When U.S. officials announced at the beginning of September that a new quarter-billion dollar fund for Israeli-Palestinian partnerships would start accepting project proposals immediately, hundreds of non-governmental organizations working in the field had to organize quickly. The announcement marked the start of a multi-year effort under the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act of 2020 (MEPPA).
For the NGOs, the stakes felt high. In this first call for proposals, USAID planned to distribute at least $15 million, which is the largest single investment the peacebuilding field has ever seen. Organizations were ready and eager to grow, especially after years of budget cuts and coronavirus interruptions. They also wanted to prove early on that the long-term program would succeed.
But first, many leaders within the peacebuilding field felt that they had to understand what USAID was looking for. Some wanted to brainstorm with peers about successful models for expanding their programs. Others hoped to find like-minded organizations who could be project partners to enable larger scale efforts and impact than a single organization could deliver.
The need to prepare and convene quickly became clear to our team at the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP), the umbrella that unites over 150 of these peacebuilding NGOs. For over twelve years, ALLMEP had led the campaign in Washington to create this new U.S. funding in the first place. Now, we needed to help our members and, by extension the U.S. government, deliver.
Meeting in Jerusalem, Beit Jallah, and Ramallah, ALLMEP’s Israeli, Palestinian, and international staff immediately got to work. Within a month, the team had developed and scheduled a series of “Innovation, Scaling, and Partnership” workshops, spread around the region to enable maximum participation. Just weeks later, by the beginning of February, about 40 organizations had already participated in the sessions.
What exactly are they looking for? Can my project get funding?
The first half of each workshop focused on the most pressing questions: What does USAID’s call for proposals mean? What do the government grantmakers expect? What can NGOs expect from the process? The initial U.S. funding announcement, formally known as an Annual Program Statement or APS, totaled dozens of pages in English, and the parameters were both broad and new. While this made possible a wide range of activities, some in the field were unsure whether their projects were a good fit.
ALLMEP’s team analyzed the APS and other USAID public information to build an interactive presentation. The goal was to provide the NGOs with a framework for understanding the opportunity and getting started. “We really tried to emphasize that MEPPA is a multi-year marathon for the peacebuilding field, not a sprint,” said Doubi Schwartz, ALLMEP’s Director of Member Relations. “Even if an organization submits a proposal and doesn’t succeed on the first try, they can request feedback from USAID and boost their chances in the future.”
The workshops also walked through the major application criteria. They emphasized that the APS opened up funding not only to cross-border Israeli-Palestinian projects, but also to shared society and uninational initiatives among Israelis or among Palestinians. The discussion explained the major objectives that could qualify for funding, as well as the cross-cutting issues that USAID asked proposals to address (such as environmental impact and the role of gender in conflict).
Above all, the discussion emphasized the importance of submitting proposals so that both the organizations and MEPPA could succeed. With a rolling application process, organizations could take the time to get their applications right. But with an initial submission in the form of a seven-page concept note, USAID aimed to reduce the burden of applying. Those who were ready could also submit earlier and have time to receive feedback, adjust course, and resubmit if appropriate. The more solid applications USAID received, the better the agency could understand the opportunities in the field, make good funding decisions, and develop a successful strategy for the future.
How can I scale my programs? Who can be my partners?
Everything ALLMEP does is rooted in partnership because the peacebuilding field can achieve far greater impact by working together. “This new funding opportunity is not just a chance to grow,” ALLMEP’s Regional Director, Huda Abuarquob, explains. “It’s a chance to grow stronger as a network and a community by building capacity and new partnerships.”
After the first part of each workshop provided a better understanding of the new U.S. funding program and some different models for scaling NGOs, the organizational leaders were ready to brainstorm. To open the second half of each meeting, Abuarquob took the floor and asked each organization to write down its project opportunities and partner needs to hang on the wall. Everyone walked around the room to browse the possibilities.
After sitting back down together, one by one, participants each explained their work to the group, shared their “big ideas,” and described the kinds of partnerships that could make greater scale possible. Others chimed in with ideas, feedback, and invitations to collaborate. As the conversation went on, everyone noted who around the room might be their potential partners and then found each other to huddle in smaller planning groups.
Each workshop demonstrated the potential for cooperation to unlock greater scale and efficiency, such as the partner potential among several organizations working with youth. One organization ran a school system with physical spaces for activities and youth populations to serve. Another fielded after-school sports leagues. A third brought Israeli and Palestinian speakers into schools to discuss the conflict. Yet another focused on STEM education to prepare young people for jobs in high-tech. Together, they explored the potential to combine audiences, alumni, locations, and content.
A need, appetite, and plan for much more
While feedback from participants gave the half-day gatherings high marks as a critical first step, the biggest takeaway was a desire for more. A common suggestion was holding future events that could dive even deeper. Many asked to collaborate more closely in smaller groups with peers who are working on similar issues or with similar audiences. A good number of NGOs hoped to get hands-on support, such as expert help in preparing and reviewing grant applications.
Indeed, these introductory workshops were just a start. ALLMEP has continued to push out information (and try to address any number of rumors) about the USAID process as details continue to emerge. On March 9th, we convened dozens of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs in Beit Jallah to meet with and hear from USAID’s Deputy Assistant Administrator, Megan Doherty, the senior official responsible for the program in Washington, D.C.
The proactive effort to match up potential partners among NGOs continues to build steam, too. So far, 31 organizations have submitted project and partner ideas to be included in a database shared among the ALLMEP members. The submissions span sectors as varied as education, after-school youth programs, sports, environment, business, health, interfaith, alumni projects, and civic activism. Three-quarters of them have never received U.S. or E.U. funding before.
Some of those looking to collaborate say they want thought partners for new, bigger projects. Others seek new content to provide to their existing participants or training for their teams. Some want help expanding their footprint to many more locations. Others have particular needs in mind, such as partners to help them reach across the Green Line to expand from uni-national to cross-border activities.
What they all seem to share is a recognition that these kinds of network-level collaborations are critical to maximizing this moment. With the largest resources in history beginning to enter the field, they see new partnerships that offer the potential for Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding to take on a scale and ambition never before tried or seen.