The members of the Sanour Village Decides group gathered around a table in a semi-renovated house on the outskirts of the village. The plastic sheeting flapped in the wind in place of glass; bags of plaster were stocked in the corner. When completed this building is to accommodate the local Farmers’ Cooperative whose members were well represented. One man carefully extracted a laminated piece of paper from his wallet. It was handed round and showed signs of having been well handled before. It was an ad for the sale of a tractor that had been inserted in the local newspaper. There is a story behind it that is shared with pride.
Sanour is one of the hilltop “throne villages” that dominate the Palestinian heartland between Nablus and Jenin. The rocky fastness of Al Jarrar Castle is still home to local families that trace their sense of place to the era of the late Roman and Byzantine ceramics that are regularly uncovered. Local people speak of the underground tunnels that still lead from the castle to the lower reaches of the village. They describe how the fortifications hindered the spread of the Ottoman Sultanate in the region. It is a village surrounded by vineyards, almond trees and the gnarled grey of olive plantations, although flooded farmland speaks of environmental challenges and the importance of prized livestock. Sanour is a village that knows the value of a tractor, even one that was once consigned to the scrapheap.
When the Dalia Association selected Sanour as one of the villages to be included in its Village Decides programme it came with the princely grantmaking sum of $12,000. The Dalia Association itself had been registered as a legal entity in 2007, after an extensive period of local consultations. Named for the vine, it also came with a clear vision: that of mobilizing and using resources to empower a vibrant, independent and accountable civil society in Palestine. It believes in the power of networking and building on organic local development. Established by members of the Palestinian community from the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, Gaza Strip, Israel and the diaspora, Dalia was acutely aware of the long-term impact of development aid in Palestine. It was determined to do things differently. It was convinced that when approached with respect and trust, local communities could manage their own grantmaking in a transparent, accountable and responsible manner. This was the genesis of the Village Decides approach.
Initial research undertaken by Dalia showed that Sanour was a village that had an existing infrastructure of community-based organizations. They were not staffed by professionals, but had credibility locally and active volunteer support. They included women’s organizations, farmers’ cooperatives and a group with a focus on childcare. They got on with their work despite lack of funding from the local municipal council, which itself had experienced major internal difficulties over an unresolved row concerning the position of chairperson. However, the village was not without other problems. When the Executive Director of Dalia took the bus from Ramallah to Sanour, her fellow passengers warned her “Turn back, they will never agree to work with each other in Sanour”; this despite the fact that 80% of the 5500 population are members of the one large extended family. Saaeda ignored the warning, she was on a mission.
After agreeing the inclusion of Sanour in the Village Decides programme, Dalia rented a local hall for a meeting and invited residents and the community-based groups to come along to discuss community priorities. There wasn’t a whisper of the grant money on offer, so attendance was a sign of interest and commitment. When the doors were closed representatives of the local groups were invited to outline the work of their organizations. Provision was made for women to speak from the body of the hall to prevent any accusations that they were putting themselves forward in an unacceptable manner. Meeting participants were then invited to vote for the four organizations that they felt were best placed to undertake programmes of activity. The four organizations receiving the highest number of votes were prioritized for funding. Notwithstanding some male reservations expressed about women speaking in public, the Sanour Women’s Club was one of the successful four.
A second round of voting decided the level of grant allocated to each of the four selected organizations. Each local participant decided the allocation of their “share” of the $12,000 that was available. One of those involved commented that the process was “More transparent than any other election…people really felt the ownership of the money, they sub-divided it down to half a dollar.” The results of the count were recorded on a board in front of the gathering. In the event the main winner of the evening was the Women’s Club, who were quietly satisfied with their allocation of over half of the money available.
Support was provided by the Dalia Association to help the successful groups to refine their project plans. The Women’s Club initially considered opening a shop in the village to sell household goods, but after some research changed their plan to purchasing and raising sheep that would then be made available to a number of poorer families in the area. Reflecting on the planning process, they praised it as the “first of its kind that we were involved with all this process; (it) made us more confident.” The Club also raised an additional 25% of funds to contribute to the overall cost of the project. With the new confidence they now have their sights firmly set on cows, and no longer fear speaking to a public meeting from the front of people.
The Farmers’ Cooperative, which had also been selected as one of the four beneficiary groups, had problems of its own. It had been declared bankrupt due to debts resulting from a previous unsuccessful project. The Dalia Association agreed to be both flexible and patient. Local people had voted for the cooperative as a credible organization despite its current difficulties; Dalia worked with it to get the bankruptcy lifted. Then it was a question of what to do with the money allocated. The cooperative owned an ancient tractor that was valued at $700 for scrap metal. It was decided to renovate it for sale. The tractor eventually sold for over $2500 to the net benefit of the group. Discussion is still ongoing as to how this money will be invested – but chicken breeding is one the agenda.
Members of the cooperative speak about the importance of investing in local resources rather than always looking for the gloss of something new. Investing in the tractor was a case of “investing in our resources”, explained one; as important, however, was the vote of confidence that Dalia had shown in standing by the group despite external perceptions. The successful conclusion of the tractor saga gave the members of the cooperative back a sense of standing that was much more valuable than the money that was on the table. However there was another important learning point – the importance of accountability and transparency. Alongside voting for the four organizations, local people also elected the members of a Village Monitoring Committee to keep an eye on how the allocated grants were spent. Needless to say the Committee members could not be involved with the beneficiary organizations, explained one local man: a first lesson in conflict of interest procedures. The Monitoring Committee also ensured that transparent processes were in place for the selection of successful tenders for the purchase of both livestock and services. In fact all tender bids had to be opened in front of them so that the process could be signed off to the satisfaction of all. Similarly with the eventual sale of the renovated tractor; an advertisement was placed in the newspaper and all was clearly above board. Little wonder that the ad was so reverently preserved; it is testimony to local accountability and transparency.
The roads leading to Sanour are embellished with the branding of many international aid agencies. In latter day Roman style, the crucial investment in water and roadways seems the preserve of the American people, through the agency of USAID. However, the representative of the Sanour Women’s Club summed up local feelings when she pointed out: “We have many projects, with tens of thousands of dollars, but we learned best from this project with a very small amount of money.” Development aid and community philanthropy need not stand in opposition to one another, but there is a need for the learning from the local to be both heard and taken on board. Like the vine that Dalia is named for, the roots of longer-term sustainable development must find purchase in local soil. The confidence-building and emphasis on transparency and accountability offered by Dalia, feeds these roots. And as the members of the Sanour Village Decides group confirmed, the community activists are now “Discussing things with each other that we didn’t before…learning and interaction changed.” As for Dalia itself, think what it could do if it had the resources to work with more than two villages at a time, and to invest in on-going networking of villages across the fraught terrain of Palestine?
GFCF Director, Policy & Strategy