The US can promote democracy, smartly

The US can promote democracy, smartly

There are several levels of discussion when it comes to democracy promotion in the Middle East. On one level, there is the current debate between icons of American think tanks and policy practitioners on whether post-George W. Bush America should in fact continue supporting democracy promotion in the region, and whether such support should extend to Islamists. On another more micro level, there is the question of what to support, and how to support it.

The Obama administration has in fact inherited several foreign assistance programs to support democratic reform in the region, including the US Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) with its various pillars and programs. MEPI”s small, local grants component, administered by the two regional offices in Abu Dhabi and Tunis (with limited oversight from Washington), has been a success. As opposed to the larger grants channeled to American NGOs in the region, small grants projects are led by local organizations directly funded to implement micro-projects based on ideas fleshed out cooperatively between applicants and the regional offices to meet both applicants” and MEPI”s priority areas in each country.

From training Kuwaiti women to become effective political activists and candidates, to examining public attitudes toward elections and Parliament in Jordan, projects were able to tap into the local expertise of the recipient organizations themselves and meet their needs. Local NGOs are generally in a better position to navigate local political landscapes and draw on the expertise of American consultants for best practices and training without having them lead the projects. In fact, the small grants program has been able to gain traction in reform areas in the region not realized before.

In Yemen for example, imams and women preachers received training on democracy principles and human rights that would have been impossible to deliver without the local organization in the lead. Local organizations, in some countries, tend to be better able to identify local partners (NGOs, parliamentarians, government institutions) needed for effective change in a certain area, and can better engage them when that decision is made. The local partners participating in the implementation of a program on the other hand, are sometimes more inclined to associate themselves with a local organization than an American one.

A remodeled democracy assistance strategy for the Middle East with the right balance between diplomatic means and democracy-related aid would expand small grants programming in those reform areas where direct support to local groups is more efficient than multi-million dollar projects led by single US-based NGOs establishing a not always welcome presence in the country. Assistance primarily directed to locals could develop their capacities, so that in time they can themselves serve as sources of financial and technical assistance for other democracy-minded groups or activists. This does not rule out the role of international implementers; it emphasizes that for this strand of programming, the locus of activity and the terms of partnership be determined locally.
The question of what to support is a question of how to build effective democratic citizenship and grassroots activism. Quick surgical reform is oxymoronic in a region plagued by decades of political and intellectual repression that can only be altered through supported evolution. Sustained and systematic attention to civic education and advocacy skills is paramount. The goal of building a critical mass of politically literate and active citizens who have common concerns and possess the know-how of how to tackle them democratically is still far from realized.

Programming should transcend electoral aspects of democratization, which are of little real impact unless part of a package of indispensible supporting freedoms (such as freedom of expression and association); and unless they provide seats in an institution with real and significant political power. Civic education and civil society support are areas the United States can effectively lend support to in the region. Projects in these areas have the added advantage of being able to be under the radar, creating and directing the needed demand for political change without necessarily running into political will problems.

Yes, reform cannot be exported. This does not mean however that the US is unwelcome or should simply offer funds to international organizations to dole out. Rather, the US government should support directly those local groups and activists that will have to seek and construct reform from within. These groups are in dire need for financial and technical assistance that is not readily available “within”, and the US should be willing to fund decidedly more “forward leaning” projects than would any other donor. Herein lies perhaps the greatest opportunity for contribution: not the specific outcome of this or that project, but the contributing to the collective growth and strengthening of reform-seeking activists and NGOs. In short, helping grow the grassroots capability that might one day actually be capable of bringing about “reform from within.”

A group of policy experts, American and regional, have recently sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to continue to support political reform in the Middle East. Let”s hope his administration heeds their advice and develops a new policy that takes stock of past failures and achievements so that it”s more effective than that of his predecessor.

* Dima M. Toukan worked at the MEPI regional office in Abu Dhabi, where she was a specialist on political and women”s issues. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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