Monday, March 2, 2009
Gaza: Billions pledged but will the washing machines get through?
Good news for Gaza after billions pledged at the international donors conference today in Egypt. Lets hope so. As Mahmoud Abbas was quick to pronounce (maybe he reads Head Down Eyes Open): cash is "insufficient" without a political solution. Abbas went on to say that "the reconstruction and development efforts will remain insufficient, powerless and threatened in the absence of a political settlement". And this is the crux of the matter.
Most aid is conditional. In this case, conditional on real political action but that we discussed previously. It will likely be conditioned by many donors that Hamas does not benefit. And, of course, it will be conditional on Israel's cooperation to open up the border and allow an increased flow of aid and economic activity.
The first condition, if going by many positive statements from world leaders in Sharm el Sheik today may actually occur. The second condition, for argument's sake, can be readily circumvented by channelling aid through the Palestinian Authority, the UN and other aid organizations such as the Palestine Red Crescent. The third condition is trickier however.
During my recent years in the region, where I worked closely with both Palestinian and Israeli authorities to facilitate the movement of people and goods across Gaza's perimeter, the argument of "dual purpose" was regularly used by Israel to block aid and effectively seal`off Gaza from everything apart from the most vital commodities. One anecdotal example: I spent about 6 months trying to get two washing machines into Gaza for a hospital laundry (do you realize how difficult it is to run a hospital without a laundry?). The washing machines were declared "dual purpose" by the IDF, that is, could be easily converted into parts for missiles or other home-made projectiles. Other items which qualified for this ambiguous label were gravel, concrete, water pumps and on and on.
It is extremely difficult to argue against this type of logic (despite the fact that as the neutral Red Cross we guaranteed to provide a 'safe escort' for the washing machines and to monitor thier installation into the laundry). Eventually after months of efforts we succeeded - as we often do, persistence being one of the Red Cross' greatest assets. This frustration is a real issue today because large-scale projects - such as a USAID funded water and sewage project for Beit Lahiya in the north of the Strip - were completely cancelled in the past because of the impossibility to ship in raw materials and spare parts. Before this current escalation of the crisis Gaza's production was dependent on 95% raw material imports (I guess its nigh on 100% today). Will we find the political will to facilitate the ambitious reconstruction plans demanded by a $5 billion aid package?
Ban Ki Moon, UN chief, is already making this issue his key message. The UN suffered massive destruction in Gaza during the January conflict and are aware of all the potential pitfalls on the road ahead. Ban has said that the situation for getting goods through the so-called crossings into Gaza today is "intolerable" (even pasta is on the banned list it seems). "Aid workers do not have access. Essential commodities cannot get in. Our first and indispensable goal, therefore, is open crossings," he told delegates at the conference today.
We have seen in similar conferences that the easy part is to pledge money. Delivering on pledges and getting the aid to those who need it most is the real challenge ahead. We will return to this subject and follow the path from pledge to reality. If we look at the case of Afghanistan for example more than $25 billion was pledged and less than $15 billion actually 'handed over' - though according to Oxfam's research as much as 40% of this made its way back to the donor country. Like the child in the photograph accompanying this post, we will be keeping an eye on the future.