Monday, March 26, 2007

The Severe Limitations of the NGO Format

Something is wrong. There are more and more organizations on the left. But this plethora of NGO’s does not seem to signify an expansion of action on the left and growing impact on society here in Israel. There are signs that there are other processes at work. The following essay can be seen as an attempt by the writer to set off a serious debate on the organizational paths of the left. (1)

The NGO Format and the Work of the Left
The writer readily admits that he is inspired by an organizational model from the not too distant past. In the broadest sense, progressive content calls for progressive forms of organization. A progressive organization is one in which the exploited, the oppressed and those who have allied themselves with their cause associate for the improvement in their situation. The first requirement is that the group must be independent vis a vis the government and the establishment and able to decide its own policy on the basis of democratic procedure. Its political goals and aims must be expressed openly and it must consider itself free to engage in any lawful activity necessary for the advancement of its declared goals. The group itself provides the main financial support for the work of the organization through dues, contributions and funding campaigns and activities aspiring to create the broadest social network of members and supporters. If it enlists support from outside sources this is done in the name of solidarity. Such support is unconditional and the donors do not presume to supervise or control the organization in any form or fashion. On the contrary, any such attempt or suggestion of control would be considered unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of the group.

This kind of organization that appears so totally utopian in the above description was commonplace in the not so distant past. It was and will be the sign of vibrancy and relevance on the left.

The left in all of its various formations and personifications suffered a serious retreat with the demise of the Soviet Union and other related phenomena. Almost, as if in a parallel development, there was an enormous proliferation of non-governmental organizations, which continues to this very day. Many people saw the appearance of the NGO movement as a satisfactory substitute for the traditional left organizations. Even those who tended to express important reservations were hard pressed to oppose the NGO phenomenon which seemed as a welcome development when so many veteran groups on the left were in a state of retreat and dispersal.

This process also occurred, of course, in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. And the NGO’s in Israel, especially those dealing with subjects and raising demands that are generally considered causes of the left, are the subject of the present inquiry.

I cannot hide my opinion that the NGO operation is a poor substitute for vibrant, fighting organizations of the left. But my skepticism does not change the fact that many fine, wonderful and progressive people who are on the left consider the NGO’s as perfectly valid tools for left wing activity. Therefore, since NGO’s will be around for quite a time and may even be considered the main vehicle for day to day progressive activity, it is time to subject the phenomenon to detailed criticism.

NGO’s: People, Money, Office…Politics
On one end of the scale there are excellent NGO’s, staffed by wonderful and devoted people, who do important work. On the other end, there are also highly problematic NGO outfits, whose output is rather insignificant; the operators have secured their own income and spend their time writing for more grants and composing reports about activities that leave no imprint on the local scene.

Any attempt to create criteria for evaluating the different NGO’s must deal with two central aspects of this kind of organization. External funding is the critical common component of all the groups. This, of course, means that none of the groups is a truly independent entity. Moreover, it is common knowledge that NGO’s are not political and not supposed to participate in politics. They do have political impact but it must be registered under some other the heading of another kind activity such as humanitarian, educational, and advocacy related problems. These limitations on independence and the scope of NGO activity tend to tend to inhibit the action of many NGO’s in times of crisis when the resources of the groups and their membership is critically needed by the community.

Criteria for Evaluating the NGO
The following criteria should be employed in any attempt to evaluate the value and effectiveness of any particular NGO. There are important conceptual and practical differences between NGO’s operating in different fields of activity, so these criteria must be applied with due caution and a readiness for revision. It is hoped that the beginnings of the discussion here will inspire a wider debate among all concerned.

Measurement Is Absolutely Necessary and Always Problematic

We shall proceed in presenting criteria which seem to us central to evaluating the functioning of any NGO group.

People: Membership, Activists, Democracy
Who are the people working out of this NGO? How many non-staff volunteers are involved in the group. Are there members and membership lists? What is the ratio between paid staff members and volunteers? Does the group chart the development of membership and members activities?

The principle that we are trying describe here is very basic:
The main, central and essential goal of the organization should be drawing unorganized individuals into the work of the group. The main work of the staff should be attracting, interesting and helping new/old volunteers carry out the work of the groups.

Membership must be real and must grant real powers in running the organization. People are drawn into the organization in order to further its goals, but they can only sense that the group is their own if they have a genuine democratic role to play in determining policy and how the group functions.

Only the constitution of a clearly-defined membership can avoid the manipulation that comes when it is not clear “who decides.” Regular general meetings of the membership must monitor the work of an elected administration and approve annual reports and [re] elect the leadership.

In summary, the NGO should be devoting its main strength to mobilizing volunteers and empowering them in the administration of the group.

Funding and Staffing
Funding is the heart of NGO activity and its main problem. Obviously, the first duty of any group is to know the identity and the reputation of the funders, since all money is not “kosher.” The next central question is the relation between salaries and operating expenses. If the whole or almost the whole of the budget goes on salaries, then it is obvious that very little efficient work is actually being done. Here, I make the assumption that there is usually a sharp and clear distinction between internal work and work in the field. Simply said, every sustained effort outside of the office is “work in the field” and most of the expenses and most of the time of paid staff and volunteers must be in the field.

The group that wants to believe in its mission should be able to contemplate its continued existence without the bulk of its current funding. The organization should of course work seriously on generating its funds from the conventional sources abroad. But the group must recognize the ever present danger that the means become the goal, and it is the scramble for outside funding which justifies and perpetuates the existence of the organization. Moral and spiritual independence requires of the membership a determination to reach and maintain a modicum of financial and political independence. This spirit is the main guarantee of the group’s ability to transform itself in the face of different circumstances. The central conclusion is that any group worthy of its existence should be devoting serious efforts to local fundraising and covering some part of its budget from “internal sources.” In this respect, it is worth observing that there are many progressive middle class, affluent and even relatively wealthy people who could support progressive activity in the country. It seems that in some ways, the local NGO’s are influenced by the local Israeli mentality which has been conditioned to look abroad for funding without ever looking into its own pockets.

It goes without saying that all financial operations be subject to the most stringent version of regular accounting procedures. The group and its members must be guided by the principle that public funds are sacred and should be treated with a sense of respect.

Is there a policy regarding staffing. One of the danger signals is the existence of one or two “big chiefs” for whom the NGO has become a personal power base. These may be and are usually talented and devoted individuals with a record of devoted service to the goals of the left. But the very fact that it is clear to all concerned that everything rises and falls on the “big chief” means that the NGO is sacrificing, as it were, democracy and values to so-called efficiency. The NGO is usually structured as to become a stronghold for forceful individuals. The problem is that sooner or later this imbalance dis-empowers all others connected to the group. Indeed there is a danger that the NGO reproduces completely (or almost completely) the values and the mechanisms of the society which it is challenging in one form or another. Therefore, policies regarding staff positions, remuneration, work conditions and hiring-firing policies must be declared openly as a basis for the group’s operation.

The Non-NGO’s
It is worth mentioning that even in the period when most groups on the left are NGO’s, the left’s most impressive achievements of come out of groups which are not NGO’s. Women in Black, Yesh Gvul, Ta’ayush, Anarchists Against the Wall, Machsom Watch and the Refusenik movement chose to ignore the “convenience” and the advantages of the NGO’s format. After all is said and done, it is spontaneous moral urgency which is the best motivation for action. The existence of an “office and a staff” and connection with an overseas funding operation, are often an impediment to action.

The Media – Ah, the Media
In a world, where the measurement of effectiveness is indeed difficult and problematic, there is a tendency to over emphasize the importance of media coverage. There is something very ephemeral and even mystifying in counting lines in the press, or seconds on television as proof of effective activity. The point is not that these outlets are not important, but that they can be deceiving and act as a substitute for real action and activity. The tremendous expansion of media outlets has led to a major devaluation in such coverage. Moreover, successful and thoughtful action by the organization can generate coverage without ignoring the most important organizational questions: the educational value, the sense of empowerment, the activization of more and new people.

Respect and Self-Criticism
The writer realizes that he has not dealt with all the important aspects of the question on hand. He also wishes to stress that many devoted and capable people on the left are involved, as a result of circumstances, in NGO work. However, there is also a real danger that for generations to come, the NGO format will appear to be the main or exclusive format for the left’s action. This was and is not true and the main purpose of this article is to remind us that autonomous, independent, politically informed membership-based organization is not a thing of the past, but the hope for the future.

(1) The reader is directed to “The Emergence of a Palestinian Globalized Elite”, Sari Hanafi and Linda Tabar, Muwatin, Jerusalem 2005. See also an important article by Arundhati Roy, Le Monde Diplomatique, March 2006 on problems and limits of NGO’s in third world settings

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Welcome, Welcome to the New Palestinian Government

Welcome, Welcome to the Palestinian Unity Government
The establishment of a united Palestinian government is an important step forward in the battle for Palestinian rights and for a just peace coming as it does when Israel is on the defensive and US policies in the region are in deep trouble. It has been long clear that the Palestinians and the Arab countries are ready for a far-reaching compromise for peace. If there is a chance, at this point, for serious negotiations, it stems from the crisis of Bush’s policies. The area is in turmoil, and US control of the Middle East is on the downgrade. The entire world keeps telling the US government that the tension surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the US blanket support for Israel is destroying the last vestiges of US prestige in the region. With the US wallowing in Mesopotamian mud in Iraq, the so-called “moderate” Arab countries are demanding a revision in US policy. Rice is trying to pass off a new round of blather and chatter as the resumption of the ‘peace process’, but more and more nations and countries are losing their patience. Everybody has had enough of the bluff.

The only alternative to the present ugly reality in Israel-Palestine is peace based on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. With all the favorable developments surrounding the Saudi initiative, it is far from certain that given the obstacles, the odds are in favor of an early peace. Looking dispassionately at the obstacles to genuine peace, even the most engaged advocate of the two-state solution knows that we are talking about a possibility and not a probability. In any event the current struggle for peace is an important element in the international effort to further isolate and expose Bush and Co.

Many of us were pleased to see Mustafa Bargouti among the ministers in the new Palestinian government. Mustafa Bargouti is well known to the peace camp in Israel and to the friends of peace in the international community. He appears regularly in the international media as an effective and articulate spokesperson for the Palestinian cause. As a rule, Bargouti supports serious dialog between Palestinians and Israeli groups fighting for a just peace. His frequent appearances in important meetings of the protest movement bear witness to his humanist principles. He was absolutely right when he declared on television this week that if Israel really wants peace, all the issues can be solved peacefully within the framework of the two-state solution. If the people of Israel will find a way to overcome the obstacles raised by the Olmert government, peace can be achieved ushering in a period of prosperity and security.

The Contours of the Settlement Were Never Clearer
Though no one can promise that there will indeed be a two state solution, we can say with a reasonable degree of exactness - as a result of contacts over the years and repeated analysis of the real possibilities - what a two state solution would look like. The contours of this very settlement appear in almost identical formulation in a long series of proposals, many of them from authentic Palestinian and Arab sources.

The borders will be determined in accordance with the pre-1967 lines, with mutually agreed alterations. Obviously, there will be serious bargaining about territorial trade offs. The more reasonable approach suggests that it will be easier to find a fair trade off, close to the 1967 borders, than demanding the evacuation of heavily populated Israeli properties. But the 1967 principle means that the Palestinians will demand and receive territory of equal political and economic value.

Jerusalem will indeed serve as two capitals – Israeli and Palestinian as the Palestinians extend sovereignty over the Arab neighborhoods in the city.

There will be a fair and just solution of the refugee problem. The practical translation of this conception, fathered by Yasser Arafat, draws a distinction between the indispensable need for recognizing the rights of the Palestinian refugees on one hand and the implementation, of those rights on the other hand - which will take into account Israeli demographic concerns. The Palestinians can and will demand serious damages and large scale compensation, which is all the more reasonable since repatriation to Israel will be possible only in a small minority of cases. Financial compensation, citizenship rights, recovery of property, choice of domicile, limited repatriation, and subsidized emigration opportunities can go a long way towards a serious improvement in the life of each and every refugee family, though they may not meet the criteria of absolute justice. It is right and just that any responsible Arab negotiator will put the moral demand for repatriation on the table. It will remain there until it is replaced by a serious international material and moral commitment to the welfare of the refugees and a modicum of Israeli cooperation is ensured. At that point it will be possible to enable the mechanics of compromise to do their work.

The New Utopians
Sadly enough, the Israeli ruling circles have recklessly undermined Israel’s moral right to existence. But this does not mean that Israel is on the verge of collapse. Any orientation on swift and just revenge for the crimes against the Palestinians would be politically foolhardy and morally problematic, since it would be quite unhelpful to insist that the Israeli people pay for the miserable policies of their leaders. In all likelihood, the armed conflict must and can end before Israel fully understands the nature of its crimes and mistakes.

It must be understood that we are still very much in the era of practical solutions (with all their limitations) to burning problems and still searching for ways to shorten the duration of human suffering. In case the advocates of the one state solution have not noticed it, we are not in a revolutionary period. We need to pursue the kind of politics which takes into account this reality however unpleasant. Ignoring reality involves immediate and costly failure, and has long ago lost its heroic dimension.

There was a period in which the left did indeed formulate revolutionary policies and slogans for the Middle East. But back then there were some indications that revolutionary ideas and forces were at work in the region. Though these views were based on exaggerated hopes and unrealistic expectations, they did reflect real ideas and forces. They did build on the daily practice of thousands of dedicated activists. The most common slogan on the left back then was the establishment of a single democratic secular socialist state. That slogan back then was infinitely more relevant and achievable than the idea of a single democratic state of Jews and Palestinians in Palestine today. Today, the support for a one- state solution draws its encouragement from the current stalemate and everything it involves. The highly tenuous logic holds that, if the two-state vision is not working, then the potential for a single state solution increases. But there is not the slightest attempt to outline the processes or the actors which will struggle for a single democratic state. Of course, many will admit that “it is a good idea.”

The advocates of the one-state solution usually share with the left a completely totally justified condemnation of the role of the United States and its collusion with Israeli intransigence. However, in the foreseeable future – even envisioning highly positive shifts in the international and regional alignment – there are only two possible states of affairs. The first, and the most likely, is the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This involves constant fluctuations in the levels of tension and repression and periodic wars by Israel to maintain its deterrent capacity and to prevent slippage in the existing balance of forces with the ongoing danger of a general catastrophe. The second is the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside of Israel.

In passing, it is relevant to notice that what we have today is a one-state affair. Israel continues to integrate the occupied territories through Israeli settlement efforts and reinforces it grip on the remains of the Palestinian economy. Given favorable circumstances, Israel is always on the look out for expanding absorption of Palestinians into the Israeli labor force. Of course, it is also highly important that both peoples are clearly locked into the idea of an independent sovereign state.

Only one ideological approach can justify principled opposition to a two state solution: the classic position of Palestinian nationalism (which, of course, is in no way morally inferior to Jewish nationalism). The classic position of Palestinian nationalism is that Palestine is an Arab country and must be the exclusive basis for the self determination of the Palestinian people. This is a principled and coherent position and accepting a deal for anything less, which seals off the possibility of an Arab state in all of Palestine, is tantamount to treachery. The true nationalist is ready to wait until there is a major reversal in the relations of forces and the important thing, until then, is not to compromise principles.

However, the prevailing experience with all or nothing approaches is that more often then not, you can end up with nothing. This is more than likely here in Palestine where there are a number of processes impacting on the small, tiny territory of Palestine, any of which might cause the final and total collapse of the Palestinian nationalist vision. These include Israelization, Islamicization or Pan-Arabization.

Israelization could conceivably dissect over time and eventually dismember the national movement by a combination of repression, assimilation and expulsion. We see evidence of partial Israeli successes in all these fields.

Islamicization, very much on the rise, has the potential to eliminate all secular, national perspectives. Most devoted Palestinian nationalists see political Islam as more of a danger than an ally. To complete the list of potential disruption of the Palestinian vision, it is necessary not to forget the past. At one point, Pan-Arabism, presently in retreat, almost replaced any special role for Palestine independence.

Of course, the hoped for reversal of fates - the collapse of Israel - might indeed rescue the chances for full Palestinian national liberation. But this involves a rather ironic danger: that the Palestinians find themselves in the role of oppressors of the Jews in the country. There might be some sort of poetic justice in such a reversal of fate. But that kind of role might conceivably be worse for the Palestinians’ national vision than the long night of victimhood in their own land.

We Must Test Our Principles in Real Life
Bush and Cheney are growingly isolated. Forward looking Palestinian policies are contributing to that isolation. Washington is locked on the horns of a dilemma. It can either cooperate in a joint international effort to reduce mounting tension and dangers in the region or it can stall and look for the first opportunity to re-establish unlimited domination by new military expeditions. The old clearly delineated relation of military, economic and political forces is crumbling. It takes a lot of realism in Washington to interiorize the new situation. The US must try and recognize that it has lost “big” in the Middle East and that the only way to prevent further escalation is to deal sincerely with foes and friends. It is to be hoped that at one point the US leading groups will become convinced that accords and agreements based on the new circumstances are preferable to new wild and irresponsible adventures. These are the circumstances that can impart new life into the search for Israeli-Palestinian peace.