Sequestration: Perhaps a Silver Lining for US Foreign Assistance (Part 2/2)

New technologies and civil society engagement can provide better results through foreign assistance from the US to the Middle East. This is the final part. Read part one here.

New Models of Citizen Engagement

American funding of overseas development initiatives is not, however, limited to official foreign assistance funding. The dis-intermediating effect of technology has enabled Americans as private citizens to play an increasingly significant — and direct — role in the provision of foreign assistance to projects of their choice. As Internet and mobile applications — “from blogs to wikis, tags, texts and tweets — become increasingly widespread, a network-centric stance toward leadership that favor decentralization and transparency is being engendered.”Using this technology, Americans can now connect with citizen organizations overseas, enter into dialogue with them, and give directly to support them. This relatively recent phenomenon of peer-to-peer giving (also called “new giving” or “crowdfunding”) is now capturing an increasing share of the overseas transfer of goods and services. Online giving as a whole is now the fastest growing fundraising channel, up by 40% in 2010 from the previous year. Network for Good, a fundraising platform for non-profits, raised $381m for 66,470 organizations in 2009 alone.

Many successful US-based online giving platforms, such as Kiva, GlobalGiving, Network for Good, and Donors Choose, utilize the peer-to-peer giving format. In this format general funds are raised on behalf of an organization, or small amounts for projects are raised by multiple individual donors until the total requested figure is achieved.Network for Good has disbursed over $500m to date from citizen donors. Kiva, an online microloans program, began with seven loans totalling $3,500 in April 2005. Now, in 2013, its total loans have exceeded $400m. GlobalGiving is an online “marketplace” that directly connects donors with grassroots projects in the developing world. Individuals who are interested in making a donation can browse and select from a wide offering of projects organized by geography or by sectors. Once an individual chooses a project, they can contribute any amount, using a credit/debit card, cheque, PayPal, or stock transfer. GlobalGiving, founded in 2003, had by 2012 over 100,000 individuals who have donated over $30m to nearly 3,000 projects in over 100 countries. These new models of “direct giving” have extremely low administrative overheads, and essentially provide people the opportunity to connect directly to projects, causes, and individuals.

Despite this rapid growth of online giving, easier access to a vast array of philanthropic causes overseas, and the integral role of the Middle East to US foreign and domestic policy, the share of American citizen financial support to Middle East- and Muslim-oriented causes still remains minimal. There is, however, an existing foundationof citizen-led charitable support for the region. Since 2004, Kiva donorshave provided nearly $10m in microloans to entrepreneurs in the Middle East, facilitated by only 12 different microfinance institutions. In contrast, Kiva has identified and worked with 60 lending institutions in Africa, and 35 in Asia. Similarly, projects listed in Muslim countries on GlobalGiving only make up approximately 0.01% of total projects listed, but still managed to attract nearly $1m in donations for the period 2007-2009.

Public Support for Improved US-Arab Relations 

The limited philanthropic engagement of Americans in the Middle East is likely rooted in the largely negative view through which the region is presented in the media.  The negative consequences of failed US foreign assistance programs not only have major security implications, but have heightened perceptions of waste, as well as perpetuated the image of endemic Middle East violence among American citizens. Furthermore, images of extremism from the region have contributed to ongoing high-levels of animosity and misperception towards Islam and the Arab world among Americans. Following the vents of September 11, 2001, 41% of Americans expressed an unfavorable view of Muslim countries. A Gallup poll, in January 2010, indicated that Americans are more than twice as likely to hold negative sentiments towards Muslims than towards Christians, Jews or Buddhists, with 43% admitting that they are, to some degree, prejudiced towards Muslims. This finding aligns with a separate 2009 Gallup survey which found that only 26% of those in the Middle East and North Africa believe that the West respects Islam.

These negative stereotypes, however, belie an interest in, and a desire for, improved engagement between Americans and the Middle East. According to a 2011 study from the Pew Research Center: “the public expresses the most interest in news from Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of US Forces have been stationed for years. Nearly eight-in-ten say they are very or somewhat interested in what happens in Iraq (78%) and Afghanistan (77%).” This interest extends to countries in the Middle East with less significant US military engagement, with over 80% of Americans considering the recent events happening in Egypt and Libya as important to the interests of the United States.

Perhaps more notable are indications that official US policy in the region fails to adequately represent citizen interests. According to a report by the US-Muslim Engagement Project, “more than 75% of the American public is worried that the US is on the wrong track in its relations with Muslim countries.” The US also tops a list of recently surveyed Western and Muslim countries that see greater interaction between the two regions as a benefit, with 76% of Americans expressing support for such initiatives. This support for improved engagement is also echoed by America’s key strategic allies in the Arab world, with 72% of Egyptians and 56% of Iraqis in favor.

The Gallup findings also suggest that Americans welcomed increased interaction as a means to depict a more positive picture of American society, and correct what are seen as misperceptions on behalf of Muslims. Conversely, the recent revolutions in support of democracy taking place across the Middle East may also have played a key role in reducing the negative perceptions of Americans toward the Middle East. A poll conducted in early April 2011 showed a 39% increase in sympathy for the Arab people from American citizens, in addition to a 27% increase in optimism about relations between the US and the Arab world.

This rise in public opinion approval provides a critical foundation from which to promote increased citizen engagement with the Middle East. With 61% of Americans placing the relationship with Muslims and Muslim-majority countries as one of the top five areas of importance to US interests, there is tremendous new opportunity to address negative stereotypes, and identify more opportunities to bring together implementers and funders of democratic causes in the Middle East. An increase in peer-to-peer giving opportunities to the Middle East fundamentally supports US policy as outlined by President Obama in his June 2009 speech in Cairo. He asserted that increased connections between the US and the Middle East will produce understanding and insight, and that in turn will reduce the likelihood of terrorism and acceptance of poor governance.  

Through direct citizen to citizen engagement, the United States should now seek to demonstrate that it can circumvent inefficient practices in the official foreign assistance mechanism by harnessing the vibrant sector of citizen philanthropy, and enabling funders and local communities to come together to more efficiently fund solutions to some of the Middle East’s most urgent problems. By utilizing existing forms of disintermediation, US citizens can help close the gap between the large amount of US government expenditure in the Middle East, and the nearly non-existent levels of US citizen engagement with the region. As a result, the promotion of citizen-owned foreign assistance not only has the benefit of attracting plentiful and agile private funding resources, but also ensures better national foreign policy through the cultivation of a public that is aware of the complexities of overseas development, and will demand policies to match its commitment.   

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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