Egypt, Zimbabwe: similar concerns over foreign NGO funding

Aug 13, 2011

One of the effects of the diplomatic coolness between Zimbabwe and western countries is that the latter, especially Britain and the U.S., have increasingly engaged with Zimbabweans through support of various NGOs rather than directly with the government. The Mugabe government resents this for many reasons, and the practice has some drawbacks for the donor countries as well. A furore over the role of USAID in Egypt suggests that the tensions this causes are not strictly because of poor relations between particular governments, but go deeper to the legitimate sovereignty concerns.

Among reasons given for western countries channeling more of their 'development assistance' through NGOs are to avoid government corruption and favoritism in disbursement; to foster greater responsiveness and effectiveness and so on. In the case of Zimbabwe, the western governments may also want to avoid being seen to be directly funding 'brutal dictator Robert Mugabe,' which would not play well in countries like Britain and the U.S., where he has the reputation of being a monster. So for these 'donors' sidestepping the government is also a way of rebuking it.

It has becoming glaringly obvious in recent years that aid is also about maintaining leverage in the recipient countries. While giving aid to 'civil society organizations' allows western countries to have direct access to selected sectors of the recipients countries' populations (''this maize is a gift of the US government'') it is sometimes at the cost of having less leverage on the governments. This is the case in Zimbabwe, where various western sanctions including the withdrawal of most direct aid to the state has moved the Mugabe government further away from western blandishments and influence instead of drawing it closer (to regain the donors favor because of the 'punishment' of the withdrawal of aid.)

The Mugabe government has often reacted angrily to the proliferation of NGOs receiving western aid, suspecting it is part of efforts to undermine it by those western governments. While many of the NGOs are involved in humanitarian activities such as in the agriculture and health sectors, many others have as their claimed ambit the sometimes fuzzy 'promotion of democracy and human rights.'  The embattled Mugabe government considers many of these to be at least sympathetic to its political opponents, and so the western countries' support for them is regarded with a great deal of resentment and suspicion.  

It turns out these are not just the concerns of a government with bad relations with aid-disbursing countries. During deposed president Hosni Mubarak's time and since, Egypt has been a recipient of billions of dollars of US aid every year, military and otherwise. The US in that case found itself accused of being too close to a brutal dictator. Seeking to diversify the power centers it engages with, the US continues with aid to Egypt's military, but now also sends aid directly to many NGOs, which makes the new government very uneasy.

Excerpts from a story about this:

The USAID director in Egypt abruptly flew back to Washington after less than a year on the job, the first major casualty of a row between the two longtime allies over American funding for pro-democracy groups. Jim Bever left his post the day after the Obama administration chastised Egypt's leaders for stoking anti-American sentiment during the country's rocky transition to democracy. In the rare public rebuke, the U.S. said it had noticed mounting attacks and criticism of U.S. aid and motives.

The criticism of the U.S. is a sign that Egypt's military rulers are growing anxious over foreign aid they fear could strengthen the liberal groups behind Egypt's uprising at the expense of the military's own vast power.

In March, USAID – the American government organization that distributes international development aid – placed advertisements inviting non-governmental groups in Egypt to apply for U.S. funding. The ads attracted hundreds of applicants, who lined up outside USAID offices in a quiet suburb south of Cairo. Over the next few months, the American aid organization allocated millions of dollars to the groups.

This left the government seething. It insisted that the funding must go through official channels, and not directly to the groups. Those restrictions applied during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, whose government tightly controlled the process.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, gave a speech in Washington and criticized the United States for funding pro-democracy groups without submitting to Egyptian government supervision. He said it violated Egyptian laws for funding non-governmental organizations. "It is a matter of sovereignty," he said.

In Egypt, as in Zimbabwe and many other countries, a government not fully confident of its continued hold on power is worried about a foreign power funding competing power centers. It is tempting for some to dismiss these concerns as being from governments without popular legitimacy amongst their own people. But it is just as true that there are entirely legitimate sovereignty concerns about this sort of 'aid.' 

It is seems astonishing that in this particular case the U.S. government acts almost hurt and angry, as suggested in 'the U.S. said it had noticed mounting attacks and criticism of U.S. aid and motives.'  Even from a U.S. point of view, why should it be surprising that the government of a sovereign nation would be concerned about hundreds of local groups of all types lining up to receive funding from a foreign government? If the situation were reversed and it were a foreign government dishing out money to U.S. 'pro-democracy groups,' there would be exactly the same outcry, and it would be entirely justified.

The claim by a U.S. representative that, "Egyptian groups that apply for and receive grants from the United States are engaged in activities that are politically neutral'' is fascinating, almost arrogant. Who is the one determining the political neutrality of these groups? Who should? The U.S. government, the Egyptian government or the groups themselves?

The point is that one person's politically 'neutral' group is another person's anti or pro-government group. An NGO digging water wells or primary health care may be examples of groups that can claim to be largely politically neutral, but 'pro-democracy group' can mean just about anything. It seems bizarre that the aid-giving foreign government would be surprised that many of the locals would be deeply suspicious.

When there is broad consensus that the government in question is nasty, there would seem to be justification for supporting even non-politically neutral groups seeking to bring about change. But when it is a foreign government that gives itself the right to make this decision, it is entirely natural that any self-respecting sitting government would object. It just so happens that the objecting government in Zimbabwe is considered 'bad' and mostly hostile by the U.S., while the objecting authority in Egypt is considered at least acceptable and mostly friendly. But the principal in question is the same in both cases: a foreign government by its 'aid'  to 'pro-democracy groups' is clearly, admittedly seeking to interfere with the governance development/evolution of another country. What gives it the right to do so?

Of course there are many good, uncontroversial 'development projects' USAID and other such organizations are involved in all over the world. But this spat between Egypt and the U.S.; officially friendly countries, unlike the situation between Zimbabwe and the U.S., is also a reminder that aid is also a very blunt instrument of foreign influence.

The built-in arrogance of the donor governments in the way they throw around the aid with little respect for the sensibilities of the recipient governments also means that the aid can be as much a source of division as it can be helpful, often boomeranging against the interests of the donor government rather than strengthening them.        

When the double-edged nature of aid's effects are accompanied by the kind of 'how dare you doubt our good, politically-neutral intentions' arrogance of the donor, you can be sure that it will continue to be contentious and viewed with suspicion by societies that are supposed to be quietly, unquestioningly grateful. 


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