Spending Aid to Palestinians Wisely


Aug 16, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on August 16, 2007.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's new effort to promote the development of the Palestinian economy and self-government hinges not just on how much foreign assistance can be provided to desperately poor Palestinians, but on how the funds will be spent.

Blair began his work on July 23 by visiting Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. As the new special envoy of the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers—the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations—he faces an enormous task.

President George W. Bush's recent announcement that the United States will provide the government of the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, with about $190 million in humanitarian aid and $80 million in security assistance is an important step to strengthen Abbas and his moderate Fatah group in their power struggle with the radical group Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

But before opening wide the sluice gates of aid, the United States and other donor nations need to join with Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayad, to develop plans to use the funds both to boost Palestinian support for the Abbas government and to promote long-term economic policies that improve the lives of Palestinians.

Fortunately, there has already been a lot of work completed on what is needed. The World Bank has produced good analyses of various sectors of the Palestinian economy, such as water, agriculture and energy. And the RAND Corporation has produced comprehensive recommendations in three reports on key steps needed to build a successful Palestinian state.

The priorities that emerge from this work are not always obvious.

For example, with the Palestinian unemployment rate at 40-to-60 percent and their per capita gross domestic product now among the world's lowest, getting the economy moving is an urgent priority. But big infrastructure projects that are essential for longer term economic growth take time to get underway.

Paying back salaries due Palestinian government workers will inject a large immediate stimulus into their economy. But some crucial measures don't cost money. If some Israeli military checkpoints inside the West Bank can be removed, this would give an important boost to the Palestinian economy.

Beyond economic stimulus, the best way to raise Palestinian public support for Abbas would be for international donors to focus on three areas close to the hearts of every Palestinian: health, education, and law and order.

Palestinian children, in particular, are suffering from malnourishment and mental illness (traumatic stress disorder). Programs for inoculations, distributing micronutrients, primary care, and mental health should be mobilized quickly. These efforts would touch every Palestinian household and undercut Hamas' great claim to fame - its local health clinics - by providing something better.

Palestinians have a deep respect for education, but facilities and the availability of educational material deteriorated dramatically in the period of the intifada and subsequent disorder. Aid from the United States and elsewhere could be used to rebuild and repair the schools and provide new books, computers and other learning materials. This would have an immediate impact on every family, and begin the longer term process of teaching tolerance and democratic values, and later developing needed vocational job skills.

Ask a West Bank resident about security and he or she is more likely to complain about crime than the Israeli soldiers or Hamas gunmen.

Despite international help, the Palestinian institutions of justice are feeble and often nonexistent. The jails, courthouses and police stations were largely destroyed in the last intifada. In many places there are no police to apprehend criminals, no place to jail them, no courts to try them, no judges, no prosecutors and no defense attorneys.

The security situation cannot be reversed overnight. Training programs for the Palestinian police will soon start up, but that is not enough. New judges and attorneys are essential too, and will take time to train. Equally important, new police stations and courthouses need to be built quickly to restore the symbols of order and justice.

Finally, measures must be put in place to ensure that international aid does not fall into the black hole of corruption. Hamas' election success was fed by public revulsion at blatant official theft by members of Fatah. Abbas will not regain credibility unless he puts an end to it.

With the needs of the Palestinians so vast, it is difficult to decide priorities. But in the present circumstance with the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority at stake, programs are needed to immediately impact individuals, families, and communities, while laying the groundwork for long-term sustainable progress.

Programs in health, education, and criminal justice are essential prerequisites for a successful state. They are glimpses of the better life that lasting peace can bring for the Palestinian people.

David Aaron is director of the Center of Middle East Public Policy for the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. Ross Anthony is co-director of the Center for Domestic and International Health Security at RAND.

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