Gerald M. Steinberg

Beyond the Halo: A Close Look at Past US Funding for NGOs

The Trump Administration has taken a number of steps to end all financial assistance to Palestinians, including civil society organizations.  These decisions have been widely reported as a negotiating tactic from the White House seeking to pressure the PA to return to negotiations and accept America’s role of mediator.

Whether these unprecedented steps will advance the latest peace efforts remains to be seen. But beyond this mega-issue, the focus on the funding provides an opportunity for current and former US officials to review a number of long-entrenched frameworks, involving hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The cutoff of funds for NGOs (non-governmental organizations) active in the West Bank and Gaza, including for groups ostensibly involved in peace dialogues, has triggered a debate on whether this policy was useful or counterproductive. Did the officials involved have the resources and information needed to make complex decisions in this highly contentious political realm? Was the funding process subject to the highest standards of accountability and transparency, or did they rely on NGO self-reporting and manipulation, as is often the case in Europe? Although NGOs are a multi-billion dollar industry, they are still often seen through rose-colored glasses – producing what is known as the NGO “halo effect”.

The most significant framework for this funding has been USAID – the US Agency for International Development – which disbursed over $280 million to the West Bank and Gaza in 2016. USAID was and continues to be subject to serious oversight and auditing processes, and when compared to European and Australian counterparts, has avoided providing funds to groups that are directly involved in terror. With a few exceptions, USAID also did not funds groups promoting the blatantly anti-peace agendas that are characteristic of many Palestinian NGOs.

Nevertheless, under USAID’s program on “Conflict Management and Mitigation,” some recipients promoted highly biased political narratives and agendas, and the positive impact of these grants, if any, is questionable. The 2014-17 USAID budget included almost $1 million for the Parents Circle Family Fund (PCFF) which claims to bring together family members of victims of violence, including of Palestinian terror, thereby promoting understanding and compromise. This NGO also received substantial government funds via the US Institute for Peace.

However, the circle of participants appears to be very limited (in contrast to the NGO’s self-reporting), the activities promote a narrowly Palestinian version of the conflict, and a number of bereaved Israeli families have strongly protested PCFF’s agenda. According to USAID officials, this program, like others, was subject to independent evaluation, but this report is not public, and therefore cannot be scrutinized and assessed. And beyond these specifics, the practice of large-scale US and other foreign government funding for a narrow group of Israeli political organizations is very problematic.

Significant taxpayer funds were also transferred through the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which proved to be a far more problematic vehicle.  An external audit, conducted in July 2016 by Kearny & Company P.C. on behalf of the State Department’s Office of the Investigator General (OIG), identified serious financial mismanagement, concluding that “Without procedures to monitor the financial management of award recipients, it is difficult … to determine if Federal funds are being spent in accordance with cost principles.”

This document was followed by an OIG audit in November 2016 that found that “27 of the 30 awards reviewed did not have required monitoring plans” and that the State Department could not “demonstrate that MEPI was achieving its goals and objectives to promote political, economic, and social reform….”

A number of MEPI grantees actively glorifying terrorism and terrorists, while others utilized antisemitic rhetoric. For example, the Palestinian Youth Association for Leadership and Rights Activation (PYALARA) received $114,000 for 2015-2016.  As reported by Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), which monitors incitement, PYALARA co-produced media content promoting antisemitic libels and glorifying terrorism including a 2014 television program that referred to Jews as “crows” and “rats,” and a 2013 show that opined “Who will save the New Testament? Who will save the Quran? Who will save Jesus from those who killed Jesus?”

Furthermore, according to PMW, during a June 2012 PYALARA co-produced television show, a co-host referred to Palestinian terrorists – including suicide bombers – as “More honored than all of us,” adding that “They are the greatest role models for us.”  In addition, a May 2012 show that which was co-produced by PYALARA – as exposed by PMW – featured interviews with family members of Palestinian prisoners serving multiple life sentences for planning a series of bombings that killed dozens of Israeli civilians. The participants declared “our duty to visit the families of some of the prisoners, to hear from them and to see how they encourage their children to continue in the path of their struggle against the Israeli occupation.”

MEPI has also funded organizations that have given a platform to members of terrorist organizations. In 2014, the State Department program awarded Pal Think for Strategic Studies $84,820  as part of the “Youth as Agents of Positive Change” project, intended to provide “youth in Gaza with skills and knowledge on peace-building and conflict resolution.”  In 2015, the group invited Hamas official Basem Na’im and Kayed al-Ghoul of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – designated by the Treasury Department as a terrorist organizations – to speak with teenagers about “strengthening the Palestinian youth and their engagement in civic and political life in Gaza.”  In a January 2016 interview, al-Ghoul called for increased violence against Israelis, saying, “The armed resistance is a major form of resistance for the Palestinian people. It must be expanded and put to good use …”

These examples demonstrate the need for rigorous evaluation and vetting for any funding ostensibly designed to promote peace.  Strengthening Palestinian civil society, or the excuse that no better organizations can be found and “we have to work with someone” cannot be façades under which support for terror, BDS or antisemitic speech are tolerated.

US support must reflect US values, none of which include these – and other – ugly and hateful examples.  Robust vetting that takes into account public statements and independently verifies NGO claims, coupled with demands of accountability and transparency, are fundamental to the success of such programs.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)