February 01, 2005

Better Living Through Civil Society

Praktike calls attention to a very important Carnegie paper by Amy Hawthorne, asking whether civil society is the answer to the Middle East's various woes. As you'd guess, it depends. Much of existing U.S. aid tends to go towards "service NGOs," which do a lot of good economic work, but often operate solely under the auspices of the current regime, and aren't much of a force for change per se. In part, this weak-kneed approach to aid stems from a tradition started by George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton—both presidents favored incremental change, believing that "microparticipation" in civil society groups would spur existing Arab regimes to reform from within. But as Hawthorne says, this belief was "unrealistic".

As yet, it's not clear that the Bush II administration is doing anything fundamentally different on this front. Nor is it clear that doing so would really shake things up. Hawthorne's most startling point is that "U.S. assistance at best can play a modest positive role." In part this is because, given the current state of U.S.-Arab relations, U.S. aid is often the kiss of death for civil society groups. In part, many of the civil society organizations are at odds with each other—liberals (who are pro-democratic) don't trust the Islamic groups (who actually have popular support). In part, as praktike nicely summarizes, the existing civil associations are simply inadequate to the task:
Labor unions and business associations are too dependent on the regimes. Islamist groups either aren't really pro-democracy, are unsure about it, are pro-democracy but not very large or influential, or are apolitical altogether. Service NGOs are fearful of running afoul of the regimes that have coopted them. The prodemocracy groups are courageous but small.
But in part, it's because "civil society activism alone" won't necessarily "create a democratic opening." Hawthorne believes that real political reform tends to happen only after "broader social, economic, or political change" occur. So even if the right sorts of civil society groups existed, and even if the Islamist groups became more pro-democratic, and even if we gave them aid, and even if they all cooperated, the U.S. would still need to press for more forceful political reforms to give these groups an opening. That means pressing for legalization of political opposition parties, holding of competitive elections, lifting of press restrictions. And even then, the moon and stars would have to align for something ground-breaking—ala late 1980s Eastern Europe—to take place.

So it's a long drawn-out affair, and the chance of either Congress or us pundits or the "Arab Street" actually seeing immediate and concrete progress is very slim. Meanwhile, the chance of pissing off our Arab allies is very high. You can see, then, why none of this actually gets done. It's "hard work"! But still...
-- Brad Plumer 12:31 AM || ||