ABU DHABI // The US is having to adjust its approach to foreign aid for nations such as Egypt that are flush with revolution-inspired independence and wariness of outsiders, said Egyptian activists, a US official and political analysts yesterday.
“We don’t want people meddling in our affairs without us knowing about it. I think this is really the most consensus sentiment,” said the prominent Egyptian activist and blogger Wael Khalil.
“There is an interest in more autonomy and more transparency,” he said. “If you’re going to pump money in NGOs, who are you, why are you doing that, who are these NGOs, what are their agendas?”
Mr Khalil spoke on the sidelines of a two-day conference hosted by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Centre (ADGC) that ended yesterday.
Political and religious scholars and government officials from Egypt, Jordan, the United States, the UK and other countries gathered to discuss Arab youth, Muslim-West relations and changes in the region.
In surveys conducted by Gallup, many Egyptians expressed distaste for foreign aid, especially from the US, the ADGC director Dalia Mogahed said in a panel discussion.
“It’s very interesting that when we do look at our research, Egyptians are welcoming of Arab government aid, somewhat welcoming of IMF aid, and very unwelcoming of American aid, in that order,” she said.
Esraa Abdul Fattah, whose activism in Egypt since 2008 and particularly this year won her a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, agreed that many viewed US funding with suspicion, in particular that it was backing certain political parties. US support for democracy seemed belied by Washington’s longtime support for the former president Hosni Mubarak, she said.
Aid should go instead to Egypt’s economy and civil society, which badly needed support, she said. “US money should go to civil society, not political parties. And civil society can work with the political parties.”
A US State Department official, Peter Mandaville, discounted the popular suspicions in Egypt that America was trying to use money to pick election winners, but acknowledged that the US needed to respond to such sentiments.
“This impression that there were US government people walking around Egypt handing out bags of money to groups and parties that the US likes ... is not at all what was happening,” said Mr Mandaville, a Middle East policy adviser to the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and an academic specialising in the region.
He added: “The US would concede that we haven’t always done as good a job as we should in helping people in the countries in which we’re working to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
There is “broad sensitivity about money and influence coming from outside Egypt right now”, he said.
Since protests erupted in Cairo in January, the US had allocated US$60 million (Dh220m) in new funds to support democracy and governance and $90m (Dh330m) to bolster the economy, he said. It also forgave $1 billion (Dh3.67bn)in debt on the condition that those funds would be used for certain purposes that are still being negotiated.
Most of the democracy funds supported American organisations to provide training in political campaigns for any interested party. The rest of the $60m went to NGOs and other members of civil society, he said.
The US hoped to explain its policies better through its USAID Egypt website, and better vet and regulate NGOs to which it gave funds, he said.
It had also begun recognising “emerging donors” – as opposed to traditional donors such as those in Europe or Japan – that it might be able to partner with including the UAE, South Korea and Brazil. This could include coordinating to make sure efforts did not overlap.
The UAE and other Gulf states could also help in “burden-sharing” by fulfilling earlier aid pledges to Egypt, he said. “That’s something we’d like to talk with our Gulf partners about.”
The conference culminated in a presentation of recommendations based on two days of working-group sessions covering youth in the Arab world, citizen inclusion, the role of public-private partnerships, political violence and western-Muslim integration. The groups studied survey data provided by Gallup to forge their recommendations.
The political violence team, for example, urged law-enforcement agencies to avoid profiling in their effort to identify suspicious individuals.
“We tested a number of variables to see whether they would help identify who would spark political violence,” said Stephane Lacrois, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris who presented his group’s recommendations. “Profiling doesn’t work.”
Participants in the forum included Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad, the special envoy of the king of Jordan; the Libyan ambassador to the UAE and long-time theologian Aref Nayed, and the prominent US-based Islam expert John Esposito.