Tatreez, decorative Palestinian embroidery symbol

Is ‘aid washing’ holding back peacebuilding and development in Gaza?

As someone who thinks a lot about the language and the narratives the UK INGO sector uses, a recent event with Gazan academics, local INGOs and advocates hit home how problematic inaccurate words and framing can be.

This week provided another example: arms to Israel being described as ‘foreign aid’ a phrase that also means food and shelter – very different things described using the same language.

The panellists at this event argued that by framing what is happening in Gaza predominantly as a ‘humanitarian’ crisis, global leaders, INGOs and donors were avoiding the knotty, uncomfortable, and often political, drivers of this crisis. Though it makes sense to describe what is happening as a ‘humanitarian crisis’ given the desperate situation for Gazans, this cannot be the only, or dominant, narrative.

Does the framing of an issue dictate how we engage with a crisis? To what extent does the language we use around contexts like Gaza support or hinder long-term, sustainable development and peacebuilding? And worryingly, what happens when Gaza is no longer deemed a ‘humanitarian’ crisis? Unless we call things what they are, there is a real risk that Gaza and Israel could default back to where they were before Hamas’s brutal attack and kidnappings on October 7th,

Here’s where I think we need to start.

Let’s stop ‘aid washing’ Gaza

There is growing concern that humanitarian assistance may be unwittingly complicit in ‘aid washing’ – the portrayal of political issues as primarily a humanitarian crisis. By framing what is happening in Gaza primarily through the lens of humanitarian need, world leaders can avoid facing the political and legal responsibility towards the suffering of civilians and perpetuating a cycle of aid dependency by Gazans.

Access to necessities like food, clean water and medical assistance is crucial right now, but these interventions will not resolve the underlying political drivers of the crisis and bring peace and justice to the occupied Palestinian Territories (oPT) and Israel.

Despite being the highest per capita recipient of humanitarian assistance, Gaza has seen little meaningful development. Infrastructure is often bombed shortly after it has been built. Unless we start using language around peacebuilding and political resolution, and Gazan civil society needs to be involved in such a process, supported by INGOs, multilateral agencies and donors, Gaza and Israel will remain stuck.

Civic voices must trump donor priorities

The historic lack of investment in Gazan civic space was felt by the panellists. They highlighted the disconnect between donor priorities and the aspirations of local communities across oPT. It was felt that in many instances, international NGOs are beholden to donor agendas, prioritising projects that may not align with what Palestinians want the international community to prioritise.

Taking British politics and colonialism out of our language

This guide outlines our depoliticised and decolonised language grid, which states phrases we will no longer use and the alternative language we are adopting. The guide also includes the principles guiding us and our reasons for undertaking this work now.

Get the guide

There were also questions raised about who donors choose to fund, and which voices. The perception was that donors would lean towards funding local groups who were likely to ‘fit’ or be ‘subservient’, rather than ‘challenge’ or ‘provoke’. Like conversations taking place in the sector about what locally led looks like in practice, there needs to be a participatory approach to funding projects in Gaza. And it needs to centre the voices and priorities of Gazans.

The importance of fostering solidarity with communities and investing in civic space and advocacy is just as relevant in conflict-affected situations as it is in lower-income countries, moving away from top-down approaches dictated by donors.

Advocacy work in Gaza needs to be funded

Advocacy plays a critical role in advancing peace and justice in contexts like Gaza, yet there is little funding for this crucial but neglected work. Part of the reason for this is because the dominant language being used is ‘humanitarian crisis’. Beyond immediate relief efforts, long-term sustainable development hinges on addressing the systemic injustices and human rights violations now being exacerbated by the conflict. Advocacy projects need to be in place to push for peace and justice – whether it’s raising international awareness about resettlements or peacebuilding initiatives, because this is the bedrock for sustainable development.

As conversations around ‘aid effectiveness’ continue, the sector needs to look past the language and confront uncomfortable truths about the political dimensions of humanitarian assistance. The reality is that there has been a systemic marginalisation of voices within Gaza by the world leaders and multilateral spaces when it comes to any global conversations about liberation, development, or peacebuilding. This underscores the need to change how we have been framing the problem, and the language we are using, because it has a fundamental impact on what we think the solutions are, and more importantly, who informs those solutions.