Photo credit: Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages

In a world where the tectonic plates of geopolitical power are continuously shifting, the current moment stands out as particularly pivotal. Recent global events have catalyzed a profound reassessment of traditional power structures, from the movement for the decolonization of aid to the redefinition of development paradigms, triggering a necessary reflection on the responsibilities of philanthropic organizations worldwide, especially in addressing crises that challenge conventional approaches to aid and international cooperation – such as the ongoing genocide in Gaza.

Now into its eighth month, the war on Gaza serves as a tragic lesson on how the evolving dynamics between the Global South and the Global North compel us to reimagine what philanthropy can and should do in times of crisis.

Side-lined in global discussions for far too long, the Global South is getting louder in its calls for equity, equality, social justice, and a dismantling of imperialist structures. The movement to decolonize aid challenges the traditional donor-recipient narrative, instead advocating for a more equitable distribution of power and resources and a partnership-based approach that respects the sovereignty and agency of aid-receiving beneficiaries.

In this context, the humanitarian disaster in Gaza emerges as a litmus test for the effectiveness and morality of global philanthropic responses. It forces us to reconsider how relationships between the Global North and the Global South can either perpetuate inequality or foster genuine collaboration and mutual respect. When we view the Gaza crisis through the perspective of the Global South, we see stark discrepancies in how aid is perceived and delivered – inequities that are often replicated in international aid efforts. As one example, world leaders have pledged more than $120 billion in aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February 2022, but promised a fraction of that amount – $2 billion – to support the Sudanese people suffering through a yearlong civil war. Philanthropy is perfectly placed to fill      the gap left by insufficient government aid, but the Gaza crisis has called into question so many of the systems in place for the efficacy and integrity of both aid and philanthropy.

The limitations of current philanthropic efforts in Gaza are painfully evident. Traditional avenues of aid are failing to meet the acute needs of the Gazan population, who are grappling with the immediate challenges of survival and displacement in the face of insurmountable violence, forced starvation, and the demolition of hospitals and places of worship – generally accepted as safe spaces in times of war. It’s a situation that almost insists on being unsalvageable. And yet, it can’t be, because what would that mean for the sector? Surely, we aren’t expected to sit back and do nothing, right?

True, there are Arab philanthropic and humanitarian organizations who have stepped in with some funding, but it’s nowhere near enough to ease the current humanitarian tragedy and it’s laughable when considering the long-term “day after” needs. Facebook, X, and LinkedIn are flooded with pleas for help relying on crowdfunding services like GoFundMe or direct social media appeals, again highlighting a fundamental breakdown in traditional aid delivery systems. These methods lack the security and structure necessary to ensure that aid reaches those in need without falling prey to exploitation or diversion.

We must find new ways to deliver aid that prioritize safety, security, and direct impact. This is not just a logistical challenge but a moral one, requiring a committed re-evaluation of how philanthropy interacts with the most vulnerable populations in times of crisis. In the absence of a sanctioned, formalized pathway to get aid to Gazans, the global philanthropic community must leverage its resources, innovation, and agility to come up with creative and immediate solutions that embrace transparency, accountability, and respect for the dignity of those we aim to help.

One example is investing in and working with hyper-local organizations. These small, persistently under-resourced groups are embedded in the communities they support, so they know exactly who needs help, what they need, and how best to get it to them. The list of these groups in Gaza is long and ever-changing as many shut down due to lack of resources or their members are killed. Palestine Humanitarian Response, Feeding Futures, and HopeHub for Gaza are just a sample of the organizations doing life-saving work on the ground, while Gaza Funds carries a regularly updated roundup of appeals from families trying to raise enough money to escape the relentless attacks.

Every donation to these groups helps, but we also need major philanthropic organizations to step up and commit a significant portion of their billions to local humanitarian actors. The lack of institutional philanthropic funding for grassroots groups in Gaza is frustrating and, frankly, embarrassing.

There are other solutions – we just need to find them. As we navigate these complex dynamics, the ultimate goal is clear: to transform the philanthropic landscape in a way that truly serves humanity in its moments of greatest need.

And there is another, more sensitive, consideration we have to address as a sector: At what point do we insist that philanthropy cannot remain neutral if it is going to properly carry out its “duty of care” when it comes to humanitarian aid? When do we dispense with the platitudes and confront the idea that, in some cases, we have to take a moral stand to do our jobs effectively?

As someone who is half-Palestinian, I have spent the past eight months in constant anguish. The horrific stories and images pouring out of Gaza are unbearable, but on top of that, some of the ways in which I’ve seen my peers and colleagues around the world discuss – or, more egregiously, ignore – this genocide has truly changed me to my core. Much of philanthropy’s failure to effectively address the crisis is rooted in this silence – a silence steeped in colonialist, supremacist, and racist ideology. That ideology runs so strong in our sector that many of those who oppose it are too afraid to speak up in Gaza’s defense – and some have even dared to ask me and many others to remain silent or face professional consequences. Threats we have defiantly ignored.

What we must acknowledge at this stage – after 37,000+ Palestinians, close to half of them children, have been slaughtered – is that some of our colleagues in philanthropy are either explicitly or tangentially responsible for upholding systems that no longer serve their intended purpose. What happens when systems fail? They are replaced. Usually, that means they are re-imagined and reconfigured in ways that render them more effective. Or they are dismantled. Do we need to dismantle the philanthropic sector as a whole? I don’t think so – but now is certainly the time for a long overdue reckoning.

To make any real difference in Gaza, we have to speak up, as individuals and as a sector. At board meetings, conferences, forums – wherever philanthropists gather, Gaza must be a central part of the conversation. Even if it makes people uncomfortable. Because if we insist on pretending the horror is not happening, it is too easy to keep doing nothing, which is the most horrific thing of all.

By Naila Farouky, CEO, Arab Foundations Forum

To learn more about what AFF is doing to support the people of Gaza and bring attention to the crisis, visit our Gaza Donor Appeal and Pooled Fund, both of which get aid and essentials directly to groups helping Gazan communities, and watch our Speaker Series featuring people working on the ground in Gaza.

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