POMED Notes: The Role of ‘Outside’ Supporters: Government, NGO, Education, the Diaspora
On Wednesday, Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs hosted a conference, sponsored by Hill & Knowlton Inc., titled “Building Civil Society After the Arab Spring: Progress, Challenges, Needs.” The third panel discussed, “The Role of ‘Outside’ Supporters: Government, NGO, Education, the Diaspora.” Panelists were Aimee Fullman, manager of cultural relations and networks at the British Council, Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy at the Project on Middle East Democracy, Andrée Simon, acting CEO of Women for Women International, Barbara Haig, deputy to the president for policy and strategy at the National Endowment for Democracy, and Mirelle Karam Halim, operations manager at Creative Associates.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here for the PDF
Aimee Fullman discussed the role of the British Council with supporting people in different regions around the world. Sparking calls for change and maintaining the momentum to implement change are very different, she said, and added that there are multitudes of ways to move change forward; a top-down approach does not always work. Fullman stated the British Council has long-term goals to foster partnerships with countries, and by maintaining an arms-length relationship with the government the Council is able to retain a level of legitimacy while simultaneously being independent. There are four channels through which the Council engages: the arts, civil society and dialogue, education, and teaching the English language. In the Middle East, there is a particular focus on youth and civic engagement, as well as women engagement in society. Fullman placed a strong emphasis on context as being a key indicator of action in any country. Therefore, as an external actor, it is imperative that one understands that democracy can take different forms, and in order to foster constructive growth, outsiders can lead by example, be transparent in their processes and values, and hold others accountable by playing a “watchdog” role.
Cole Bockenfeld discussed the role of U.S. policy and government in creating a space for civil society to exist and operate. Bockenfeld believes a key need is for the U.S. to widen its policy circles beyond government officials, ministers, parliamentary members, and ambassadors, to include those who are less represented in those formal entities. Engagement with youth, minorities and other marginalized groups – in particular Islamist groups – is important, he said. The U.S. has a history of being hesitant when it comes to Islamist groups, but as Secretary Hillary Clinton said, people should be judged by what they do, not what they’re called. Bockenfeld said the administration has demonstrated some creative thinking in responding to the Arab Spring, including the development of the Middle East Transitions Office in the U.S. Department of State, and the $770 million funding request for the Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund, for which he expressed hope that policymakers support. He also pointed to two areas where the U.S. needs to exert more creative thinking and restructure relationships in the region, where policies still prioritize geostrategic incentive over democracy promotion as a “zero sum game” that is no longer true. In Egypt, the U.S. waived conditions on assistance despite the lack of democratic reform by the government. This, along with new language in the House appropriations bill on Egypt’s aid, sends the wrong signal to democracy promoters in Egypt. In Bahrain, Bockenfeld said, policymakers too often delay promotion of reform by linking it to tensions with Iran, despite the need to recognize that reform is the best way for the U.S. to secure its interests in Bahrain.
Andrée Simon discussed Women for Women International’s role in supporting women engagement in society. One of the biggest ways to impact society, she argued, is to invest in women, who make up half of the population – if not more. Though men and women should have equal roles in all facets of society, it has not been seen across the region. Women played an equally significant role during the protests, but their participation in the aftermath visibly declined, which is significantly attributed to decades of cultural bias against them. Educating the youth about the importance of engaging women is one way to break the continuous cycle of that bias, Simon said.
Barbara Haig focused in on specific countries within the region, rather than giving a holistic perspective. In Tunisia, the society is struggling through pushbacks in the government. The people believe that remnants of the former regime are stirring up protest among the disenfranchised and hindering true reform. In Egypt, the removal of Hosni Mubarak was the only component of transition that was a consensus among the people. Issues are ongoing because there are remnants of Mubarak’s loyalists within the military ruling party, Haig said. Haig also discussed struggling post-conflict countries, such as Yemen and Tunisia, that haven’t begun to scratch the surface of reform. Areas of conflict such as Syria are ambiguous in outcome, and it is obvious that Kofi Annan’s peace plan is not working, which has left policymakers in a difficult position. In the Gulf countries, there is the challenge of combating Saudi Arabian power and influence, which Haig argues is not sustainable in the long-term.
Mirelle Karam Halim spoke from an Egyptian perspective of women’s rights and the struggles that are still prevalent in the transitional government. Echoing Simon’s words, Halim said women had strong participation in the revolution, but gained only two percent of representation in the government. There was also significantly low participation from women in the elections, which Halim attributed to a lack of trust in the candidates, leading to lack of incentive to vote. Halim emphasized the need for outreach to the female demographic, and the need for education that includes practical experience in societal involvement.
During the discussion, panelists and audience members came to an agreement that though women’s education is very important, educating men is equally as salient for long-term change to come to society. Only educating one party isn’t enough, it was said.