MORE ON NGOs….Dan makes a good point about the problems with relying on NGO funding as a democracy promotion strategy. In the Arab context, this has played out in a couple of ways.

First, you’ve got the “kiss of death” problem. Association with the United States is the fastest route towards being politically discredited in today’s Arab world. Ayman Nour was interviewed in the Nasirist weekly al-Araby a couple of weeks ago, and he complained that a five minute conversation with Madeleine Albright has been blown up out of all proportion and caused him all kinds of problems. Kifaya organizers have been careful to avoid association with the US, while Mubarak’s people are doing everything they can to make them look like American stooges. Hamza Mansour, head of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, gave an interview in al-Hayat the other day to deny that the IAF had been talking to Washington. I could go on and on. Point: overt American assistance to politically influential groups isn’t going to be welcome, and probably isn’t going to help.

Second, you’ve got the “low hanging fruit” problem. Current MEPI and other civil society support funds always seem to go to women’s rights groups in Jordan or to an English-language school in Tunisia, or whatnot. Nice, often led by wonderful people, and a good way for USAID officials to show that they’re spending money, but not really getting at the core political stalemate.

Third, there’s some tough calls about whether to support like-minded but marginal groups or influential but potentially disagreeable groups. The Arab media has been obsessed the last few weeks over the idea that the US is planning to have a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood ? half a dozen al-Jazeera talk shows, dozens of op-eds. Do you include moderate Islamists in your civil society outreach or not? What about the Jordanian government cracking down on the professional associations, which are both the strongest political organization for the Jordanian middle classes and the staunchest opponents of normalization with Israel?

And fourth, you’ve got what Dan’s talking about, the perverse incentives it can set up, as local NGOs tailor their agenda to what can get funding and not what the local society really needs.

I don’t know if there’s anyone (even Biden) who really thinks that the NGO/civil society route is a magic bullet, but if so then they haven’t been paying attention to most of the political science on the subject. For a nice review of those debates, I’d point you to Amy Hawthorne’s excellent work.

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