by Michelle Pace

United Nations Relief Food Arrives in Lebanese Town of Rmaich. UN Photo/Mark Garten.

United Nations relief food arrives in Lebanese town of Rmaich. UN Photo/Mark Garten.

On 13 February 2015, the MEC hosted the launch of a special Issue of the journal Mediterranean Politics on The Politics of Foreign Aid in the Arab World: The Impact of the Arab Uprisings. Bringing together academics, NGO representatives, journalists, policy makers and students, the event focused on the changing state of aid in the Arab world in the wake of the Arab Uprisings and its significance for the region. With the profound hope that accompanied the democratic revolutions across the Arab world since December 2010, and the many promises made by external actors like the EU and the US to turn their backs on their previous support of authoritarian regimes through full support for the peoples’ uprisings, the theme of foreign aid seemed to have lost relevance just less than a year later. This sheds light on the deep disconnect between, on the one hand, official expressions of support for political, economic and social transformations in the MENA region and, on the other, the continuity in the management of foreign assistance programmes.

The role of the US

Looking in more detail at the US’s foreign assistance programs to the MENA since 2011, these were largely unaffected by the dramatic political changes in the region and beyond. One speaker cautioned about the US’s misreading and misdiagnoses of the key elements of changes that the Arab world has been going through in the last four years and thus of developing policy frameworks that fall well short of responding to some of the critical obstacles that confront Arab peoples. The speaker strongly made the case for the US to acknowledge where it has gone off track and to support the emergence of new social contracts in the MENA.

Foreign aid in the oPt

The discussion then shifted focus to the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), where it was highlighted that despite the fact that the international community has invested more than $24 billion in so called ‘peace and development’ initiatives, donors remain transfixed on a long failed ‘Investment in Peace’ framework that was designed for economic development by the World Bank back in 1993. Even with the utter destruction of Gaza in the summer of 2014 and as the Arab uprisings turned inexorably violent, donors have not strayed an inch from their instrumentalist ‘peace dividend’ model built on the foundation of the long moribund ‘Oslo peace framework’. This clearly shows that international donors are unwilling to change their stance of complicity in the occupation of the oPt and their determination to fail in the now weary discourse of a peaceful resolution to the Middle East conflict.

The EU and the Arab uprisings

The essence of the EU’s democracy promotion in the MENA region has not been truly challenged by the Arab uprisings. Through the cases of Morocco and Tunisia before and since the Arab uprisings, one speaker argued that what should have triggered adjustments in, specifically, the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) did not, in effect, make much difference in the EU’s position. Instead, such EU policies are shaped by institutional determinants that are intrinsic to the EU itself (the autonomy of the diverse institutional groups and the European institutional framework) and not to the human rights situations in Morocco and Tunisia. Therefore, in spite of contextual changes, what we end up with is structural continuity according to the speaker.

Reflections and discussion

Following the presentations, the discussion turned towards what questions and issues the expert community and foreign aid donors need to address in order to make the industry more effective.

Key questions:

  • If foreign donors deliver foreign aid through governments, how do we create more accountability at both ends (mutual accountability)?
  • How can international donors genuinely cooperate with each other instead of competing? Can the idea of a community of aid become a reality? Can the EU for instance merge its efforts with those of Gulf states in the Arab world?
  • Governments in the Arab world and foreign donors usually dictate what the political is – mainly their security interests. How can this be turned around to reflect the human security needs of the targets of foreign aid – that is the people in the Arab world who are in need of aid?
  • What revisions should the European Neighbourhood Policy consider in light of the events in the Arab world since the uprisings?
  • Can the EU have any genuine leverage in highly conflictual situations in the MENA? What can be said about the dwindling role of the state in the Arab world?
  • How can we reflect about the role of Islamist groups that are on the rise in the region and the fact that these groups are providing social services that fill in the gaps left by Arab states?
  • How can foreign donors focus on social rights of the MENA people?
  • What about our lack of engagement with trade unions in the MENA for instance, which groups are often left out of our understanding of civil society?

Issues raised:

  • The situation of lawlessness in Iraq and how ‘democracy’ promotion efforts by external actors in the MENA have actually destroyed countries (like Iraq);
  • Whether there is any hope for NGOs to have real legitimacy in the MENA region when they are receiving funding from external actors (and as a result creating ‘cracks’ in MENA societies);
  • The existing need to work on Politics in the MENA countries rather than simply Aid;
  • How recipients of aid in the MENA now have a ‘shopping’ arena of donors to choose from;
  • The inadequacy and senselessness of the World Bank’s ‘post-conflict’ framework in the oPt in what is clearly a highly conflictual area.


After an intriguing afternoon of debate, all participants were encouraged to continue in their efforts to ensure transparency of funds in the foreign donor industry and to constantly reflect about the geopolitical implications of the mix of Gulf (non-Western) and Western donor involvement in the MENA region. Foreign donors, on the other hand, need to look at the facts on the ground and consider a serious reinvestment of the aid wheel in the MENA region, given today’s realities.

Michelle PACEMichelle Pace is Professor with Special Responsibilities at the Department of Society and Globalisation at Roskilde University in Denmark, Honorary Professor at the University of Birmingham and co-editor of the journal Mediterranean Politics.

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