Our “Moment of Discovery”

Almost every, if not all, of the generations before us have experienced some pivotal “moment of discovery,” a point when the cumulative exploration and scientific efforts of humankind produced new insights and revelations which the scientists, explorers, and public of the time could distinctly call their own. These are the moments for which those who are around to bear witness are privileged with the opportunity to be “first;” the first generation to learn of the Americas, the first to observe the planets with clarity, the first to experience flight, the first to see man in space. They are those who enjoy the thrill of lingering questions being answered, of unseen horizons being mapped, of worldview and perspective being shaken or changed. There is a profundity in these moments which can hardly be captured by other elements of the human experience; these moments are crucial for not only advancing the forward motion of human progress, but in the impact they have upon our individual understanding of existence.

The profundity of these “moments of discovery” is manifest from the nature of knowledge, which in turn impacts the relationship between the possession of knowledge and the human drive toward understanding. Knowledge is not monolithic; rather, it encompasses different capacities and degrees of understanding. There are, as the axiom goes, the “known knowns, the unknown unknowns, and the known unknowns.” The characteristics which separate these forms of knowledge are distinct and shape our interactions with and reactions toward our expanding ontology. As such, their influence on the nature of “moments of discovery” is significant, indeed key, and it is thus of worth to briefly discuss their characteristics.

The “known knowns” represent that accumulated sum of human knowledge, at hand to us upon our entry into this world, to which we owe our debt of possession to the learned, the explorers, and the scientists who came before us. It is the knowledge which we know we know; the theories and equations which serve as the foundation toward our contemporary understandings. We are generally contented with the “known knowns,” for they provide us the necessary basis of understanding that staves off existential nausea. Equally important, the “known knowns” serve as the framework for further inquiry into the nature of the universe, a safe and familiar staging point from which we probe the depths of the unknown. The process of science builds upon acquired knowledge, even if to disprove it; the “known knowns” 7are from which all new knowledge is developed and to which the insights of the “moments of discovery” are compared.

There are then the “unknown unknowns,” which provide us the tantalizing impetus for our quest for knowledge; they represent the greater truths or deeper insights that presently lay beyond our comprehension and reach, but whose secrets the work of science seeks to unlock. The “unknown unknowns,” while indeed serving as a key motivational factor in the quest toward knowledge, nonetheless have a minimal role in the formation of our existential anxiety; an individual ignorant of the possibility for knowledge does not experience that apprehension borne from the recognized ignorance of knowledge. That is, we seek to learn what lies within the possible realm of our knowing but worry not about learning what lies beyond the limits of our understanding. Those concerned with and deliberately seeking the “unknown unknowns” are philosophers and theologians, not scientists; dramatic changes in understanding borne from the quest to learn the un-learnable are moments of revelation, not discovery. Of course, the “unknown unknowns” too bleed into “moments of discovery,” for it is the stumbling upon knowledge that we did not know we did not know that makes for revolutionary progress. Indeed, it is often the “unknown unknowns” that are most remembered about “moments of discovery,” even if those moments came in an effort to answer the “known unknowns.” The connection between the “unknown unknowns” and the “known unknowns” in the obtainment of knowledge is therefore both extant and important.

These “known unknowns” are the knowledge which we recognize to be within our capacity for possession but to which we have not yet come. These are those lands beyond the horizon, the worlds yet to be explored, the theories and equations that synthesize together our conceptions of the universe’s function. These are the achievable answers, not yet acquired, to the clear questions regarding our existential position. These are to what the scientists and explorers dedicate their devotion and energy, in order to satisfy the human drive for knowing. Most importantly, the “known unknowns” are, when discovery provides insight from ignorance, what excite the human spirit, what incite shifting in paradigm and theory, what provide impetus for even more ambitious inquiries into the realm of the unknown. The “known unknowns” too are from what progress in human knowledge develops. They are the next bridge to be crossed in the long and winding, perhaps never ending, path toward human enlightenment.

Yet the “known unknowns” are the root of our existential anxiety. A fundamental characteristic of the human experience is the drive away from ignorance; we are compelled at every turn to learn, to experience, to know. We fear ignorance, for only with knowledge do we make sense of the absurdity that is existence. It is true that we fear as well the “unknown unknowns,” as, for example, the ideas of what comes after death or whether there is a grander metaphysical reality than our own have been sources of social and cultural anxiety throughout the entirety of human civilization. Yet these fears are distinct and separate than those borne from the “known unknowns;” they are the fear that we will never know, that such know ledge lies outside the capacity for our understanding. The “unknown unknowns” present a challenge toward our quest for enlightenment in that we cannot understand them, not that we may not understand them. This is the distinction of the “unknown unknowns” from the “known unknowns.” There is a futility in searching for the “unknown unknowns,” and accordingly the anxieties are related to our limitations as humans, not the limitations in our knowledge. The “known unknowns” may be understood, however, but, lying just beyond our present reach, taunt our ignorance. They keep us, who know that something is to be learned, waiting until that “moment of discovery” to finally gain insight. The “known unknowns” are at once frustrating and exciting, inciting within us both anxiety and anticipation.

Such is why “moments of discovery” are so profound; they represent the resolution to our “known unknowns,” the point at which known ignorance is dispelled. For an inquisitive species such as ours, few other experiences resonate so deeply with our fundamental character. When coupled with a discovery of an “unknown unknown,” as these “moments of discovery” so frequently are, humanity’s ontology is greatly expanded. These are discernible moments of tangible and intangible progress, of the advancing of our species – these are thus moments during which we take pride for being human. And indeed, there is something in these moments that resonates with the human desire to belong, to feel a part of something greater than the individual self. There is a compulsion to feel included, be it among a group or within a moment. We take joy in knowing or saying that “I was there.” For the generations that have witnessed these moments of discovery, they rightfully may do so.

Yet there are caveats. Generations subsequent to those which experienced a moment of discovery are of course privy to the acquired knowledge and enjoy the benefit of insight borne from it. Yet a fundamental disconnect exists between the knowledge derived from past discoveries and the generations which were not around to experience its realization. For these generations, such past knowledge is a foundational pillar upon which contemporary understandings exist. It is a given, taken for granted, for such knowledge has always existed during these newer generations’ time. There has been no dispelling of ignorance, or any startling insight, borne from this knowledge, and accordingly it does not have the same profundity or impact upon the newer generations as it did upon the generations around to witness its discovery. Such is why, despite every generation having available to them the breadth of human knowledge past and present, they still seek most readily to learn more, so as to resolve the lingering ignorance still present as a part the human condition. That is, despite every generation having the benefits of insight brought from the “moments of discovery” for which they were not present, every generation still seeks to have its own “moment of discovery.” Every generation desires the ability to say “I was there.”

I have been prompted to conduct this brief discourse on “moments of discovery” because I am soon to experience my own – the encounter with Pluto of the NASA “New Horizons” spacecraft. At the time of this writing, the spacecraft has yet to make its encounter; the specific details of Pluto’s surface and the first up-close images of the distant world have yet to be received. While we know that Pluto is out there, and while we have a rough idea of what its surface may look like, we are still waiting for that “moment of discovery” to reveal to us long-awaited insight. We are soon to replace the “known unknown” that is Pluto’s detailed characteristics with a truer knowledge of them and, hopefully, encounter “unknown unknowns” while doing so. And, as every day passes and as more enticing images are received from New Horizons, I find myself anticipating the excitement that will come when humanity finally lifts the veil of mystery surrounding Pluto.

This soon-to-be “moment of discovery” has, for me, an added profundity. The history of humanity’s exploration of space is hardly half a century old and yet has already radically redefined how we conceptualize our position in the universe. The perspective of humanity has shifted dramatically, from holding a privileged position as the focal point of existence to understanding our true insignificance in the face of the vastness that is time and space. For the two preceding generations, which were around to witness these enormous changes, these “moments of discovery” had no doubt been transformative. Indeed, some would be quick to argue that humanity’s foray into space has resulted in one of the most dramatic evolutions and revolutions in human knowledge. Yet for the greater bulk of the “space age,” I had yet to have been born. Accordingly, those redefinitions of perspective borne through the insights of past space exploration have always been a given for me; I have operated with them as a foundational truth. I have never wondered or been forced to only imagine what Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune look like from close, for the images returned from the Voyager spacecraft have always been available to me. I have never questioned whether man could enter, travel through, and live in space, or what the Moon looks like upon its surface. Humanity has already been there. For most of the incredible discoveries and feats of exploration so far accomplished in humanity’s quest into space, I cannot say that “I was there.” Those moments belong to past generations.

Yet the encounter with Pluto belongs to mine, and the encounter with Pluto will doubtlessly rival, if not surpass, those past “moments of discovery” in its significance. Because of the incredible distances involved in traveling to the far-off world, it is no small wonder that it has taken a half-century of spaceflight to earnestly begin our exploration of it. And it is likely that a moment such as what is soon to come will not occur again in the next half-century. This impending encounter, and the insights and revelations it will bring, is an event of great historical significance, marking the end to the first stages of the exploration of our Solar System. It is one that none of the “space age” generations until mine have experienced, and it is one which the following generations may not witness soon again.

And so, when New Horizons swoops past Pluto, snapping the first ever images clearly showing its surface and thereby closing a chapter on humanity’s exploration of space, I will have witnessed a marked moment of progress for humanity. And with that, I will be proud and privileged to say, as could everyone else alive to witness this historic “moment of discovery,” that “I was there.”

Poem #8: Do Unto Others…

His anger, borne from deep within,
panders to his intractable whims.
Full of doubt and doubtfully fulfilled,
He builds inside him a world unreal.

Thoughts. Just thoughts, he knows them to be,
But our thoughts construct our reality.
Indeed, he sees not what is, but what isn’t,
Not from blindness, but a corrupted vision.

Thus manifest his fears, his pain,
Plain for him to see, though not sane.
The actions of others, thoughts, motivations,
He cannot discern from his own mind’s creations.

And so he fails. And so he falls.
Deeper, and darker, into the abyss.
But the halls of his mind have been twisted,
The world he created, evaporated.

And, in that moment, clarity.
His thoughts are his own, and others’ theirs’.
A parity he feared, he now accepts.
“Do unto others…”; the greatest precept.

The FY16 Budget for Humanitarian Development in Review, Pt. 1: Major Initiatives and Multi-Country Programs

With the release of the White House’s FY16 budget request, the priorities of the Obama Administration with regard to the development of democracy, governance, and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have come to light; naturally, development work and humanitarian aid projects are reliant upon funding in order to implement their various programs and accomplish their goals. The FY16 budget has thus given analysts much to work with and think about when it comes to deciphering the United States’ interests in the Middle East and North Africa and its commitment to furthering progress in Middle Eastern and North African society. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the federal budget and appropriations outlines the allocations of funds to the various actors working within the MENA region to further the realization of humanitarian aims and goals. Accordingly, it reveals some significant insights into the overall nature, scope, capacity, and direction of the American effort to impart meaningful change and produce tangible progress in the status of Middle Eastern civil society, human rights, and development.

This series of blog posts utilizes the Project on Middle East Democracy’s annual review of the FY16 budget to outline the most important and significant aspects of the proposed budget for the United States’ development and humanitarian mission in the MENA region. These posts will discuss the funding and direction given to the United States’ major MENA initiatives, multi-country accounts, and programs; the status of bilateral aid and assistance to countries in the region; and the broader “bigger picture” implications of the foreign assistance and aid budget with regard to the changing nature of Middle Eastern and North African affairs and the Obama Administration’s evolving foreign policy in the Middle East. This first blog post outlines the budgetary allocations requested for the United States’ major multi-country programs – the Middle East Partnership Initiative, the USAID Middle East Regional, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State, the Near East Regional Democracy Program, and the National Endowment for Democracy.

The Middle East Partnership Initiative

The Administration’s FY16 budget requests $70 million for the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), a renewal of FY15 funding levels, although policymakers suggest that the actual level of spending may be reduced quite significantly; this reduction in tangible funding may be a strategic decision based on how best to allocate remaining available funds across the Office of Near East Affairs Assistance Coordination’s various programs. Either way, under the FY16 budget request, MEPI is tasked with continuing to support active citizen engagement in government affairs, promoting political competition, supporting political and social freedoms, promoting political competition, and improving the regulatory environment for small and medium enterprises. Up to 8.5$ million has been requested to support MEPI’s Local Grants Program, which provide direct grants and local funding to communities in Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and for its student exchange programs. $10 million is expected to be renewed for MEPI’s funding of scholarships.

Concerns and criticisms have been raised about MEPI’s recent reorganization within the State Department’s bureaucracy, in which it has been placed under the purview of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. As MEPI activities will conform to joint assistance strategies and be complementary to other State Department and USAID bilateral activities, there are fears that MEPI is losing its identity as a strong pro-reform voice. Some raise issue that MEPI’s reorganization will impact its effectiveness as an agile, politically independent assistance tool. In light of these concerns, MEPI’s role will likely evolve moving forward, with a decreasing budget in-line with that of other regional multi-country development accounts and a greater emphasis placed on funding direct local grants to civil society rather than to large international NGOs.

USAID Middle East Regional

The FY16 budget further requests $40 million for USAID Middle East Regional (MER) funding. Middle East Regional is the term used by USAID for its allocation of funds to the MENA region outside of bilateral assistance packages to individual countries; MER funds allow USAID to carry out regional or multi-country programs as well as programs in countries lacking a USAID mission while also complimenting bilateral foreign assistance initiatives. Over the past few years, funding for MER has steadily increased, from $17.7 million in FY13 to $30 million in FY14 and FY15, to $40 million in FY16. Of that $40 million requested for FY16, $1.2 million is requested for “peace and security,” $8 million for the “Governing Justly and Democratically” initiative, and the remaining $30.8 million is for other economic assistance programs and various management expenses. MER funding will further support regional water, health, and gender-based violence programs. Within that allocation of FY16 funds, $20 million is marked for the Office of Technical Services (ME/TS), which informs USAID’s work in the region through needs analyses and assessment; program planning, design, and evaluation; strategic planning; compliance with regulatory requirements; and implementation of USAID Forward reforms. $5 million is designated for continued support to Civil Society Innovation Centers, which seek to develop and enhance the operating space for civil society in the region.

Ultimately, the growth of the MER program and increasing funding for MER gives USAID a source of funds more flexible than those that USAID programs out of bilateral accounts, enabling it to respond and adapt to changes on the ground in a more comprehensive and effective manner. The goals and programming of MER have shifted considerably over the past few years, with a heightened focus on technical support and analysis as well as a broader contribution to GJD funding and support for civil society.

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the Department of State

The State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) has long been in the lead within the U.S. government for advancing human rights and democracy, and carries out foreign assistance programs focused on supporting democracy, governance, human rights, and labor. DRL’s focus has long been on providing assistance in conflict zones and other non-permissive environments, in contrast to USAID programming that often requires host government cooperation. $60 million is requested for DRL’s programming budget in the FY16 budget, the same level requested in FY15. $9 million is requested for DRL’s Global Internet Freedom programs, supplemented by $7 million from the Near East Regional Democracy Program and $2 million from the USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance. $6 million is also requested for DRL’s rapid response programs, including Lifeline, which provides emergency assistance to civil society organizations; Dignity for All, which supports LGBT activists; Justice Defenders, which supports human rights lawyers; the Protection for Journalists Initiative; and the Global Gender-Based Violence Initiative, which helps survivors of gender-based violence. Lifeline also provides funding for short-term initiatives at the local, regional, and international levels that help civil society organizations fight against regulatory and extralegal barriers to their work.

DRL has positioned itself as an agile, flexible assistance mechanism that is able to quickly respond to events on the ground while working in difficult environments. Significantly, it works with civil society based in Syria and has sustained civil society work in non-permissive environments through its Human Rights Defenders Fund. As more countries in the MENA region become antagonistic in their policies and attitudes toward outside support of civil society, DRL’s continuing work providing such assistance gives it an important leading role in achieving the aims of civil development. That DRL takes on policy mandates to provide assistance on issues seen as controversial or threatening by repressive governments means that it serves a vital role in the advancing of America’s global humanitarian interests.

However, although Congress has continually granted DRL funding greater than that requested by the administration, there has been a steady decline in the level of funding requested specifically for DRL. This, coupled with an increased number of mandates, has put a strain on DRL’s resources and capabilities. DRL has been forced to cobble together the requisite funds to support its various programs; indeed, DRL is responsible for programming as much as $130-140 million each year. Much of its funding must come from sources outside of the federal budget to meet the totals required. Accordingly, closing the gap between DRL’s budget request and its actual budget will be a key step moving forward in regularizing the bureau’s budget and sustaining its ability to conduct its important work.

Near East Regional Democracy Program

The Near East Regional Democracy Program (NERD) was established in 2009 to support democracy and human rights in the MENA region, particularly in Iran. The program focuses primarily on activities that do not require an in-country presence, for programming cannot be conducted inside Iran; among NERD’s programs are support for media, technology, and internet freedoms along with conferences and trainings for Iranian activities that take place outside Iran. NERD funding is not legally required to be spent within Iran, or any other particular country for that matter, although the sentiment of policymakers has held firm that Iran should be NERD’s main area of focus.

The FY16 budget for NERD stands at $30 million, the same amount as in FY15. However, its funding devoted to civil society work is at $21 million, a decrease from the FY12 request of $26 million. Of the FY16 budget request, $7 million is intended to support internet freedom programming, $5 million is to support civil society capacity-building, and another $7 million is to go toward assistance in providing advocacy and awareness training to increase respect for the universal principles of human rights. A further $5 million will support activities that address human rights abuses and support access to justice.

NERD’s overall funding levels have decreased modestly over time, from a $40 million request in FY10 to the $30 million in FY16. However, NERD programming is starting to be seen as an effective model of work that could be emulated in other parts of the region, where the space for democracy and governance work is rapidly closing. It is yet unclear how the Iranian nuclear deal will impact NERD’s programming and activities directed toward Iran, or whether it will enable the expansion of NERD’s programming beyond its traditional focus on Iran.

National Endowment for Democracy

Although, as a nongovernmental organization, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is not a part of the U.S. government, it receives nearly all of its funding in an annual congressional appropriation and is thus subject to congressional oversight. The administration has requested $103.5 million for NED in FY16, although Congress is likely to grant funds in excess of this amount due to strong bipartisan support for the institution. Congress allocated $135 to NED in FY15, a 30 percent increase over the administration’s FY14 and FY15 requests. $100 million of this money is to go to the “traditional and customary manner,” which entails support for core institutes supporting NED’s mission, such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the Solidarity Center. The remaining $35 million is designated for other democracy, human rights, and rule of law programs.

NED support for the work of independent civil society has become important amid the growing reluctance by U.S. government agencies to support independent organizations undertaking work that could be considered controversial or politically sensitive by host governments. NED’s support provides key demographics with the skills needed to make a positive impact on civil society in repressive regimes and in restrictive environments. NED has worked to adapt to rapid changes on the ground over the past few years, and has played a constructive role in building support for democratic values in conflict zones such as in Iraq and Syria.

Conclusions and Implications

Despite the 2011 “Arab Spring” showing that corrupt, authoritarian regimes across the MENA region could not maintain stability indefinitely through repression, the challenging years of political upheaval and change that have followed have seen a resurgence in authoritarianism and violence. The rise of violent extremists groups such as the Islamic State and the increasing efforts of regional governments to crackdown on independent civil society have hampered the work of organizations working to advance the goals of democracy and development. The United States, in partnering with repressive regimes for the achievement of broader regional security aims, has meanwhile grown more cautious of its support for independent civil society; this caution is driven both by a desire to avoid antagonizing allied host governments and a fear of putting in danger local participants in its civil society programming.

Although the major multi-country initiatives and programs which the United States funds should expect to receive a roughly equivalent level of funding in FY16 as in FY15, the effects of the United States’ growing hesitance toward advancing civil society and democracy programming is clear; an increased attention on and allocated resources toward security and military issues have diverted high-level policy attention away from the support for regional democracy and human rights. There are outstanding concerns that mechanisms such as MEPI are losing their identity and focus as reform-driven advocates of civil society by virtue of their reorganization and shifting of priorities within the State Department bureaucracy. Organizations such as the DRL, which focus on political programming that may be controversial to the states in which they operate, still experience considerable budgetary gaps in the FY16 proposal, gaps which may impede their capacity to effectively produce tangible change. Some organizations, such as NERD, have not expanded into civil society-building operations across the broader MENA region, despite demonstrating the effectiveness of their model. Accordingly, while the United States still does finance and support civil society and democracy building in the MENA region to a significant degree through these mechanisms and multi-country programs, that support is hesitant, underwhelming, and regressing rather than increasing. Without a greater high-level policy emphasis placed on democracy and civil society building and the advancement of human rights, these programs are unlikely to make great breakthroughs in advancing these goals in the region, but rather should be expected to simply sustain the United States’ current regional efforts, however minimal they should be, for the coming fiscal year.

Also of note is the fact that U.S. democracy and governance programming in the MENA region is shifting focus towards issues of governance at the local level rather than at the national level. A continuing and even growing emphasis is being placed on local grants and grassroots training, education, and confidence building as strategies for developing regional democracy. This attention on local governance may be important and crucial for laying the groundwork for democratic changes from the ground up. However, in the longer term, if such efforts are to ultimately succeed in truly fostering and bringing about democratic change, they will need to be accompanied by action on the part of the U.S. government and development organizations to pressure national governments to empower local institutions. However, considering the changing priorities of American foreign aid and funding, to be discussed in later blog posts, the potential for such to be the case does not appear promising.