and are the only sources of hope for the oppressed of the world. But what I discovered was a system that is severely disorganized, one that creates a need for its own intervention, and one that is as ineffective as the bureaucratic governments and international agencies in charge of it.

With the example of the efficiency of the private sector, it is difficult to argue against privatizing charity. Except once a system is measured on profit, other measures of success, namely helping people and working to end their dependence on the system, would be counter-productive to the goal of making profit.

Without constant Israeli attacks and a total closure – economic, political, social – of the Gaza Strip, the need for charity and aid would diminish. Without the continuing effects of colonialism and systematic discrimination that aligns the non-western and the non-white world as backwards, uncivilized and in need of charity, a better world would rise from the ashes of colonialism. Alongside the system of charity, a movement of liberation – economic and social – needs to be cultivated in the Middle East and other regions still suffering from a patronizing development culture.

One final note about rebuilding Gaza, that is reportedly to cost billions of dollars. This is another example of a system that doesn’t work to solve the problem, but instead creates a need for itself to exist. Instead of humanitarian organizations asking for donations and building larger organizations with more overhead costs, force the people who destroyed the lives of millions to pay for it. Maybe next time, they’ll think twice about destroying so many lives.

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