Thursday, June 17, 2010

Increasing the Effectiveness of U.S. Foreign Aid

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing last week entitled "Human Rights and Democracy Assistance: Increasing the Effectiveness of U.S. Foreign Aid."

Witnesses were:

Ms. Jennifer L. Windsor
Executive Director
Freedom House
Thomas Carothers, J.D.
Vice President for Studies
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Elisa Massimino, J.D.
President and Chief Executive Officer
Human Rights First
[Press Release on the Hearing]
The Honorable Lorne W. Craner
International Republican Institute
(Former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor)

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 separated military and non-military aid, unified existing aid efforts, and established USAID. The United States government is in the process of reviewing and rewriting the act to make foreign assistance more effective.

The United States foreign assistance program really began after World War II when the U.S. funded reconstruction projects in Europe and Asia. The aftermath of the war saw the creation of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. World War II ended 65 years ago, and foreign assistance programs and organizations have had a bumpy ride ever since, as most U.S. aid programs focused on fighting the spread of communism. The 1980s saw the creation of the National Endowment of Democracy and its four core institutes: National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Center for International Private Enterprise, and Solidarity Center. NED and its core institutes focused on fighting communism in Eastern Europe and Latin America during the eighties. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, there was much confusion in the foreign policy world, as no one knew what the future held. Francis Fukuyama even went as far as to proclaim the "end of history." Foreign assistance declined in importance in the nineties. September 11, 2001 changed that.

One of the major problems with the way foreign assistance is awarded - and this point was brought up by all of the panelists involved in the hearing - is that foreign governments, rather than people, have too much input into where foreign assistance goes. For example, President Obama’s engagement of the Mubarak regime in Egypt has not only alienated civil society activists who had received substantial amounts of democracy funding under the previous administration, but has resulted in the crackdown on, arrest of, and even murder of many of these activists. Governments that have well-organized lobbies, like the Jordanian government, receive more foreign assistance than those that do not. In the case of Lebanon, the factionalized nature of its political system adversely affects the country’s ability to lobby for funding and has kept US policymakers in the dark about what the country actually needs, causing these policymakers to focus almost exclusively on Hizbollah and Israel in any discussion that deals with Lebanon instead of on issues that could make a difference in the lives of the Lebanese people.

That guy who was President of the United States for eight years at the beginning of this century made democracy promotion a major part of his foreign policy, and civil society organizations across the globe reaped the benefits of increased funding. Now, civil society activists like Saad Eddin Ibrahim are criticizing the Obama administration for reducing funds for democracy promotion programs and giving control over foreign assistance funding to despots like Pharaoh Mubarak, who just renewed the Emergency Law. Saad points to elections in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Lebanon, Kuwait, Jordan, Yemen, Egypt and Mauritania that took place in 2005-2006 as evidence that democracy promotion programs work.

Despite the best efforts of individuals like Ziad Baroud and Ghassan Moukheiber and of civil society organizations like LADE, political reform in Lebanon has been virtually non-existent. Very few seats in the 2009 parliamentary elections or the 2010 municipal elections were truly contested campaigns. Since gaining independence from France in 1943, the Lebanese political system has been characterized by sectarian division and corruption despite many attempts at reform. Until the confessional system is abolished, and it does not appear that will happen any time soon, the political system will continue to be just a shadow of a genuine democracy.

This doesn't mean that funding for political reform programs in Lebanon should cease. However, the focus should be on grassroots programs like NDI's Citizen Lebanon, which will help grow a new generation of active citizens who understand that real democracy is based on merit and competition, not wasta and corruption.

Grassroots programs, not large funding packages to governments, are the way to genuine reform. It remains to be seen how any rewrite of the Foreign Assistance Act will change the way aid is dished out and how effective it will be. One thing is certain, though: without the input of actual civil society activists who are the beneficiaries of such assistance, foreign assistance programs will continue to have little sustainable impact.

Read Project on Middle East Democracy's notes on the hearing.

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