NGOistan in the Levant

I’ve never been entirely sold on most of the common aid critiques, but here is one I can get behind, full-stop: NGO provision of public services (infrastructure development, education, health care…) allows heads of state to maintain power without addressing those needs. All along the democratic spectrum, this disincentives them from developing the capacity to do so as their economies grow, and may prevent governments from even viewing these elements as a responsibility under their purview.

On a panoramic scale, that sounds like very vague, theoretical role-of-the-state talk – so what? But the consequences are tangible: refugees really don’t think much of aid agencies. What might otherwise be a quasi-libertarian humanitarian pipe dream melts down because the feedback cycle is stilted. No votes, no purchasing power.

I’ve seen this play out most obviously among Palestinian refugees, so that’s what I’m going to talk about here. I’m sure there are better examples – South Sudan comes to mind as a more traditionally-managed NGOistan – but the high-wire aspect of Palestinian politics makes this a particularly interesting case study. My hunch is that the UN/NGO provision model encourages governing parties to focus more than they otherwise would on issues of militarization, shifting public discourse away from immediate needs and toward high-level issues in a way that facilitates the development of international quagmires.

A Quick Historical Overview…

In 1949, the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Relief and Works Agency – UNRWA – to support Palestinians displaced from the newly-established state of Israel. The decision to create an entirely new agency to support this specific population is not well-substantiated in the resolution, but it also isn’t difficult to guess. The UN’s predominant humanitarian relief arm at the time, the International Refugee Organization, was focused on serving the millions of Europeans displaced during World War II. The combination of geographic distance and the nascent organization’s overwhelming existing to-do list made forming a new, independent agency seem like a cogent thing to do. What is clear from the resolution, however, is that international community expected this displacement crisis to be resolvable in the short-term: it specified that direct relief should be terminated prior to January 1951, with indirect relief to host governments concluding in July of that year.

The absence of a political resolution has led the General Assembly to renew UNRWA’s mandate in perpetuity. The organization has attained quasi-NGO status. As UNRWA approaches its 65th year as the primary provider of education, healthcare, disaster relief, public works projects, and employment, it’s fair to ask: will UNRWA exist forever? What is its role today, and how does it interact with the Palestinian governing bodies? These questions are murky, emotionally charged, and contested – I’m playing with fire here – but I do think that it’s worth examining the role of the agency through a lens of aid dependency no matter what your viewpoint.

Responsibility to Provide: What? By Whom?

One component of this conundrum involves the inherited nature of Palestinian refugee status. While this categorical rule is often maligned as illogical and politically-motivated there are some concrete justifications for its continuation. Lebanon and Syria bar Palestinians from citizenship rights and ban access to certain occupations and state-managed social services. Jordan, the most generous of the major host nations, conferred citizenship to most Palestinians, albeit excluding over 100,000 who originated in the Gaza Strip (Jerash Camp remains home to many – one of the more perplexingly sad places I’ve been, and something of a live-action Catch-22). The right to a nationality, as put forth in the U.N. Charter on Human Rights, makes stripping these non-citizens of refugee status legally contentious.

All of this is to say that host nations have, in general, done a horrendous job of actually absorbing the mass displacement. As established, service provision was supposed to be carried out “in collaboration with local governments”; UNRWA was assigned “to consult with the interested Near Eastern Governments concerning measures to be taken by them preparatory to the time when international assistance for relief and works projects is no longer available.”

Needless to say, no Near Eastern Governments were terribly interested in providing services to hundreds of thousands of new arrivals. This allowed the agency to gain lasting control over – and responsibility for – a geographically clustered, aid-dependent, fast-growing population. Whether this transformation is an inevitable result of mass displacement or a result of short-sighted structuring has tremendous implications for the future of aid for similar groups.

Current Status:

Today, UNRWA’s funding situation far more closely resembles that of a highly aid-dependent country than that of an international compilation body. Quasi-governmental in nature, with bilateral and multilateral donors acting independently, UNRWA receives most of its funding bilaterally, from – in order – the United States, the European Commission, Saudi Arabia, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Norway, and Japan. Combined with emergency appeals, this leaves the agency managing a large set of relationships and a complicated cash flow. In either case, the duration of operation and service provision has established a level of bureaucracy and entrenchment that makes UNRWA different from other UN humanitarian implementers and much more similar to a regional iNGO, or to the government of a lower-income country.

I must add here that UNRWA does a good job of providing basic services. Students at UNRWA schools outperform those at public schools. Every single patient I’ve interviewed at UNRWA clinics in Jordan emphatically preferred UNWRA clinics over the public clinics managed by the Jordanian Ministry of Health. But strong performance is a double-edged sword, further trenching the agency’s continued existence and increasing demand beyond what limited funds can support.

Diffusion of Responsibility, Political Quagmires

It’s difficult to analyze the impact of shifting service provision away from the state, mostly because the Palestinian Territories are still this weird kind-of-state thing. Internal elections are complicated by international interference, barriers to distribution of election education materials, division of territory populations, and occupation. To examine the way in which UNRWA service provision may impact governance, it may be useful to limit examination to a confined area: the Gaza Strip, ruled by the Hamas party.

Getting gritty, here: the 2014 budget ratified by the Hamas government allocates $894 million dollars. Projected revenues of $195 million indicate that most of this may be made up through illicit or untracked means. Of this, $261 million is allocated for “security and public order”, $400 million for salaries, and $105 million for debts. UNRWA almost exclusively funds key social services, including all primary and secondary schools, roughly two-thirds of health centers, and food subsidies.

This large and consistent humanitarian allowance provides local leaders some degree of freedom to ignore the social and provisional aspects of governing, allowing them to develop platforms based on abstract ideology and external affairs, rather than on the practical needs of their constituents.

This lets Hamas leaders to not only neglect development of their own capacity to provide these services, but also allows them to deflect criticism onto the only providers when these services fall short in quality or quantity – displacing blame, alongside displacement of the original responsibility. Hamas has employed this strategy particularly well by placing the blame for damaged roads, hunger, pharmaceutical stock-outs, and economic stagnation all squarely on the failure of the international community to acknowledge their plight.

The sentiment has also spread to the Palestinian diaspora: during the summer 2014 conflict, protests at UNRWA headquarters in Amman centered on the argument that UNRWA was perpetuating occupation by strategically providing just enough humanitarian assistance to prevent wide-scale revolt and violence. While this is hopefully obviously false in spirit – as with most other organizations focused on humanitarian relief and service provision, leaders and employees alike embody single-minded dedication to helping the Palestinian people – it does raise the question of whether the lengthy, quasi-governmental, unelected status of UNRWA has in fact harmed the possibility for earlier resolution.

So What?

If you’re mostly concerned with the quality of services – aid effectiveness, if that’s your jargon of choice – the overall impact of entrenched non-state service provision is somewhat unclear. There are some perks to industrial reliability: it may help attract more capable workers, or increase the reliability of funding for beneficiaries.

But the band-aid effect has almost certainly played a role in preventing prompter and more sustainable political agreements, perpetuating the status quo of humanitarian need and perhaps causing more long-term suffering than would otherwise occur under negotiated agreements. The consequences of delayed solutions – one of which may be allowing the governments to take more extreme political stances – can unnecessarily harm relationships with donors, making their continued support of basic needs politically contentious for bilateral donors especially.

Arguments against decreasing non-state service provision involvement are plenty. Allowing NGOs to tackle issues of basic needs may leave governments better-able to fulfill higher-order needs and wishes of their constituents, which I don’t mean to write off as unimportant. Private-sector provision may, in some cases, prove more efficient than government administration. And it must be said that both of these situations are unlikely to change within the next decade due to the sheer wealth of entrenched interests including the service providers, the governments, and foreign governments. During that time, people will still need to eat, children will still need to be in school, etc.

What lessons should international actors draw from this whole situation? Most significantly, the looming shadow of NGOistan showcases the disadvantages of large, single-issue or single-population development organizations. This will likely be avoided in the future when possible for other cases of absorption of mass displacement, most importantly right now for Syrian refugees. It highlights the need for diverse actors in each crisis – a need that may very well be met as the aid community diversifies. Finally, it does not solve the core issue that perpetuates service in times of crisis in the first place: the needs of humans that remain constant despite the actions of their governments.

NGOistan in the Levant

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