Will Foreign Aid Dollars Help or Hurt Democracy in the Middle East?

The goal of handing out foreign aid to foster "civil society" always sounds noble and well-intentioned. But you'll forgive someone like me for being skeptical about the results. There is no substitute for local knowledge. Democracy is never a simple translation.
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The news from the G8 meeting last weekend was that billions in Western aid dollars are about to flow into Egypt and Tunisia in hopes of supporting "democratic reform," with the leaders comparing the so-called Arab Spring to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Several editorials suggested the G8 do all it can to support not just economic stabilization, but also, as the Christian Science Monitor put it, "the far more nimble forces of 'civil society' -- the charities, business groups, women's and youth advocates, legal advisers, health organizations, and democracy promoters who are outside government."

The goal of handing out foreign aid to foster "civil society" always sounds noble and well-intentioned. But you'll forgive someone like me for being skeptical about the results. I saw up close how those dollars were deployed in Central and Eastern Europe some 20 years ago, and wrote about it in my book Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe. Useful contacts and exchanges were sometimes forged. But the result, more often than not, was that aid served to enrich a few favored cliques, in direct contradiction with stated aims of building democracy and engendering pluralism. Those in the West hoping to further cultivate the nascent "Arab Spring" would do well to heed the lessons of the post-Communist era.

In those years soon after communism fell, Western aid dollars were plentiful and so was innocence -- but rarely among the savvy Central and Eastern Europeans. On the contrary. Frequently deficient in cultural and historical sensibilities, it was the Western consultants and aid representatives who often made social fools of themselves. They often needed local fixers not only to set up contacts and translate but also to explain the ABC's of getting things done in the new frontier: "political party", "bank", "profit", "tomorrow", and "yes", didn't necessarily mean the same things in the West.

And they failed to realize that, often, their chief source of attractiveness to their new "friends" in the East was in the entree they could facilitate. Meanwhile, Central and Eastern Europeans -- their eyes on foreign access, funds, or travel -- applied to unsuspecting foreigners the persistence and sophisticated wheeling-and-dealing skills that they had honed under communism.

Take, for instance, a "training in democracy" workshop I attended in 1990 in Poland, where American consultants thought they were dealing with key political leaders because the participants headed "political parties." In reality, the Poles, for the most part, were not national leaders but representatives of political discussion clubs that had mushroomed during the relaxation of control preceding the collapse of communism. (The truly influential political leaders at the time headed citizens' initiatives that were implicitly, but not explicitly, political.) And these so-called "politicians" were experts at both deploying the democracy rhetoric, and also playing on Westerners' inflated view of their own usefulness. Here's a typical exchange:

A consultant (respectfully): "You were in prison, too? I admire your courage."

A politician (smiling modestly): "Yes, I was." [It didn't take any special courage. I was picked up just like all my friends.]

A consultant: "You suffered. If there's anything we can help you with now, just let us know."

A politician: "The workshop has been so enlightening. One thing just occurred to me. There's a shortage of paper and, you know, we don't have enough money to buy fax or photocopy machines." [Of course, we think you can help. Travel abroad? Funds? Other contacts? Anything that might give us visibility in the West and the prestige we need here that is associated with Western exposure. That's why we bothered to come to your workshop.]A consultant: "Perhaps my organization could help."

A politician (humbly): "Oh, we would be most grateful!"

And so a handful of brokers with enough energy and skill to play in the new arena emerged. They made decisions and amassed resources on a large scale, by local standards, and Western funding tended to reinforce their success. The issue was not just money, but, critically, "symbolic capital" -- an individual's combined cultural, social and financial power. To get money from the West was to be blessed by it, greatly enhancing one's reputation and lending legitimacy that could be leveraged both inside and outside the country to accrue further rewards, and compounding the power of the individual's group.

And therein lies a chief problem with much foreign aid: often, certain groups get promoted, and not necessarily for the right reasons. Although, from a donor's point of view, one can understand the homily that "helping someone is better than helping no one," the meddling in local politics that the "help" sometimes creates puts the wisdom of this belief in doubt. Support of one group to the exclusion of others builds up certain elites -- indeed, can help to crystallize some in the first place. In Poland in the early 1990's, the groups with enough clout and Western contacts to get foreign money gained steadily, while others with just as much indigenous support but less visibility in the West -- and, thus, less monetary support -- tended to lose.

Arguably, this reality had both positive and negative aspects: On one hand, those supported by the West were sometimes the people best equipped to be leaders and make critical decisions. On the other hand, resentment was stirred up among those outside the networks -- especially among those who would likely have been in leadership positions if people had been chosen primarily on the basis of merit. This concentration on a select few contributed to resentment especially because the few beneficiaries tended to distribute money and favors based on group loyalties and obligations.

For donors to overcome this dilemma would have required in-depth knowledge of the histories and politics of local groups -- expertise they seldom sought or appreciated the value of. The donors were caught in a paradox: To achieve their stated reform goals (in this case, of pluralism, civil society, and democracy), they selected and promoted specific political parties and groups. But this strategy seemed more likely to help narrow, rather than to widen, the range of participation.

Can the West avoid this in Egypt and Tunisia? History indicates it will be very difficult, but one suggestion is a twist on another homily, the one that says "think globally, act locally." In the case of foreign aid, Western consultants would do well to think locally when acting globally. Before handing out grants big or small, they need to enlist the help, as the Monitor also advised, of those with local expertise in country to suss out history,institutional memory, and competing motives. There is no substitute for local knowledge. Democracy is never a simple translation.

Linda Keenan edited this piece.

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