Partnering for Progress in the Middle East

Beirut, September 30: At almost every international or regional gathering these days on how to fix the assorted problems and deficiencies in the Middle East, a common theme keeps popping up: What is the most effective and legitimate way for foreign parties — governments, international agencies, non-governmental organizations, universities or companies — to help achieve advances in areas like human rights, economic growth, social protection, democratization, or technological advancement?

Many different kinds of international involvement in our region have included armed invasions, covert activities, government-to-government economic and technical aid, and civil society or private sector partnerships. The cumulative track record of foreign engagement in the Middle East is thin, with few clear successes, many wasted efforts, and some counterproductive results such as Arab government spawning “non-governmental organizations” that are organized by members of the ruling elite that siphon off funds which would otherwise go to the truly non-governmental sector. Another problem is the dependency culture, with weak governments and tiny, one-man-show NGOs depending entirely on foreign donors to undertake their work — but with no lasting results when the foreign money stops and the local groups or activities collapse.

I’ve had the opportunity to explore these issues repeatedly with colleagues from the Middle East, the Western world and some leading international organizations. Here are my conclusions on how collaboration or partnership between foreign and Middle Eastern organizations succeed or fail:

1. Any partnership must work cross-sectorally if it wishes to tackle the tough issues of the day, like economic growth, education, political violence, youth and women’s rights, and others. Most pressing issues in our region are a consequence of distortions and excesses in multiple arenas, like politics, security, economics, the environment, education and urban expansion. Thus they can only be addressed meaningfully by a combination of political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians, among others.

2. Action to improve conditions or resolve problems in any sector usually comprises six distinct components: research to identity the problem, analysis to understand it fully, advocacy on policy recommendations, practical interventions to change things, funding, and monitoring and evaluation to assess if change has happened and to hold people accountable. Any foreign group that hopes to achieve anything by joining forces with local actors should only try to work in one, or maximum two, of these six areas, or they will end up doing a lot of work and having no impact.

3. Any international organization that hopes to succeed in our region must enjoy legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of three different but critical players: major Western and international institutions, and also governments and civil society/grassroots groups in the Middle East. Ignoring even one of these three parties will almost automatically guarantee failure.

4. Relationships must be based on institutional rather than personal links, and these relationships must be constantly negotiated and renegotiated to be sure that any joint effort is based on shared priorities and respond to the core interests and values of both sides. Projects initiated and funded by foreign donors alone rarely have lasting impact.

5. Activities should always be co-financed by both the foreign and local parties. Only when people put their money on the line do they take their work seriously and make an extra effort to ensure real impact and sustainability.

6. Partnerships between foreign groups and the private or NGO sectors in the Middle East are often initiated because the Middle Eastern government in question is incompetent to undertake the work in question, such as environmental protection, promoting human rights, or responding to the needs of youth and children. If such partnerships or collaborations are mainly defined by a need to evade the incompetence of local governments, the work is likely to fail because the government will quickly translate its resentments into crushing obstacles.

7. Many of the issues that foreign groups and local non-state actors wish to address are sensitive to the governments or to social traditions, making it hard to do the essential research needed to understand an issue fully. Issues like women’s status, sexuality, youth behavior, and use of the digital world to freely express ideas or identities are usually strictly controlled by the state, and must be approached with care but also rigor.

8. Strategic priorities that are primarily defined in political councils in Europe and North America and then presented to us in the Middle East as “transformational” or “development” projects will always collapse in a pile of wasted time and money, because they reflect foreign rather than indigenous priorities. More effective is a policy that generates strategies and activities on the basis of local research and consultations that allow the people of Middle Eastern societies to define their key problems — and then to partner with like-minded colleagues from abroad to take action to mitigate or resolve them.