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.