Hagai El-Ad is an Israeli human rights activist and currently serves as the director of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.BPR: Have actions against your organization by the Israeli government and private groups been a tipping point for political discourse in Israel? How do you push back against that?HEA: This is perhaps the peak so far of a process that began a number of years after Operation Cast Lead [the 2008-09 Gaza War]. It’s a process of delegitimizing human rights organizations, portraying them as enemies of the state, as terrorists, as agents of anti-Israeli foreign powers, and so on. Concurrent with this process is the wave of violence in recent months and the utter failure of the right, which has basically been a policy of “occupation status quo.” That policy isn’t working, and the government doesn’t seem to have any coherent constructive plan to address the situation. Instead, they have opted for a classic fascist move, which is to try and target imagined traitors from within society.BPR: What is the perception in Israel of non-Israelis who oppose the occupation in the West Bank?HEA: I’m not sure how aware people abroad are to the tale that government officials here are saying, which is that anyone who dares to comment from abroad about the situation in the West Bank is meddling in Israel’s internal affairs. That needs to be refuted in the most direct terms. Contrary to the way the government portrays the issue here — that the world is exerting all this pressure against Israel because of the occupation and so on — facts are very different. In reality, world governments and Jewry are, broadly speaking, very patient with the occupation. Sometimes statements are made, but anyone can see the difference between statements and action. And anyone who understands that the terribly symbolic moment — 50 years of occupation — is getting closer and closer needs to ask themselves: What can and should I do so that we don’t continue the same conversation and have another 50 years of occupation?BPR: As Israel has tried to crackdown on terrorism against Palestinians, have you noticed a reduction in settler violence?HEA: It’s still too early to draw conclusions, but at the same time I think it’s important to not let settler violence, which is unacceptable and a serious issue, distract us from the main source of oppression of Palestinians. Most of the violations are “legal” actions, taken by the state, justified by the courts in Israel, and considered acceptable, mainstream, and sensible. A lot of attention is given to settlers building illegally over Palestinian lands, and of course it’s terrible and unacceptable. But in reality, the main way Israel takes control over Palestinian lands is not by building illegal outposts, but instead in a way that is completely legal, which is [designating territory to be] “state lands,” and other similar mechanisms — firing zones, nature preserves, and such. I understand why the attention shifts when there are terrible and violent incidents, but we should not confuse ourselves, because this is something that becomes very convenient for the government.BPR: Is Israeli occupation of the West Bank static, changing, or moving to some sort of climax?HEA: Zooming out, what you see is a constant vector, moving in the same direction, sometimes picking up pace, sometimes slowing down but always progressing in the same general direction. That direction is the further solidification of Israeli control of different areas of the West Bank. This has been allowed to continue under the convenient backing of the “peace process” [which is] always process, never peace, as long as negotiations and no pressure are applied. Israel has used those 20 years very well to advance its interests in the West Bank. The other thing that has happened over time is growing despair…The occupation is here to stay: Israel is continuing to advance its interest in the West Bank and any hope for a different future is diminishing for more and more people. In Gaza, there are no settlements, and Israeli control over Gaza is external not internal, but there is the issue of despair, a lack of progress, and seeing in the future more of the same, more poverty, no rebuilding. The question is, will Gaza be livable in a few years? I’m talking about basic things like electricity and drinking water. The government presents human rights organizations to the public as if we are the source of all the problems. What is its plan? Let’s imagine [the Israeli government] would achieve everything it desires — close down every human rights organization in the country, manage to have a Knesset [parliament] with no Arab members. Get rid of all the excuses [the government] makes — and then what? How will children live [in Gaza], in what reality will they grow up with, in 5 years, 10 years? There is no answer.BPR: How do you give Palestinians voice and agency in your work? HEA: That’s a very important question, which we think about all of the time. One of the main ways is through our video project, which is a leading global example for self-empowered citizen journalism. Palestinian volunteers, more than 200 of them all over the West Bank, have video cameras, and are empowered to document life under the occupation. Of course, the footage later released is the original footage the way it was shot by Palestinians.BPR: College campuses are a battleground of public opinion and activism on Israel-Palestine. What would you like to say to an audience of American college students?HEA: It’s surprising to me that there can even be an argument about the justification of the occupation…Why should we all somehow argue about this when it’s a glaring injustice that has been tolerated by the world for 50 years? For Americans, I wish that people would really educate themselves about the reality in the occupied territories. Ask yourself, what ways are the US and the policies of consecutive US administrations responsible for this?…It is the stated policy of the US administration to support the “two-state solution.” But everyone sees that what Israel is doing is contrary to the viability of a two-state solution. B’Tselem doesn’t take a position with regard to a future mutually agreed upon political solution, but the same steps that negate a two-state solution are also responsible for the worst human rights violations in occupied territory. What is the connection or lack thereof between the stated policy of the US and complete lack of action by the US government?
Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of Local Futures, a nonprofit organization that advocates economic localization, particularly in agriculture. In 2011, she co-directed and produced a documentary titled “The Economics of Happiness.”What does interdependence look like in so-called “traditional” economies?In places like Ladakh (Kashmir), the very clear difference between a more land-based, community-based economy and the really quite artificial, fossil fuel-based urbanizing development is very stark. In the traditional context, people had a scale in the economy, which meant that they could see that they depended on others; they shared common grazing areas, which they managed jointly. So the interdependence, both with other people and with the land and the animals, and the water and natural resources was very clear and very visible because it was on a human scale.Is there any way to incorporate these ideas in our current economy?So many people alive today have only experienced small, rural communities that have been marginalized and, in many ways, decimated by the centralized, fossil fuel-based, global market. In those situations, you find people who are often just as dependent on faraway institutions, but they’re living on the periphery and they feel even less control. As a consequence of that insecurity, they become intolerant. It is difficult to persuade people of what I have to say when people have never experienced smaller communities that were in charge of their lives and interdependent in a way that nurtured cooperation…Fortunately, new initiatives are demonstrating that [interdependence] is not only desirable and possible, but that it’s actually happening.Where do you see interdependence initiatives taking root in our fossil fuel-based economies? I’m most familiar with the setting up of farmers markets…which we’ve worked to set up around the world. Those markets make the relationship between farmer and consumer completely different, because the interdependence between farmer and consumer becomes clearer. Many farmers have been pressured to produce standardized products that are exactly the same size and completely unnatural — producing apples and potatoes the way you would tennis balls. The farmers market is like entering into a new galaxy, because [farmers] can sell every single one of their potatoes or apples. It doesn’t matter if some are smaller or bigger, it doesn’t matter if some have brown spots on them. The discerning consumer actually prefers that [variation], because the perfection of the supermarket is brought through lots of chemicals. Even farmers who were more right-wing or not green at all, they’re in a situation where the spots on the fruits and vegetables don’t matter, and they have conversations with consumers who would like to see fewer chemicals. So we are now in this win-win situation where many previously held ideologies on both sides start falling away. This is an example of how we can not only recover some interdependence, but how it’s already happening through the localization movement.Are top-down policies needed to fundamentally change the system, or are grassroots movements enough?I’m definitely trying to encourage changes in policy, but our approach has been that we’re trying to educate members of the environmental movement to start looking at policy and notice that chemical ridden monocultures are there because of policy. We’ve been subsidizing them for generations. We can shift those subsidies up front. We can look at our annual budget. To get businesses that are taxable, they need to be more place-based and visible — we need to be able to regulate these businesses and tax them and to choose what we use those taxes for. In terms of regulations, and taxes, and subsidies, there are huge changes that could be made. We feel those changes won’t come about if a few of us start lobbying a few politicians. We need to see a movement — an Occupy Two, if you like — which is very different in that it has a clearer analysis of how and why things have gone so wrong and how and why we want to change things.Are you excited by the rise of popular figures on the left such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in America?I am excited about it, and I do think it’s good. However, I feel the deeper, broader analysis our movement brings to the table is still not getting the voice that it needs. Unfortunately, almost everywhere you look, you see analyses from a particular national stance. I often describe what we do as looking at the global system from the bottom up. You see then that the global system constitutes a monopoly that is giant, consisting of deregulated banks that are producing money in a way that most people don’t understand. In effect, money is produced out of thin air — delinked from gold or any standard. That creation of money is pushing and supporting at the same time the Walmarts and McDonald’s and Monsantos of the world to move into every local and national market. In that light, a left stance of trying to regain control by governments is important. The nation-state often has been a clumsy top-down structure and has not been able to respond to ecological realities, nor to social or cultural realities, so we really need further decentralization. Privatizing downwards into smaller enterprises is in many cases far better than having government-run enterprise.Are alternative ideas like yours being heard, or do you think they are still largely on the fringe?We are not getting into the media. We need well-funded, think tank type activity to get a different picture out. One other point that I want to stress is that the localization movement is incredibly vast and growing incredibly quickly, but it doesn’t see itself as a movement. It consists of all these countless initiatives — everything from seed-saving to some regional and local governments now trying to procure local food. We believe that once these initiatives see themselves as part of a larger movement, that’s when they will gain momentum.
The knife-wielding terrorists that have been appearing in our social media newsfeeds with alarming regularity over the past months do not distinguish between combatants and civilians. In their eyes, a British aid worker is as legitimate a victim as an enemy soldier. But something other than just the seemingly boundless fanaticism of groups like ISIL may be at work here. Even though humanitarian agencies assert their impartiality and neutrality and often focus their efforts on mitigating suffering, they have increasingly come under attack in conflict zones—not just in the Middle East, but around the world. Especially for international and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) who are not associated with a national government, the space for humanitarian action in war zones appears to be closing.
In theory, the humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality are not only considered normatively valuable, but practically expedient. They are meant to ensure that aid agencies can operate in politically charged environments like conflict zones without being attacked or influencing political constellation. Reality, however, is often far away from this “ideal” situation.The space for humanitarian actors is especially fraught in the context of international military coalitions. Military actors often see the aid agencies, including NGOs, as a non-military extension of their mission pursuing the same objectives with different means. The dissemination of this view is highly problematic for aid providers, as the example of Afghanistan shows. After the ISAF mission was launched in 2001 to oust the Taliban and other Islamist groups, a large network of foreign NGOs and international agencies took up work in the country, operating in fields as diverse as public health, education, human rights, economic development and refugee rehabilitation. At the same time, the NATO-led military coalition was engaged in a series of protracted counter-insurgency campaigns. When then-NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen called for military and non-governmental actors in Afghanistan to “work together from the outset and according to a single plan” and stressed that military efforts would only be successful when combined with the “soft power” of civilian actors, his comments sparked criticism among many NGOs active in the country, who invoked their political neutrality.From the perspective of an intergovernmental institution like NATO, Rasmussen’s view appears reasonable. After all, civilian actors are better equipped to deal with the non-military requirements of security politics and state-building than armed forces, in particular when it comes to establishing ties with the civilian population. State actors are also aware that the language of humanitarianism enjoys greater legitimacy than pure security rhetoric. This makes them keen to stress the symbiotic relationship between the military and humanitarian agencies.But for the NGO community, Rasmussen’s speech was reminiscent of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s controversial statement in 2001 that NGOs served as a “force multiplier” for the United States in Afghanistan. In the eyes of humanitarian agencies, such remarks undermine their claim to neutrality and impartiality by casting them as the compliant appendages of military actors. To put it in more extreme terms, they become part of a project that many claim builds Western political and cultural hegemony. Needless to say, such a perception compromises their ability to act in war zones like Afghanistan, where they will inevitably be perceived as parties to the conflict by combatants and civilians alike.However, it may be too easy to simply blame this development on Western governments’ tendency to drape their military actions in the language of humanitarianism, thus making humanitarianism accessory to military action. In fact, some have claimed that the NGOs’ criticism of Rasmussen’s speech may have been the outcome of pragmatic power considerations. The agencies’ emphasis on non-alliance came at a time when NATO’s position in Afghanistan was becoming tenuous; they had taken less issue with acting under its auspices while its military dominance seemed more secure.This points to the crucial role that issues of security play in making the role of NGOs in conflict zones so ambiguous: There are contexts in which humanitarian aid providers depend on a certain degree of alliance with military or state actors in order to reach those in need. However, this dependency dramatically increases the risk that humanitarian agencies become instruments of political actors, and in some cases even becoming inadvertent accessories to war crimes. For instance, scholars like Adam Branch have argued that the activities of humanitarian agencies in northern Uganda in the early 2000s, while aimed at mitigating the suffering of internally displaced persons, inadvertently prolonged and facilitated the Ugandan government’s brutal counter-insurgency campaign and its forced displacement of civilians.
This points to the crucial role that issues of security play in making the role of NGOs in conflict zones so ambiguous: There are contexts in which humanitarian aid providers depend on a certain degree of alliance with military or state actors in order to reach those in need.
And yet, proactive attempts by NGOs to prevent such catastrophic outcomes can sometimes be equally risky: When Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international medical NGO, referenced sectarian violence in northern Myanmar as the cause of suspected casualties, the country’s government accused MSF of being politically invasive and banned it for nine months. Not only did MSF’s decision to speak out compromise its ability to deliver services in Myanmar, but it also put the organization’s access to other conflict zones at risk.This dilemma shows how difficult it is for humanitarian NGOs to stay out of the political arena. If defiance can have just as catastrophic repercussions as compliance, NGOs have to negotiate an extremely complex and contentious path. This explains the ongoing debates within many of these agencies about how political or apolitical their aid provision can or should be.This debate is not entirely new. The accusation of inadvertently facilitating war crimes was already levelled against aid intervention missions in the 1980s, such as the Live Aid concerts for Darfur in 1985. The concerts were extremely successful in raising awareness about the catastrophic famine unfolding in Ethiopia at the time, but obfuscated both the political causes of the crisis and the diversion of funds away from humanitarian uses. However, the recent increase in violence against humanitarian actors has dramatically increased the urgency of this debate. According to data from the Aid Worker Security Database, the number of aid workers killed worldwide rose from 87 in 2003 to 155 in 2013 and kidnappings of aid workers skyrocketed from seven to 141 in the same period. Again, MSF provides a telling example: In recent years, the NGO has come under attack in the Central African Republic, Afghanistan, Syria and Chad, among other countries.While this upsurge in violence may be partly attributed to a proliferation of humanitarian activities, other factors are also at work. In a talk at Brown University’s Watson Institute in February, former MSF director Unni Karunakara argued that the blurry lines between political agendas and neutral humanitarian action are contributing to the problem. According to Karunakara, attempts to co-opt the ideas and practices of humanitarian work for political purposes erode the trust in principles of neutrality and impartiality and encourage the perception that humanitarian actors are legitimate targets.The consequences are dramatic—not only for the organizations themselves, but also for their ability to provide services. In 2013, MSF ended all its operations in Somalia after 22 years, stating that the increasing levels of violence against its workers made their work impossible. Numerous Somalis have been left without access to medical care.It is precisely conflict-ridden countries like Somalia and other sites of man-made disaster where the efforts of neutral humanitarian actors are often needed the most. But when increasing attacks on aid workers thwart efforts to provide relief, the dramatic human cost is not the only thing that should have us concerned. The attacks should also alert us to the importance of not blurring the lines between humanitarian aid and political intervention any further. Needless to say, this doesn’t imply that we should think of humanitarian intervention as pristine and beyond political manipulation. The point is to avoid sweeping cynical claims, such as the view that humanitarian work is merely Western imperialism by other means, just as we ought to be wary of the view that humanitarian work is by definition apolitical. This, in addition to severe sanctions against groups that target humanitarian agencies, is essential for upholding the safety of aid workers and the effectiveness of their efforts.
The Better World by Design conference, an annual gathering of Brown and RISD students, community members, and designers of all varieties was bound to elicit critical thought on a number of subjects. What I did not expect, however, was to be critiquing the presentations and panelists I saw for their use of “poverty porn.” Poverty porn is a representational issue of larger questions related to NGOs and government’s roles in providing aid.Poverty porn is the term increasingly used to refer to images utilized to solicit money or goods for charities and foundations attempting to help people in the developing world. These images often depict crying, starving, or generally destitute children, frequently wearing minimal clothing, in the street, or in a hospital setting. Another form of poverty porn promotion is images of people in the developed world smiling when given some new plastic object that is supposed to improve their lives. This resource use depiction is what makes poverty porn problematic; the people receiving goods lack agency in this narrative. Usage of these images portrays the developing world as a victim only salvable by Western intervention and power (or in this case, the reverse).Fatefully, the first panel I attended was titled, “Designing New Narratives: Moving from Poverty Porn to Agency,” and featured Linda Raftree from Regarding Humanity, Victor Dzidzienyo from Howard University, and Leah Chung who performed on-site research as a RISD Maharam fellow. To varying degrees the panelists bring attention to and attempt to change poverty porn use. However, the three only brushed the surface of the poverty porn problem, and failed to go into greater depth regarding possible solutions. Nevertheless, the panel sparked my attention and informed subsequent conference analysis.The poverty porn intervention outlook is repeated in many sectors of international aid and in societal understanding of global social issues. Ruyard Kipling first coined the phrase, “white man’s burden” in his 1899 poetic commentary on American imperialism to describe this phenomenon. The “noble enterprise” justification is still present when analyzing both governmental and non-profit development aid. Just as “Africa” and “Uganda,” or “Middle Eastern” and “Arab,” are used interchangeably, poverty porn furthers the facelessness of the native or the namelessness of the brown face.Media depictions reinforce stereotypical images of poverty. Over and over we are bombarded with images from charities such as Smile Train, Operation Smile, or Water Aid. Big news sources often pick up and repeat such images; even if the discussion focuses on harsh depictions of the developing world, these descriptions are still promoted. Similarly, many charities and organizations boil down serious issues to percentages, ratios, and one-to-one comparisons. Often, intervention becomes an economic question: “$1 invested in water is $4 invested in the community,” or “we can feed 4 million more people without spending one more dollar.”Resisting this narrative can be difficult. Western nations have the technology, the funds, and the mobilization power to successfully provide aid in the form of life-improvement items, livestock, or electricity and water infrastructure. Sending items that we think people need (see the TIMS video) and therefore solve their problems for them is a lack of belief that they are able to manage their own lives. Effective aid is not about what you personally think people should want or have, but rather what they think they need. Locals are much better equipped to specify the forms in which aid can be utilized most efficiently. In order to use local knowledge it is critical to engage with the communities in question rather than making executive decisions without local consultation.The resolution for poverty porn is not for NGOs and governments to pull out of the developing world, but to reevaluate and reframe their positions there, particularly in Africa. Solutions to avoid unintentionally falling into using poverty porn images include letting people within the communities tell their own stories, as opposed to relying on outside forces to do so. A Better World by Design advocates for a thoughtful and intentional approach to design. When expanded to international development aid, this means taking a deliberately collaborative role with local communities and populations, listening to those stories. Significant change can be achieved through supporting local design and innovation, not merely exporting ideas from the developed world.Two speakers at the Better World by Design conference merited attention for their interactions with local communities: Daniel Feldman, an Architecture for Humanity regional ambassador and Alex Eaton, co-founder of Sistema Biobolsa. These two men work intimately with communities and families to develop and build appropriate structures and develop suitable technologies. Daniel Feldman spoke of the critical role of architecture and design in Colombia for developing sustainable and usable structures while sidestepping bureaucratic zoning laws. Alex Eaton brings biodigestors (units that convert manure or other organic waste into usable energy) to small communities that are otherwise plagued by lack of electricity and public health problems. What struck me is the degree to which the men consider their role and influence as outsiders in these small communities. They ask what the role of design should be, what the role of designers should be, and how to make objects that are durable, easy to install and uninstall, adaptable, modular, and inexpensive. Feldman and Eaton work on projects that see people as more than objects, choosing instead to empower them through the utilization of local resources and spaces to enhance their quality of life, rather than depend on the next installment of international aid.The issue we return to is the nature of the role NGOs should play in crisis or need situations. Should they take culture into account? Do NGOs function primarily as a temporary service or as transitionally helpful entities? International development aid is not black and white but incredibly nuanced. Too often Western powers attempt to deploy one-item-fits-all approaches or to universally implement bureaucratic standards. Instead, they should take the vast variety and diversity of culture and community in impoverished areas as the foundation of their approach, and tailor solutions to fit each problem. A Better World by Design Conference attempts to start this process by addressing social engagement through the framework of design. As ever, the devil is in the details. The sooner this concept is realized in international aid programs, the sooner the aid itself will no longer be needed.
In discussing the Middle East, media outlets and political pundits alike can’t seem to avoid lame catchphrases, which reduce the complex political developments in the region to a narrative palatable enough for the average Joe. In 2011, it was “Arab Spring” as the world hoped Arabs were actually capable of democracy, in 2012 the “Arab Winter” or “Islamist Winter” as it was proven that no, they weren’t, and the world was going to hell in an Islamist handbasket to boot. While it is early yet in 2013, it appears as though most countries that overthrew their old regimes are finding liberal democracies surprisingly hard to establish and maintain. Egypt, as I discussed last week, is most certainly at a crossroads; attempts at political reform in Tunisia are constantly being blocked; and it goes without saying that Syria, which will “celebrate” the two-year anniversary of the beginning of its revolution/civil war tomorrow, is in trouble. In fact, the doom and gloom that pervade the political news out of the region are less deserving of a seasonal than an atmospheric catchphrase: the Middle East is, at least as far as Western commentators are concerned, under a black raincloud at the moment.But we have forgotten, as ever, about Bahrain!After two years of unrest, it would seem that things are starting to look up for the Bahraini protestors, Shiites long oppressed by the country’s Sunni monarchy. Earlier this week, the King appointed his son, Crown Prince Salman al-Khalifa, to the post of first deputy prime minister. The Crown Prince is seen as a moderate figure in the Bahraini government apparatus (especially relative to his great-uncle, the Prime Minister) and has received praise in the past month for pushing a new round of dialogue between the regime and the opposition. And the good news doesn’t stop there: prominent political activist Sayed Yousif al-Muhafda was recently acquitted of charges of false propaganda, a surprising development considering that the regime has always jumped at the chance to throw annoying protestors into prison.And to what (or whom) can we attribute these recent developments? One can assume, right off the bat, that they are due to some foreign influence. After all, Bahrain is not only stuck between