It’s a Sunday afternoon in Al Bireh, Palestine. Traditional music pours from the centre of the town, as school children dressed in costumes of rich purple, emerald green, and royal blue, entertain the crowd with a traditional dance. They are soon replaced by a hakawati - a storyteller - who brings ancient folk laws to life. Crowds throng around the local market, examining local products, tasting local food, and buying local seeds. Permaculture solutions, rocket stoves, and locally made crafts are on display.
This is Al Saha, which translates into English as ‘space’. These events, which take place in different locations in Palestine, embrace the culture of that particular town, village, or city, and bring people together to empower local communities. Local production is celebrated, and regenerative techniques are given a spotlight.
Behind the scenes, the Dalia Association is making everything run smoothly. This community foundation has put the event together, and many of the people here are from groups Dalia supports in the region through a grant-making programme. Al Saha is a vibrant display of their social, environmental, and economic regeneration work, and plenty of hard work goes into making it happen.
The reason that the Dalia Association came into being, was a desperate need for Palestinians to be able to control their own development and resources. Feeding into this are the politics and history that have built modern-day Palestine, which are undeniably complex. The Oslo Agreement in 1993 aimed to create a situation where the Israeli-Palestine conflict could come to an end, and as a result of the Agreement, international aid flooded into the country.
On the surface, aid might seem like a helpful contribution, but the country’s over-reliance on this aid is the very reason that the Dalia Association was needed. As people began to rely more and more on aid and external resources, civil society as a whole became weaker and less active, explains Aisha Mansour, the executive director of Dalia.
“The aid made us forget that we do have resources; we’re not poor, and resources are not necessarily just about money. At Dalia, we strive to create an active civil society,” she says.
For Palestinians, living under Israeli occupation means that accessing and controlling resources is a constant struggle, placing even more pressure on society. People are often denied access to their own land, and water supplies can be restricted. For farming projects in particular, this makes life extremely difficult.
“In the work we do it is very important to focus on the resources that we can control and using them to help create strong communities,” Aisha says.
The Dalia Association is by no means a political movement. But by working in different communities, this group is reminding people that they do have resources, helping them build interesting initiatives, strengthening local economies, and consequently creating a stronger society.
As far as The Dalia Association sees it, development comes from the people. Even their fundraising activities (which support grant-making programmes) remind people that Palestinians have something to offer, and they’re encouraged to donate to the mobile second-hand shop, the Dukkan (the Arabic word for ‘store’).
Starting with communities
At every level of Dalia’s work, communities are leading the way. This is true even in how the grant-making programmes are run, and they are described as “community controlled.”
Dalia facilitates groups, villages, and communities, to get together and pitch their ideas for projects, vote on who should receive grants, and then put the projects into action. The group runs three different grant-making programmes: The Village Decides; Women Supporting Women; and Ibda, a programme for young people which translates as ‘start’.
Even after the grants have been made, Dalia is still involved, maintaining ongoing communications with the projects which have been funded.
“For us, we’re one big family, we’re all one community. When we organise a Saha, many of the people who make up our local market are previous grantees and previous partners,” Aisha says.
“We’re not like an NGO that implements a project and leaves. We’re a community foundation, so we’re looking for people to continuously work with us.”
Aisha reels off countless examples of projects which have received grants: A youth project is recycling materials and selling their new products in the local market; a group of young women in Gaza is getting around import and export restrictions, and producing clothing in their own style to sell locally.
In Tuani, a village targeted by Israeli colonisation is relying on food which is neither locally grown or organic, and so a women’s group with plenty of land and water is using resources to grow nutritious food in an agroecological way. The community will benefit from the food, and the group will benefit from the income.
The abandoned caravan
Aisha tells one particular story of social regeneration, that stands out. It centres around a Bedouin community - nomadic people who move from place to place with the seasons. However, the cultural traditions of this particular Bedouin group have been restricted and they are forced to stay within one area due to the Israeli occupation. Travelling freely is a thing of the past.
A group of young women from the community found an abandoned caravan, likely discarded by a foreign aid project which had long since left the area. Looking at this caravan, the women saw an opportunity - they renovated the interior, and used it to create their own community centre.
Now, it is a fully functioning community space. Step inside and you’ll find a sofa, a table and chairs, and a kitchenette. The space is often filled with people running courses, and the women have even hosted British parliamentarians, feeding them and telling them about the community.
The caravan sparked further ideas. While this community is lacking in funds and thus unable to contribute much for food or courses, the young women had a vision for something which could provide a solution. They pitched an idea through the Dalia Association to create a mobile kitchen, so that they could produce food and make an income. Their pitch was successful, and the mobile kitchen is now up and running, serving food and contributing towards social regeneration.
The Dalia Association is working hard to find more communities like these with exciting ideas, whilst still looking for new ideas within the communities they already work with. Community controlled grant making might seem like a novel idea, but Aisha is quick to point out that community giving has always been a part of Palestinian culture - she calls it “the Indigenous aid system.” It is, however, a part of their culture which has been partly lost following the influx of aid.
For the benefit of a stronger society, now seems like the perfect time to bring back those traditions, and rekindle imaginations when it comes to regenerative ideas.
The Dalia Association has been shortlisted for the Lush Spring Prize 2018 in the Established Projects category. The winners for the Lush Spring Prize 2018, coordinated by the Ethical Consumer Cooperative, will be announced on 16 May 2018.
Regeneration illustration by David McMillan.