In his Middle East strategy speech given last month, President Barack Obama committed to helping countries in the region with reform and transition to democracy. This requires helping the governments build political institutions and fight corruption. “We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future – particularly young people,” Obama said.
But as the president takes on a new and welcomed approach in the Middle East, the U.S. government should first put its own affairs in order and address its dwindling capacity to promote good governance and rule of law. The government needs to improve the United States Agency for International Aid's (USAID) budget, as well as the organization's capacity to design and commit to sustainable, long-term programs.
Tackling corruption is a challenge facing nations undergoing change, especially those transitioning to democracy. While some would use this period of change for self-enrichment, others invest in patronage and violence to wield power. Indeed, strong institutions that check power; a civil society and media that can bite; and balanced international pressure may help these states' transitions to better governance.
America’s main arm to take on this challenge is USAID. Drawing from the experience of Iraq, USAID may not be fit for the challenge in its current state. The allocated funds for democratic governance and rule of law are not earmarked and are comparatively thin; the budget makes up 8% of U.S. foreign assistance, and only 4% if Iraq and Afghanistan are not included, according to a Center for Global Development report by former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios.
Many Middle Easterners are aware of the billions of dollars in military aid offered to the regimes they just toppled; therefore their rhetoric should be supported with budgetary action. Unlike providing military aid, which directly supported the dictatorial regimes, promoting rule of law and stronger institutions would benefit the people. This course of action will improve communication between the U.S. and those in the transitioning countries.
Furthermore, the U.S. government's in-house capacity is weak because of outsourcing. Contractors, rather than government staff, offer advice to foreign governments and train civil servants. USAID is often reduced to an oversight agency which has little understanding of and information on the problems.
Privatization of information and brain drain pose other challenges for USAID. Because contractors have more information and expertise, they have more power in decision-making and program design, a function meant for the government. The Government Accountability Office even flagged this challenge. Moreover, USAID’s accountability tools will be reduced to quantifiable and short-term ones. When I worked for such a contractor in Iraq, the main measure of our performance was the number of training sessions and trainees we had; this pushed us to boost the numbers. This approach is feasible with short-term events such as preparing for an election, but not with long-term programs such as institution building and curbing corruption. Government reform is the kind of program that needs long-term financial commitment, institutional memory, and patience with results.
To go beyond elites, as Obama mentioned, requires the U.S. to commit to good governance in the Middle East and to invest in a sustainable capacity to lobby for better governments. The case of Iraq shows that ample funding creates a market response which allows civil society and non-governmental organizations to mushroom. If these countries become dependent on U.S. funds, they will not become self-sustainable. Abdulsalam Medeni, an Iraqi civic activist who monitors the society's evolution, told me, “withdrawing U.S. funds till another 5 year means sentencing Iraqi civil society organizations to death." In the oil-rich Middle East, ruling elites are more than happy to step in as alternative sources of funding, gutting the very raison d’être and the indepedence of civil society. In Iraq, the government and wealthy political parties started allocating funds for NGOs and professional syndicates.
USAID is also vital in helping build a free press in the developing world. The media is a shining star of U.S. assistance in Iraq by naming and shaming corrupt officials. Promoting the media involves exporting skills to young journalists, who can then address domestic issues. Building universities that encourage critical thinking and research should also be promoted, by USAID, as these institutions are an essential part of civil society.
The president outlined noble goals for helping the Arab Spring settle at the shores, but the work starts at home.
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