The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged USaid
On AP's piece on US democracy promotion funding in Egypt

US democracy aid went to favored groups in Egypt:

Interviews and documents obtained by The Associated Press show that the workers' protest and the broader government crackdown with the raids helped expose what U.S. officials do not want to admit publicly: The U.S. government spent tens of millions of dollars financing and training liberal groups in Egypt, the backbone of the Egyptian uprising. This was done to build opposition to Islamic and pro-military parties in power, all in the name of developing democracy and all while U.S. diplomats were assuring Egyptian leaders that Washington was not taking sides.

"We were picking sides," said a senior U.S. official involved in discussions with Egyptian leaders after last year's revolution swept President Hosni Mubarak from power after three decades. The official requested anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.

Since the December raids, U.S. officials have scrambled to repair their once close relationship with Egypt. But the damage wasn't done overnight or as a result of the raids.

Documents and interviews with U.S. and Egyptian officials show:

— U.S. diplomats knew as far back as March 2008 that Egyptian leaders might close democracy programs and arrest workers, and last year some even discussed the possibility of a stern Egyptian response to dumping $65 million into democracy training after the Arab Spring uprisings, a sharp increase from past spending.

— Democracy training programs with strong ties to the U.S. political parties received the biggest share, $31.8 million, and spent it with few strings attached. IRI refused to work with members of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, an Islamic group that holds more seats in the elected parliament than any other party in the country. IRI's Democratic counterpart, the National Democratic Institute, offered training and support to Brotherhood members.

— Nearly six years before the Egyptian government filed charges against the U.S. democracy workers, its leaders severely restricted the American democracy programs after a controversy over public comments by IRI's director.

A few reactions:

✪ Can we please defund IRI? And fire Sam Lahood?

✪ AP here is overstating the 2008 threat to close these programs by Egypt. In 2008, the US Embassy in Cairo moved to repair the relationship with the Egyptians and actually accepted Egyptian veto power over some of the money spent. After the revolution it moved back to the 2002-2008 position which was not to give the Egyptian government a veto.

✪ This particular bit has to be illegal under US law and should be subject to a Freedom of Information request:

Despite a U.S. commitment to make public the details of its democracy aid program in Egypt, USAID has refused to identify all the groups that received money and the grant amounts. The official said the agency disclosed the list to Egyptian leaders, but will not release information publicly about grant recipients that don't want to be identified. That has surprised some State Department officials.

"All I remember is, there were weekly meetings this time last year about how this all had to be posted publicly," said a senior State Department official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about sensitive diplomatic matters. More than a year after citizens rallied in Tahrir Square for new leadership, the U.S.-Egypt relationship remains fragile.

✪ The article quotes Frank Wisner — whom I consider too close to the Egyptian military. Wisner is a lobbyist for the US defense industry and was the Obama administration's conduit to the military during the 2011 uprising. He's hardly an impartial man.

✪ The article perpetuates the myth that it's all about Fayza Aboul Naga — the real question is, who egged her on and backed her and coordinated the campaign of anti-Americanism in the Egyptian state media? US officials focus on Fayza because the real target — the military and the intelligence services — they don't want to confront. (She's a handy scapegoat for Congress, too.)

Overall this uncovers one important element — contrary to its mission and its statements IRI was engaged in biased political activity, and in doing so has damaged any similar efforts by other organizations. In the overall take of the story, however, apart from the over-funding of IRI and NDI, the article gives the impression of US conspiracy against SCAF and the MB. This is hardly true, since the US has collaborated closely with the military and engaged vigorously with the MB. The money and efforts spent trying to support the "liberal" parties is minimal and not very effective.

There is no conspiracy to empower liberals in Egypt, there is only a focus on retaining core interest — military cooperation, Israel — no matter who is in power. Beyond that, democracy promotion through things like party training does very little except make US politicians who fund it feel good and give officials a talking point. I don't know whether the US can encourage more democracy in Egypt, but it can certainly encourage less autocracy — by stopping the military aid to the country.

Breaking down US democracy policy in the Middle East

In what is becoming an annual must-read for Middle East policy wonks, POMED has published its detailed report on Financial Appropriations for Middle East Democracy for FY2011. I'll let you read its overall conclusions — quite a marked increase (32%) for MEPI funding notably — which would suggest a real commitment to one form of democracy-promotion, funding NGOs that do work on issues that deal with the wider notion of democracy endorsed by the Obama administration (away from elections, focus on women, minorities, and other aspects.) Specifically on democracy and governance programming it's 10%. It would not be entirely fair to suggest a break from the Bush administration in this regard, but rather a continuity with the post-2007 Bush policies — i.e. the post 2006 Hamas election trauma dealt to a political/electoral focus in democracy-promotion. 

And here come the caveats to this generally upbeat picture:

On the contrary, one remarkable feature of the FY11 budget is the surprising level of continuity from FY10.  Key programs that were temporarily held over one year ago have now received longer-term support, while changes made in FY10 have now been consolidated in the FY11 budget.  Last year’s version of this report remarked that the FY10 budget suggested that the new administration did in fact “take seriously the role of the U.S. in supporting democracy, governance, and human rights in the Broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA).”  That remains true of the new budget for FY11.

At the same time, the new budget reflects the inherent tensions between the administration’s commitment to build stronger relationships with the region’s nondemocratic governments and its stated desire to support human dignity and “broader engagement.”  There is a widespread perception among supporters of democracy that the administration is focusing too much on improving the ability of current regimes to govern while overlooking the need for pluralism and political competition.  This budget does not dispel that notion.  While the FY11 request reinforces increases in support for democracy indicated in the FY10 budget, it also upholds some troubling cuts and shifts in the approach to countries like Egypt and Jordan.

And, of course, aid policy in general to the region continues to be dominated by military aid, by a ratio of about four-to-one ($5.1bn to $1.3bn) — and probably more if you include longer-term programs like the $20bn funding program launched by Bush to encourage a regional Cold War er... to secure Arab support against Iran, and various forms of military support for Israel.

But looking at specific countries, there is cause for concern. Egypt, for instance:

Controversial changes in U.S. assistance to Egypt have been reinforced.  Funding for democracy in Egypt remains at levels sharply reduced in March 2009, which included disproportionate cuts in funding for civil society.  The decision to provide USAID funding only to organizations registered and approved as NGOs by the Egyptian government remains in place.  Finally, the administration is now exploring the establishment of an “endowment” proposed by the Egyptian government, which ultimately could remove a significant portion of U.S. economic assistance to Egypt from  normal channels of congressional oversight.

The way this was highlighted in a recent AP story claiming democracy-promotion aid to Egypt was cut is misleading, because it is not the case that:

CAIRO, (AP) – President Barack Obama has dramatically cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt, a shift that could affect everything from anti-corruption programs to the monitoring of elections.

Why? Because while USAID funding is down, MEPI funding is up. The devil is in the details, and of course this also applies at what MEPI will do with its money. The better argument is that cutting USAID funding, as well as accepting Egyptian government restrictions on who gets it, sent a political message to Cairo that Washington is backing off. I made that argument here. I would even go further and argue that what is necessary is stronger political messages, not aid that — aside from cultivating a "fifth sector" of professional democracy promoters — has limited impact in itself. 

Still the general picture towards Egypt, on balance, is actually negative. The author of the POMED report, Stephen McInerney, expands on that argument in a Foreign Policy piece about the "Mubarak Trust Fund", the unprecedented $50m endowment Congress gave Egypt. The bit about how this got through is mind-boggling and revealing of the appropriations process:

Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), Ranking Member of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, led the effort within Congress to allocate funds for such an endowment. In September 2007, he offered an amendment that would have made as much as $500 million available for a "United States-Egypt Friendship Endowment" to "further social, economic and political reforms in Egypt." Then last year, Senator Gregg succeeded in including language in the FY10 omnibus appropriations bill allowing $50 million to be put into a new endowment -- but unlike the 2007 amendment, the language now made no reference to reforms. The bill contained no details about the fund's structure or purpose and most in Congress, including appropriations committee members, were unfamiliar with the endowment or its intent when it was approved.  Upon passage in December, critics quickly assumed the worst, dubbing the proposed endowment the "Mubarak trust fund." There is some irony in the fact that Congress was taking action to establish a fund proposed specifically to circumvent the oversight role of Congress.

Since then, the Obama administration has been negotiating with the Egyptian government and appears to have proposed an education-focused endowment that does not alter the fundamental approach, but offers much lower funding levels than those proposed by Egypt. To be sure, supporting education in Egypt is an admirable goal for U.S. assistance, and a large multiyear program for doing so is worth considering. But there are numerous problems with this particular approach. 

I'll let you read what these problems are. But McInerney raises good questions, such as why not use Millenium Challenge Account funds that do impose conditionality and benchmarking? Also, why not involve Egyptian civil society in setting up that benchmarking? After all such benchmarking is supposed to be helping that civil society. More broadly, as I've written before, we are entering what may potentially be a season of massive electoral fraud and a transition to a new president that has a good chance of being undemocratic.

Personally, I am toying with a more radical position: why not cancel all foreign aid, economic and military, and be done with it? I am motivated by my longstanding concern about US aid to Israel as well as aid to Arab authoritarian regimes, as well as the very reasonable expectation any American might have that tax dollars are better spent at home in a time of economic crisis. I'm not against multilateral aid programs, or poverty-reduction aid in places like sub-Saharan Africa. But between the limited effectiveness of democracy-promotion aid (as opposed to a vocal democracy-promotion stance) and the sense that it has to come along with a lot of other types of aid (military, business, etc.) I'm not sure it delivers bang for the proverbial buck. I would rather support explicit positive and/or negative conditionality for military and economic aid to Egypt, based on a public criteria, as well as the threat of withdrawing diplomatic backing for Egypt's current role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — a role that arguably does more for the Egyptian regime than it does to the process. Not to mention that you don't need Egypt to talk to Hamas if you adopt a more rational policy and talk to Hamas yourself — skip the middleman!

I know this may seem like a political non-starter, for Congressional (i.e. lobbying) reasons. But in these days of Tea Party politics and massive deficits, cutting aid and focusing on political methods of democracy-promotion may just start to look feasible enough.  

On a related note, check out the notes on a recent POMED conference for the launch of the report, where you can find amusing tidbits such as that a internet freedom program focused on Iran is called the Near East Regional Democracy (NERD). Bureaucrats have all the fun. 

Congress approves endowment for Egypt
From POMED's weekly wire newsletter:

On Thursday (12/10), the House passed H.R.3228, the Consolidated Appropriations Act for Fiscal Year 2010, in a 221-202 vote. On Saturday (12/12), the Senate voted 60-35 on a cloture motion to end debate and bring the bill up for a vote. The bill was then passed by the Senate in a special session yesterday and sent to the President. Full details of the Conference Report for the bill are available on the website of the House Rules Committee, including the full text of Division F of the bill, the portion of the bill making appropriations for State and Foreign Operations, as well as the Joint Explanatory Statement that accompanies it. The bill includes a controversial provision that permits $50 million of the $250 million in Economic Support Funds (ESF) allocated for Egypt to be put into "an endowment to further the shared interests of the United States and Egypt." Such an endowment has been advocated for several years by the Egyptian government, and is widely viewed as an attempt to reduce the potential leverage by Congress afforded by U.S. economic aid to Egypt. Other levels of funding in the bill include $65 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), which is a 30% increase over funding in recent years, but $5 million less than included in the House version of the State and Foreign Operations bill passed in July. For reference and comparison, see POMED's report on the budget and appropriations process from July, and keep an eye out for a brief report on the final version of the bill.

The endowment is less than Egypt had been hoping for, but a first start to pushing for the acceptance of an endowment at all, with potential for growth later. The original idea had been that funds provided by the US would be matched by the Egyptian government and allocated to development projects; but it's not clear what the mechanisms for allocation will be now and whether any of this money will be earmarked for specific areas. Of course for now the remaining $200 is in part allocated to certain areas. Overall, though, the US-Egypt aid relationship continues to move away to any notion of conditionality, as it has since the beginning of the Obama administration or possibly the last year or two of the Bush administration.

Note that the House of Representatives has approved this just as the bi-annual US-Egypt Strategic Dialogue took place in Washington earlier this week.
USAID re-examined

POMED writes in its invaluable Monday briefing, so that I don't have to:

Thomas Carothers has released an important new report, "Revitalizing Democracy Assistance: The Challenge of USAID" that explores needed reforms in foreign democracy assistance. The report recommends three key reforms: decreasing bureaucratization, bolstering local ownership of projects, and strengthening the institutional emphasis of democracy promotion within USAID. The report concludes "a successful revitalization of USAID's democracy and governance work would be a telling signal that the Obama administration is forging significant institutional changes that will help the United States meet the serious challenges that democracy's uncertain global fortunes now pose."

Also last week, the USAID Office of the Inspector General released a fascinating new report, "Audit of USAID/Egypt's Democracy and Governance Activities."  The report is quite critical of the effectiveness of USAID's democracy and governance programs in Egypt, and concludes that, "A major contributing factor to the limited achievements for some of these programs resulted from a lack of support from the Government of Egypt. According to a mission official, the Government of Egypt has resisted USAID/Egypt's democracy and governance program and has suspended the activities of many U.S. NGOs because Egyptian officials thought these organizations were too aggressive."

Carothers is perhaps the greatest American expert on democracy promotion, and I read the USAID Inspector General's report, which is scathing. So much money has been wasted on democracy promotion in Egypt, partly because of the Egyptian government's obstructionism, but also because so many programs were ill-conceived.

Now we just have to wait for a head of USAID to actually be appointed -- and for US democracy-promotion policy not to run so much at odd with its foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.

This page cannot be displayed, you naughty boy.
This page cannot be displayed, you naughty boy.
Sarah Carr: "As part of its long-term campaign against common sense swine flu, the government has put up US Aid funded posters inside metro underground trains, advising passengers on what measures to take to avoid contamination. One of the suggestions, after household members' temperature monitoring is, “avoid crowded areas”. I wondered if they're taking the piss." There's more and a funny picture as a bonus.