RAMALLAH - The colorful billboard stands tall on a wall in the center of Ramallah showing a girl dreaming of becoming a teacher. Another one grabs the attention of passersby with the picture of a boy holding a stethoscope imagining himself as a doctor. The sentence at
These kinds of posters, placed around the inner city of Ramallah, are frequent reminders of an aggressive campaign by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) offices in Israel and the Palestinian territories as the agency focuses its promotional tools in an attempt to improve the US’ image among Palestinians.
When asked how they perceive USAID's new advertising campaign, Palestinians are divided.
"These billboards are placed anywhere and they make the city ugly," says 25-year-old Zaid Moqdad. "But I don't complain about the USAID's campaign because they are not a commercial organization. They are helping the people without taking any benefit out of it. So if they want to show what they do, it is fine by me."
Mohammad Hassan, 43, rapidly glancing at the advertisement poster, holds a very different opinion.
"Palestinian people are not stupid. Americans think they can buy our sympathy with pretty pictures, but we know that the economic situation we are facing now is a direct result of them boycotting our government, and thus our people."
The United States and other Western countries stopped funding institutions linked to the Palestinian government since Hamas came into power in March 2006, following the Islamic movement's landslide victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections. Government workers' have only been paid part of their salaries since then and the Palestinian Territories are now facing their direst economic crisis.
"There is a perception among Palestinians that the United States has embargoed the Palestinian people. This is not true,” says a USAID spokesperson. “On the contrary, while we cannot work with the (Hamas) government, we haven't given up on the people. For example, we have channeled more money through U.N. organizations working in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,"
'Working in favor of the Israelis'
But criticism of the US funding mechanisms is not only focusing on the US position towards Hamas government, but also on the conditions attached to its development aid.
"The USAID's conditions for funding, more precisely the additional protocols, are unacceptable. They are telling us what to do and they interfere in internal politics," says a coordinator of the Palestinian Non-governmental Organization Network (PNGO), speaking on condition of anonymity as he is not in charge of talking to the press.
PNGO, a volunteer organization covering 99 Palestinian non-governmental organizations, has launched a boycott campaign against the USAID, encouraging Palestinian NGOs to refuse grants offered by the American agency. It claims that the list of persons and organizations considered to be terrorists and with which beneficiaries of American aid are not allowed to deal, is an attempt "to create internal conflict among Palestinians."
"Any political party in Palestine is considered as a terrorist organization, whether it is Hamas, FPLP, DFLP, or even President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party. Signing a contract with the USAID means that you cannot work with any organization which has even one member of its board of directors affiliated to one of these parties," explains the PNGO coordinator.
"Considering that the Palestinian society is highly politicized, this is almost impossible. Imposing such a condition is basically working in favor of the Israelis," he adds.
'Numbers prove them wrong'
Many Palestinian civil society organizations have now cut all relations with the USAID as PNGO has insisted that "any conditionality in funding beyond the accepted international norms and standards constitutes a violation of the legality of funding, as the Palestinian NGO law prohibits accepting such conditions pertaining to funding from any international body."
In response, the USAID spokesperson says that, "USAID tries to work with as many organizations as it can. The list of prohibited terrorist organizations is an obligation by the US law. It is not only implemented in the Palestinian Territories but all over the world."
Hope for change is, however, growing in the Palestinian Territories as in the United States the Democrats now dominate Congress.
"We are witnessing a significant shift from total unilateralism to multilateralism. The US mid-term congressional elections have reinforced the limitations of America's militarism. Democracy is difficult to instill and impossible to install as most US diplomats realize after the intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq", explains Washington-based media expert Mohammed Cherkaoui.
"People wrongly believe that the list of terrorist organizations established by the US State Department is static, but it changes constantly, if we consider the example of Libya," he adds.
"The Democrat majority in both House and Senate will probably try to deal with each political player in the Palestinian Territories, rather than empowering one side against the other, as has been advocated by the Bush White House in the last six years," says Cherkaoui.
Though highly criticized, US humanitarian assistance, overseen by USAID and implemented by contracted non-governmental organizations, has, however, been essential to support entire areas abandoned by public services under the difficult economic and political conditions in the territories.
The USAID has invested 20 percent of its annual budget in projects targeting all levels of education, and the clinics it has established all over the West Bank are the only health services offering dialysis facilities to Palestinian patients.
"We haven't been good in advertising our work. For example, did you know that one third of the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) budget comes from the US?" points out the USAID spokesperson.
"The problem is that we work through partners and they get all the credit. People are not aware of it and this is how they got the perception that the USAID is working against them, but numbers prove them wrong," the spokesman concludes.
Since 1993, the United States has distributed economic assistance of USD 1.7 billion, which is the largest foreign contribution in the Palestinian Territories. This fiscal year, the USAID proposes to offer grants amounting to over USD 200 million, focusing mostly on health and education, but also on the promotion of democratic reforms.
Reprinted by permission of The Media Line