Ahmed Sourani is the Director of Projects & Cooperation for the Palestinian Agricultural Relief Committees (PARC). PARC is a longtime partner of Grassroots International and perhaps the most important player in the Palestinian agricultural sector. PARC focuses its work in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on rural development including food security, income generation, water rights and protecting against land confiscation by Israel; environmental protection; and strengthening women’s position in society. PARC works closely with other organizations like the Rural Women’s Development Society and the Palestinian Farmers Union; and has been a leader in marketing Palestinian olive oil under fair trade certification. Grassroots supports PARC’s urban gardening projects in the Gaza Strip, promoting greater food security for refugee (mostly urban) communities; where PARC has also created an innovative Farm-to-Table program that supports sourcing of food aid for Gaza-based refugees from Gazan farmers.
Recently at the local and international levels, both governmental and non-governmental organizations have finally addressed the urgent need to work towards the reconstruction of the agricultural sector in the Gaza Strip. However, it is clear there are numerous challenges and risks that a large number of people, institutions, and authorities concerned have failed to take into consideration.
Firstly, the prevailing atmosphere and situation means that most interventions planned by the international community in Gaza over the next few years will be relief efforts. This means there will be little real impact on the genuine reconstruction of the agricultural sector in the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately, this situation is applicable to many other socio-economic sectors which have also been badly damaged.
With all due respect to the role of these organizations, much of the assessment of the destruction and damage has been carried out with minimal involvement by the local community and grassroots organizations. Moreover, this has not been done within the framework of a unified Palestinian national plan, and taking into account the political divisions, the disorganization between the governmental and non-governmental Palestinian parties, the failure to include the assessment of damage and needs, and the prioritization of interventions based on community realities and the political and economic challenges inherent within these.
Many of these organizations have transformed development into relief and recovery, following the international and regional aid policies for Gaza. Thus local NGOs, grassroots organizations and other advocacy groups, encounter a real challenge. They need to apply systematic pressure on international aid organizations to intervene for real reconstruction, and to place systematic pressure on the international community and the Israeli government to allow the much-needed construction materials in to rebuild the Gaza Strip. Additional pressure is also needed to alter the prevailing direction, intervention approach and strategy adopted in the Gaza Strip. It must be changed from a strategy of « eat to survive » into a strategy of « rehabilitation and reconstruction from a developmental participatory perspective, » based on a participatory assessment of community needs and assets.
Between rights-based and humanitarian-based interventions
Right now the Gaza Strip is witnessing an unprecedented influx of dozens of programs and international organizations dealing with relief, recovery and emergency based on humanitarian needs, but not based on human rights needs. At the same time, a large number of international NGOs have retreated; there is confusion amongst their programs and visions as they implement unusual approaches and methods in their recent interventions which emerge from an early recovery perspective. It is important to remember that the losses inflicted upon the Gaza community were not only due to the last war on Gaza but were also a result of sufferings for the last at least eight years.
As a result of the new situation both NGOs and Agricultural Grassroots Organizations (AGOs) compete in and confuse their roles – the roles of both local and international “partners” overlap. The majority of local organizations, regardless of who they are, their size and ‘colors’ are heading towards battles over working agendas, or agendas of establishing roles and responsibilities, that will decide the forms of intervention and trends for local work. We all have fears that the agenda of Palestinian civil society – which so far has enjoyed a reasonable national developmental process – will join the international agenda, which embodies international features of recovery and relief of the Gaza Strip. We can see this joining together as pushing aside the Gaza tableau towards international humanitarian custody, possibly even reaching a situation of political trusteeship, which could lead to more political frustration and community dependency.
Strategic institutional changes are anticipated that could have really been started on ground. The vast majority of active Palestinian developmental organizations in Gaza will suffer from those alterations. Moreover, the whole Palestinian society which is divided and torn apart will suffer from these changes. The first indicator in the tableaux is competition on the « contracts market » of international organizations’ emergency and relief programs; this will make use of the reservoir of the local organizations and their programs. They will make use of their moral and material properties which have been accumulated in numerous developmental activities and relief proficiency, characterized by nationalism, authenticity, and sustainability, together with the local reservoir of learning and action, self-reliance, and by making the best use of the available, limited community resources. Many of those community and institutional good values and practices were resourced and accumulated from the first Intifada back in the 1980s and even earlier.
A large part of the above-mentioned ‘competitive battle’ will not only be about sources of funding. Rather, it could be about the policies, values, approaches and criteria of the work of the programs, a matter which will necessarily reflect upon the way we plan, monitor and evaluate our joint interventions, in other words, the way we learn and take actions towards good and positive change. It is a serious matter that this competitiveness takes place when there is no actual form of balanced partnership whether institutional or developmental or relief, that can take into consideration not only the dire needs of the poor or those who experienced the damage, but also the capabilities, assets, and aspirations of the local society and its grassroots organizations, in the short and long terms, including aspirations of a just peace and sustainable livelihoods.
Partnership-building and power to empower
If Palestinian political and societal disagreement continues, it will create vulnerability and a real threat to any attempt to build up and empower institutional partnerships for genuine relief or development between the international and local parties, notably with those organizations which enjoy solid popular and societal backgrounds and extract their power from people’s realities. If these partnerships were in place, it would be easy to start a process of learning and action via flexible and integrated frameworks of Participatory Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation (PPME) of the whole interventions, with the real participation of all actors concerned. Added to this must be the necessity of opening up enough scope and flexible mechanisms for people to speak their minds in estimating and deciding on what they require to be done, and for building up their assets, and practical knowledge in real life.
Legitimate worry and lack of actions
What worries us in the Gaza PPME team is that local Palestinian institutions obviously lack real and actionable form of partnership for relief or development purposes. We are also worried of the absence of an active entrepreneurial role by Palestinian civil society organizations and movements. They are supposed to act in response to the threat of societal issues, and these threats have been escalating on the popular fronts and at local, regional and international levels. In the light of the weakness or absence of local, effective and influential institutional partnerships, it becomes uneasy or even hard to speak about establishing genuine balanced local, regional and international partnerships that can enhance and promote institutional and social change by all and for all. Forms of present partnerships are limited to a framework of relationships, communications, coordination, non-integrated cooperation, and disorganized and confused information exchange. All this takes place in the absence of strategic political frameworks that organize the whole relations of cooperation locally, regionally and internationally. The existence of such participatory and flexible frameworks would underpin all relief and development efforts according to the continuing needs, capacities, and available capabilities at local level, which would enhance relief and developmental partnerships away from the state of hypocrisy and confusion and towards an enhancement of trust, confidence and entrepreneurship at grassroots level.
The security buffer zone issue and actions taken by Gaza PPME team
In the midst of the current situation, and within the context of the national challenges of relief and development, the most serious matter with regard to their position and relations of power and influence – the position of organizations whether international or local governmental or non-governmental – is the security buffer zone. Israel has confiscated land near the border areas across the whole of the Gaza Strip (approximately 60 kilometers long and 300-600 meters wide), controlling fertile agricultural land belonging to individuals and small farmers. This new de facto situation has created fear and horror among the locals of the border areas; they have deserted their places of residence, leaving their agriculture, domestic animals and livestock. What Israel calls a security buffer zone constitutes, more or less, 25% of the agricultural land, and it is where 16% of farmers live.
It is tragic that the majority of international aid programs, and thus, the majority of the local NGOs, do not have plans with clear features (plans for advocacy and lobbying that relate to the reality of the situation) for interventions to reconstruct the devastated and destroyed areas, and thus replace the displaced and refugees in their homes, farms and helping them to return to their normal life in the so-called ‘security’ buffer zone.
Day after day, the situation in that buffer zone submits to the de facto situation imposed by the Israeli army (exactly like the case of the dividing wall and the security zone in the West Bank). This new situation constitutes a real threat to the strategic reservoir of natural resources in the fertile land and underground water in the Gaza Strip. What Israel calls a security buffer zone was and still remains the main resource for the Gaza food basket and livestock. It hardly needs to be said that the buffer zone with its natural resources could be the only place for Gaza to expand in the case of any normal demographic and urban growth.
The entirety of the Gaza Strip tableau with all its complications creates an extremely precarious situation – a situation which may pave the way to a strategic threat not only to the population of the Gaza Strip but also to a real threat to peace building efforts in our region. It may push Gazans to the wall or to the neck of the bottle which is directed towards the desert!
Field of learning and action
Since its establishment, the Gaza PPME team has considered the issue of the buffer zone as the main issue to be targeted and the focus of advocacy through different interventions aimed at institutional/program, project and community levels. Furthermore, it has become the basis of our developmental and relief discourse among AGOs, with PARC and with other international aid organizations working in Gaza. There was a consensus within the PPME team that all our planned interventions should be directed to empower displaced farmers and serving their damaged agricultural resources near and within this area. As part of this consensus, those actors are leading an entrepreneurial successful experience in Gaza using a locally developed approach called “From Poor Farmers to Poor Families” also called “ From Besieged Farmers to Besieged Families”. The approach of this program has been initiated by PARC jointly with other AGOs in Gaza, it was designed, proposed and co-financed by at least ten regional and international aid organizations and solidarity groups. This approach has been locally designed from developmental perspective rather than recovery or pure humanitarian relief perspective.
“From Poor Farmers to Poor Families”…a new approach finds its way in Gaza
Five years ago, the Agricultural Development Association worked together with the World food program (WFP) to provide humanitarian relief (canned food, flour cooking oil, etc…) for the vulnerable households and affected farmers in the Gaza Strip. Later on, farmers within their AGOs started to advocate with PARC to develop the idea of this project to be more sustainable and developmental.
In the last few years, farmers and the larger Palestinian community (especially refugee segments) were badly affected by the Israeli blockade and have fewer chances to market their fresh food produce as a result of having the border crossings closed. This also led to surplus accumulation of fresh food in local markets resulting in very low prices. This is also a normal consequence of the low purchasing power of households in the Gaza Strip, especially with the rising rates of unemployment.
The idea of the project is simple: purchasing the fresh and processed food items from small-scale farmers and women producers and distributing them in special food baskets to vulnerable, poor and displaced households. This progress in the project idea has its real impact on both farmers and small scale women producers for saving their livelihoods and businesses from being closed down and avoiding their falling below the poverty line.
Gaza Participatory, Planning, Monitoring & Evaluation (PPME) team is a local initiative by PARC and four other Agricultural Grassroots Organizations, established after the Gaza war in January 2009. Gaza PPME Team is a learning and resource team that seeks to promote PPME as a flexible, transformative and learning framework for the promotion of good and responsible change among community grassroots organizations in Gaza.