To Cut Corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Cut Off Development Aid

Foreign development aid plays a unique role in the lives of Palestinians, as aid is the main driver of growth in the Palestinian economy. For this reason, many people welcomed the Biden Administration’s announcement in April to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to halt all development aid to Palestinians. Yet widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA)—which remains the principal recipient of aid to Palestinians—threatens to undermine the effectiveness of aid. Worse, foreign aid to the PA helps perpetuate and exacerbate the PA’s culture of corruption.

Corruption in the PA is deeply entrenched. To illustrate with just a handful of many possible examples: Between 2008 and 2012 alone, over US$2.3 billion in development aid money from the European Union to the PA was embezzled. In 2017, the PA spent staggering sums on fake companies and projects, including a non-existent airline. Rather than develop welfare programs to distribute social services or development aid money to the public, the PA allocates the money to salary payouts for security officers and government officials in job placements secured by cronyism. High-ranking PA officials regularly establish their own NGOs and phony companies to attract additional funds from aid programs. Yet for the most part donors have turned a blind eye to the PA’s blatant corruption and mismanagement of development funds. (For instance, even when investigators reported PA officials’ massive embezzlement of EU aid funds, the EU did not discontinue the provision of aid.) Consequently, despite more than US$15 billion in development aid given to Palestinians in the past thirty years, that aid has failed to reduce poverty or deliver sustainable improvements in ordinary Palestinians’ quality life.

And it’s not just that the PA’s corruption undermines the effectiveness of aid. Perhaps the even bigger problem is that the flow of development aid contributes to and props up the PA’s culture of large-scale corruption. The more funding the PA can access, the more powerful it becomes, and the more capable it is of embezzling funds and extorting bribes from its populace. Worse still, the costs of the corruption that the aid to the PA fuels are not merely economic costs: In Palestine, corruption contributes to needless violence, political radicalization, and, ultimately, the loss of innocent lives.

The only way to break out of this malignant cycle is for donors to call a halt to unfettered development aid to Palestinian government institutions, which have proven themselves time and again to be too weak and unscrupulous to handle aid without corruption.

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A Closer Look at Corruption, Hamas, and Violence in the Gaza Strip

The recent violent clash between Israel and Hamas followed a pattern that has become depressingly familiar since Hamas won control of the Gaza Strip in 2006: Hamas instigates violence towards Israel and its civilians; Israel responds with military strikes targeting Hamas’s weaponry infrastructure, but since Hamas has intentionally embedded itself in Gaza’s civilian population, Israel’s strikes inevitably claim innocent lives. The question whether Israel’s response was proportional or excessive saturates the news and media. Eventually the two sides reach a tentative ceasefire, the violence subsides, and attention turns elsewhere—until the vicious cycle repeats.

Most readers, whatever their views on the underlying moral and legal issues, are likely familiar with this pattern. But what does this have to do with corruption? Quite a bit, actually. 

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A Jordanian Anticorruption Agenda

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – a small, arid swath of land that its Western-educated monarch jokes is “between Iraq and a hard place” – teems with corruption. Most Jordanians often have no choice but to pay bribes for public services. Members of the government and the royal family regularly siphon money from public contracts and foreign aid projects. And the Kingdom’s nepotistic political system does little to hold prominent politicians and businessmen accountable when they leverage their ties to the royal family to steal disproportionate amounts of resources or redirect government funds. Corruption, it seems, crowns the Kingdom.  

It is unsurprising, then, that claims of corruption permeated news of the recent rift between King Abdullah II and his half-brother, Prince Hamzah. After Prince Hamzah’s purported involvement with a conspiracy to undermine Jordan’s national security and destabilize the existing political regime led to his house arrest, he released a video claiming that his unjust detention was for speaking out against government corruption.

Although the international media has covered the dynamics of the royal family and the possibilities of a Jordanian descent into civil war, little has been written about the ways in which King Abdullah’s government can respond to the accusations of corruption and take back leadership. Given that Prince Hamzah – among others – nearly always couches criticism of the Jordanian government in terms of corruption, such a response is necessary. If the current government wants to signal its seriousness in fighting corruption, it should aggressively pursue an anticorruption agenda with five key elements: 

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