MIDDLE EAST: Middle East Aid
William Fisher «View Bio

Despite the billions the United States pours into aid programs in the Middle East and North Africa region, its image and credibility in the region continues to plummet.

Much of US aid is directed toward stimulating economic growth. Programs cover everything from micro-finance to privatization to cleaning up corrupt customs regimes. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) has repeatedly advised governments in the region to privatize inefficient state-run companies and has collaborated with ministries and agencies to develop policies and implement regulations to remove obstacles to private sector growth.

It has sponsored programs, often with special lending packages funded with governmental resources, to reform banking practices to make credit accessible to smaller companies. It has provided firm-level technical and managerial assistance to thousands of individual companies. It has helped to create technology research and development facilities and encouraged these institutions to develop links to local companies or industries. It has initiated programs to help groups of local business people to organize themselves into business support organizations to lobby their governments to remove constraints to private sector development.

But those who are most critical of the US are unlikely even to be aware of most of these programs because they are largely targeted at the private sector and the government ministries that interface with business. America’s severest critics – ordinary citizens in ’the Arab Street,’ Arab intellectuals, and radical Islamists – rarely come into direct contact with them. The business communities in the region, the principal beneficiaries of economic development programs, tend to have a much more favorable view of the US.

But the US also devotes very substantial resources to many other types of programs that are more likely to reach its critics. It works to improve education, health care, and physical infrastructure; to encourage more public participation in government affairs; and to provide food and shelter for humanitarian relief.

Yet criticism of the US persists. Islamists object to many of the educational reforms being encouraged by aid programs. Many Arab intellectuals see such programs as neocolonialism, as intrusions into their countries’ sovereignty, or merely as tools to promote US foreign policy.

Furthermore, the needs in the region are so vast that USAID’s frequent successes often go unnoticed. Development assistance is fundamentally a slow, incremental process that is rarely susceptible to short-term cost-benefit analysis.

But even if it were, attitudes toward the US would likely remain negative among many in the region. The reasons have little to do with the aid programs themselves. Rather, they are rooted in suspicion of US motives, disbelief in many US pronouncements, and hostility to many aspects of US foreign policy.

Chief among the causes of this hostility is what a majority of Arabs sees as America’s pro-Israel bias and its failure to mount a concerted effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To this open sore must be added many of the more recent and widely perceived shortcomings of the Bush administration – its double standards vis-à-vis civil liberties, human rights, Guantànamo Bay and the treatment of American Muslims; its invasion of Iraq; its recent calls for the ‘democratization’ of the Middle East; its stated aim to eliminate nuclear proliferation while turning a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal; and its support of globalization.

Finally, there is the issue of donor versus recipient. This is an issue that can negatively affect any aid program. It is rooted in the poor and disenfranchised citizens’ resentment of the rich and powerful – seen as the main beneficiaries of business-oriented aid.

Against this backdrop, Washington has turned to slick new media projects to improve its image. 

This week saw the inaugural broadcast of America’s new satellite television station directed at Arab viewers, Al Hurra (The Free One). Washington’s hope is that a fashionably produced Arab-language station will help stem anti-Americanism in the region. However, facing competition from Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, it will have a long and bumpy road to travel before it wins many hearts and minds.

Even before its first broadcast, the station drew fire in the Middle East as an American attempt to destroy Islamic values and brainwash the young. “The main goals of launching such a channel are to create drastic changes in our principles and doctrines,” said Jamil Abu Bakr, a spokesman for Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood movement. “But the nature of Arab and Muslim societies and their rejection and hatred of American policies... will ultimately limit the impact.”

The US government has tried reaching out directly to Arabs in other ways, most recently through the Arabic-language Radio Sawa and the Arabic-English magazine Hi. Radio Sawa began broadcasting shortly before Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted last April. Hi debuted last July in 14 Arab countries. Neither has proven a smash hit, though many young Arabs have said they enjoy Radio Sawa’s Arabic and Western pop music even if they look elsewhere for news.

Philip Frayne, a US embassy spokesman in Cairo, defended the new station. “Al-Hurra will not be used simply as a vehicle for defending American policies, but rather will present a balanced perspective,” he said.

Al Hurra also has some Arab defenders. “Everyone is entitled to express his or her opinion. This is an open sky and nobody should be afraid of that,” said Samiha Dahroug, head of Egypt’s Nile News Channel. But she added that Washington’s image wouldn’t improve among Arabs until the US changed its policies toward them… “America is judged by how it conducts itself in the world,” she said. “The facts speak for themselves.”

Meanwhile, US aid programs continue their slow progress. With most of the region’s economies in the doldrums and unemployment at record highs, the benefits of development assistance are hard to see and hard to sell. Yet despite their less glamorous image, USAID missions in the region are filled with highly dedicated American and local staff. These men and women work very hard, and often very effectively, to make a positive difference in the lives of those they are charged with helping. Ultimately, it is likely to be their contributions that will last longer and touch more people than the latest news channel.

William Fisher managed economic development projects in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development