Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fishy Figures about USAID

Nothing worries me more about the future of Egypt than its economy. The White House seems to agree. The budgetary atmosphere in DC rules out a new Marshall Plan. Still, we have forgiven $1 billion of Egyptian debt, spearheaded further efforts at the G8, established an enterprise fund, created a regional trade and investment initiative, conducted entrepreneurship exchange programs, and cultivated private sector ties between our two countries.

But many of our efforts are viewed with suspicion by Egyptian revolutionaries - especially those with leftist leanings. They worry that the US has ulterior motives, that we seek to subvert the revolution to our economic interests. They look at previous interventions of the IMF and World Bank and - not entirely unjustifiably - worry about social unrest from economic upheaval.

One of the main goals of our public diplomacy in post-revolutionary Egypt must be to convince the public that many of their fears are unfounded. A majority of Arabs conflate democracy with economic outcomes. If Egypt's economy tanks, so will the aspirations of Tahrir Square. The US must do what it can to help ensure that does not happen. That first requires convincing Egyptians to let us help.

That is why this article in Al Masry Al Youm is so damaging. The English version claims that over the past 30 years, 90% of the $6 billion dollars given to Egypt by USAID has been "misused." The Arabic version gives a more detailed and slightly different account. It clarifies the $6 billion refers to aid for democracy and human rights assistance, not all assistance, but maintains the claim 90% of those funds were wasted. Among other figures, it also claims USAID gave $344 million for economic development in 2009 - implying such assistance has not helped dent Egypt's high rates of poverty, hunger and disease because of waste.

These numbers originate from a report by the "Center for Economic Studies" (I have yet to find the original report). Although the article cites an anonymous government official who denies these figures, the article clearly will confirm the widespread skepticism over American assistance.

The problem is these numbers don't add up with American statistics. According to the USAID mission in Egypt, the agency has given $28.6 billion between 1975-2009, not $6 billion. So the English version of the article is clearly wrong. According to the same source, democracy and governance assistance for that period has accounted for 4% of USAID funds ($1.144 billion), so the Arabic version's clarification of the $6 billion figure is also wrong. Moreover, according to this report by the Congressional Research Service, the entire US government (not just USAID) gave $250 million in economic assistance in 2009, not $344 million as the article claims.

If such basic facts are wrong, how we can trust the claim that 90% of USAID funds were wasted? Now I'm sure we waste a lot of money over there, but that number just seems fishy to me.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't sound so fishy to many Egyptians. And that's our problem. I hope we push back against this article and set the record straight.

*Thanks to @bungdan, @nervana_1 and @stevenacook for their help on this post.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fathers Worth Emulating

Usually when you discuss fathers and their children in the Middle East, you think of the rulers. Hassan and Mohammed, Hussein and Abdullah, Hafez and Bashar, and the list goes on. Power seemingly passes from father to son naturally in the Middle East – at least, it did until the Arab Spring turned the region upside down. Thankfully, we will never know whether Gamal would have ruled like Hosni. And hopefully we will never know if Seif would have ruled like Muammar. For as the scenes coming out of Syria show, a son can be just as ruthless as his father.

It would seem odd, then, to dedicate this Father’s Day post to the power-hungry father-son duos that for too long have dominated the Middle East. Instead, I want to highlight a revolutionary family who have banded together to demand their freedom in a unified voice. Theirs is an example worth blogging.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How to Actually Help Syrian Bloggers

A lot of people have expressed their anger/dismay/disappointment over the Amina Arraf hoax. I'll instead focus on the one silver lining. The incident has shown that there's a significant constituency of Americans and Europeans who support freedom of the press - and democracy more generally - in Syria.

Since her faked kidnapping, almost 14,000 people have joined the Free Amina Abdalla Facebook page. Untold others organized and fought for her release in other ways. Even Amina's creator, Tom MacMaster, alleges he had Syria's interests at heart - even if his actions were misguided and reckless. In an interview with The Guardian, he claims he invented Amina to help bring attention to human rights abuses in Syria.

But as a real Syrian LGBT activist, Daniel Nassar explains, "You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know. To bring attention to yourself and blog; you managed to bring the LGBT movement in the Middle East years back. You single-handedly managed to bring unwanted attention from authorities to our cause and you will be responsible for any LGBT activist who might be yet another fallen angel during these critical time."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Why We Believe in Amina Arraf

This past weekend, Syrian regime thugs purportedly kidnapped Amina Arraf who blogs at A Gay Girl in Damascus. I had been reading her blog for a few months and was quite upset at the news. Escaping a close call before, Amina refused to be silenced. And now she was in incredible danger.

Or, as it turns out, the truth may have been the one in danger. Since her alleged disappearance, serious questions have been raised about the blog's veracity. Amina may be a hoax.

I was tweeting about the whole situation when a producer for the BBC World Service's World Have Your Say asked me to come on the show. You can hear what I said here. I speak at 8:50 and at 19:00. My comments focus on why we want to hope for, and believe in, Amina.

I, like so many other of Amina's followers, want to believe in Amina. We hope that such a powerful voice for freedom is real. But in that hope, we also are effectively wishing that Amina is in incredible peril. I have been struggling to decide whether it's better to hope that a profound voice for liberty is in danger of being extinguished or that such a voice never existed at all.

There are many reasons why I might have been fooled by Amina, assuming she is in fact a hoax.My friend The Camel's Nose points to our limited ability to evaluate and process all the sources we encounter from Syria. As such, "our human brains took cognitive shortcuts to triage the fire hose of information coming at us." In addition, I have previously blogged about why social media seem particularly prone to misinformation.

But in this case, I think the problem is primarily neither one of cognition or transmission. Rather, it's one of emotion. We believed Amina's words because we wanted to believe them. We have witnessed such brutality in Syria, such ugliness, that we were bound to latch on to anything that offered beauty and hope. That is exactly what Amina did. We want to believe in Amina because she is something worth believing in.

But now we have reached a time for reckoning. We need to know the truth. Whether Amina is real or not, her story is certainly real. Over 1200 Syrians have died for the cause of freedom. Unknown more have been imprisoned and tortured. Each and every one deserve the attention Amina has garnered.

And that is why it would be so tragic if Amina turns out to be fake. So much time, energy, effort and emotion would have been wasted upon her as others languish and suffer. People outside Syria can only do so much to help, and currently that help is being directed primarily towards Amina.

If she is in fact a work of fiction, the time has come for her creator to fess up. His or her personal discomfort and embarrassment will be far outweighed by the good it will do for every Syrian currently locked in a struggle that is anything but a work of fiction.

But until such confirmation comes or definitive proof is discovered, we must assume Amina is real. As Andy Carvin worries, "this discussion about her identity could distract people from the possibility that should [sic] might be being brutalized in detention, and in dire need of support from friends and strangers alike."

UPDATE: Amina is in fact fake. I'm glad we now know the truth.