NGO Monitor Analysis (Vol. 2 No. 7) 15 March 2004
Direct Relief International: Profile of an Apolitical Medical NGO
Numerous NGO's that provide medical assistance to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip often engage in counterproductive anti-Israel activity through highly politicized publications, press releases, and pamphlets.
However, Direct Relief International,
a California based NGO working to "improve the health of people…who
are victims of natural disasters, war, and civil unrest," can be
described as a truly humanitarian and apolitical organization. According
to Direct Relief International's mission statement, the NGO was
"established in 1948 and is non-sectarian, nongovernmental, and
apolitical." In addition, all of the organization's programs "are
provided in a non-discriminatory manner, without regard to political
affiliation, religious belief, or ethnic identity."
Relief International's 2002 annual report illustrates the organization's
commitment to remain "non-sectarian and apolitical." While the report
states that between September 2000, and the end of 2002, over 184
Palestinian Red Crescent Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT's) were
injured in 215 recorded attacks on their ambulances, the report
objectively notes that the EMT's operate in an extremely stressful
and dangerous environment. Commendably, Direct Relief International
does not attempt to place blame on either party for the "dangerous
environment," and stays focused on its pledge to be a politically
April 2002 press release is also free from political overtones.
In the press release, Direct Relief International describes the
deployment of a Johnson & Johnson "disaster module" to medical providers
working in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The press release simply
explains the contents of the module and does not demonize Israel.
In sharp contrast with Direct Relief International's neutral approach,
the Health Development and Information
and Policy Institute (HDIP), a Ramallah based Palestinian NGO,
"devoted to policy research and planning regarding the Palestinian
health care system," provides a classic example of the blatant politicization
plaguing some other medical NGO's working in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip. Although the HDIP has "provided consultations to organizations
like the WHO, European Community, UNDP, UNICEF, and the World Bank,"
the organization refers to the security fence being built along
the West Bank as an "apartheid wall" in an article
describing the recent press conference held for a publication entitled
"Health and Segregation."
Similarly, the Palestinian Children's Welfare Fund (PCWF), an
NGO that "works in close coordination with the Union of Health Workers
Committees in Gaza", features anti-Israel propaganda on its website,
despite a mission statement that proclaims the organization to be
a "non-political, non-religious enterprise." Indeed, the PCWF website
promotes a call for papers and encourages the recruitment of volunteers
to the "First National Convention of American Jews for a Free Palestine."
According to the PCRF, "Members of the steering committee are academics,
professionals, political and social activists who intend to form
a national committee to confront AIPAC and its monopoly in the media
over the representation of the Jewish community in the United States."
Like PCWF, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, "a non-partisan,
nonprofit organization, dedicated to promoting and protecting the
medical human rights of all residents of Israel and the Occupied
Territories," also engages routinely in highly political activity.
On 1 November 2002, it published an eight-page color pamphlet (http://www.ngo-monitor.org/editions/v1n01/v1n01-1.htm)
in the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz. The controversial pamphlet,
which took the form of color cartoons, depicted various examples
of purported instances of human rights abuse, including alleged
"apartheid" roads in the West Bank. It should be noted that the
pamphlet was published despite a clause in PHRI's mission statement
that it "opposes the subjugation of medical care to political considerations
of any kind." Indeed, almost all of PHR-I's activities are focused
on political, rather than humanitarian objectives.
While it may be difficult for NGO's that provide medical assistance to the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to maintain neutrality in a politically charged environment, Direct Relief International has proven that such behavior is possible. Unlike the HDIP, PHR-I, and the PCWF, Direct Relief International has chosen to adhere to its stated goal of "improving the health of people…who are victims of natural disasters, war, and civil unrest," without engaging in anti-Israel activity.
The HDIP, PHR-I, and the PCWF would do well to follow the example set by Direct Relief International. Advancing an ideological cause under the guise of medical care is clearly counterproductive, and only adds to the cycle of hatred dominating the Middle East.