In December 2010, the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi set off an unprecedented wave of citizen uprisings across the Arab world - demanding immediate reforms from repressive and corrupt regimes.
With upheaval in the Middle East spreading from Tunisia to the Persian Gulf, the shortcomings of traditional US development assistance in Arab countries to effectively address its shared values - desire for good governance, security, and social and economic well-being— has become all too evident.
The American relationship with the Arab world has been in place since the Jefferson era, forged at a time when uncompromised access to Mediterranean shipping lanes was pivotal to the young nation’s trade capacity. Since then, the landscape of the Middle East has been continuously shifting as various forces - from Marx to Aramco, from Allenby to the Internet - have played out across the region. For over 100 years, there has been a fundamental anomaly which has plagued the Middle East with unmet expectations for political stability and economic progress. Earlier, language, religion, geographical proximity and Empire (Caliphate) had provided a modicum of unity of culture and control which had allowed for the trade in ideas as well as for goods and services. The Allied victory in 1917 and the subsequent implementation of Sykes-Picot, within the context of the explosive growth of the “nation-state,” created externally imposed boundaries around geographical entities which often owed their sustenance and direction to Western influence - whether colonial, cold-war or the current situation, often identified as Pax Americana.
Today, while geography and natural resources now underline the economic importance of the Middle East, the region also presents some of the most pressing security issues for the United States. In 2003, America’s intervention in Iraq empowered a Shia majority that had long been repressed under the Sunni-led Baath party. Its inability to constrain Israel in July 2006 in Lebanon or in December 2008 in Gaza added to the growing disaffection in the Arab world for America just at the same time as radical Islam was often filling the vacuum of discredited Arab heads of State. Now in 2011, amidst citizen-led revolutions that are bringing long-held authoritarian regimes to an end, the US Government has bolstered its commitment to the region, hoping to increase prosperity, promote freedom, and counter extremist ideology.
Considered a region of key strategic and financial importance since the 18th Century, the US has invested billions in support of democracy and good governance in the Middle East. Since 2007 alone, $22.1 billion USD has been allocated in foreign assistance to the Arab World.
To date, official foreign assistance – including military operations, humanitarian assistance, and long-term development funds – has played the predominant role in representing America’s values and interests within the Middle East. Since the establishment of the US Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the underlying structure of overseas development assistance has remained largely unchanged. Today, current policy debates surrounding foreign aid spending emphasize the financial and security implications of the appropriation requests put forth by the US State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), with significantly less discussion given to the overall design of aid interventions, or the reformation of the system itself.
In recent years, government agencies have however begun to emphasize projects that provide an alternative to traditional top-down funding to a single in-country intermediary. With renewed recognition that transformative development assistance is required to effect long-term fundamental, positive change between the US and citizens across the Middle East, there has been a move to increase value-based forms of assistance. Senator John Kerry has pressed for a shift in viewing the Middle East solely through the security-oriented lens of 9/11, lauding the promotion of programs that will strengthen US engagement with the people of the region. This echoes calls by President Obama and the US State Department for increased citizen to citizen engagement with the Middle East, voiced in key speeches in Cairo and Doha since 2009. Advocating on behalf of “smart power” – as referenced in the State Department’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlights the need to tap into the expertise, experience, and energy of civil society to capitalize on the historic popular movements and uprisings across the region.
The ability of foreign assistance to effectively support the current grassroots-led "Arab Awakening" is diminished by the bureaucratic channels through which these investments must travel. As little as 27 cents of each dollar given may actually reach the recipients on the ground.
As is, the current foreign assistance paradigm is characterized by indirect channels of aid distribution and a heavy footprint. This implies a resulting lack of local ownership, high cost, and perceptions of imposition and occupation among targeted populations - particularly in what are considered to be “fragile states.”
The trickle-down of official US foreign aid dollars is longwinded and more often than not, experiences multiple transaction costs as it moves from taxpayer to government coffers to aid agencies or private organizations in the field. It has been estimated that before public monies reach project implementation and the beneficiaries overseas, 60% has already been spent, meaning that beneficiaries are only likely to see $0.40 or less of every dollar. In Iraq, where the US has directed over $100 billion in development funds since 2003, the Center of Strategic and International Studies determined that only $0.27 from every dollar reached the Iraqis, finding this inefficiency to be detrimental to sustainable social, political, and economic development.
Furthermore, the security bubble that accommodates official Americans abroad working in fragile states is costly, reaching $500,000 per person annually. As federal employees, they must be protected by federal assets, whether contracted or uniformed. In insecure environments, this results in limited movements outside of secure compounds, with few opportunities to engage in dialogue with local communities or to see in person how appropriated funds are being spent on the ground. When outside visits are possible, they frequently involve the accompaniment of a large-scale security detail, presenting themselves to communities with weapons in full view, conveying an image of “occupier” rather than partner in development. The impact of “fortress diplomacy” is perhaps most significant within the Middle East, a region where the projection of US interests and values plays a vital strategic role, and yet where it has seen limited progress. In Iraq, the large-scale application of foreign assistance that followed the initial military operations has been mired in controversy over corruption allegations, and its failure to attract local ownership for development interventions.
In contrast, non-federal workers operating outside of armed perimeters in fragile states such as Iraq and Afghanistan work at their own risk, relying on community acceptance strategies for protection, as opposed to deterrence strategies - at a fraction of the cost.
Bridging the Divide promotes a model of engagement that seeks to revolutionize American foreign assistance by harnessing technology to engage Americans directly with activists working overseas working on behalf of rights issues and good governance.
American funding of overseas development initiatives is not, however, limited to official foreign assistance monies. The disintermediating effect of technology has enabled Americans to play an increasingly significant – and direct - role in the provision of foreign assistance to projects of their choice. As Internet and mobile applications become increasingly widespread, a network-centric stance toward leadership that favors decentralization and transparency is enabling Americans to connect with citizen organizations overseas, enter into dialogue with them, and give directly to their support. This relatively recent phenomenon of peer-to-peer giving is now capturing an increasing share of the overseas transfer of goods and services. Online giving as a whole is now the fastest growing fundraising channel, up 40% in 2010 from the previous year.
Many successful US-based online giving platforms, such as Kiva, GlobalGiving, Network for Good, and Donors Choose, utilize the peer-to-peer giving format, whereby general funds are raised on behalf of an organization, or small amounts for projects are raised by multiple individual donors until the total requested amount is achieved. These models provide an opportunity for individuals around the world to connect and give to projects of their choice through the internet. These new models of “direct giving” have extremely low administrative overhead, and essentially, provide people the opportunity to connect directly to projects, causes, and individuals.
Many Americans believe that improved engagement with the Muslim world is beneficial to US interests, and key to building better relationships with the Middle East. However, with much of America’s current engagement with the Middle East still rooted in the application of foreign assistance and defense spending in the region, opportunities for direct citizen-to-citizen engagement have traditionally been limited to facilitated interaction through school-to-school correspondence, volunteer opportunities, or informally through internet-based platforms such as Facebook. Yet by harnessing the opportunities now available through peer-to-peer giving, public-private partnerships, and corporate social responsibility (CSR), Americans can now play a direct role in supporting the upward demand for good governance in the Arab world.
By supporting BtD's carefully vetted activists, you are responding to locally-owned advocacy initiatives, thereby making a direct - and sustainable - impact on the ground.
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