Funding Mideast democracy in the face of authoritarian pushback


The U.S. Congress has taken note of the dexterity and flexibility of non-governmental democracy assistance groups in responding to the more challenging environment in the Middle East, says a report from a leading advocacy group.

National Endowment for Democracy support for independent civil society has become increasingly important in the MENA region, as U.S. and European government agencies, as well as some private foundations, have become more risk averse about such funding in the face of crackdowns and pushback by the authoritarian governments across the region,” according to a new analysis from the Project on Middle East Democracy. “Despite Arab governments’ mounting efforts to constrain or eradicate independent civil society, many such indigenous organizations still have a strong need and demonstrate a desire for outside assistance, even in the most restrictive environments,” it adds:

Like other pro-democracy institutions, the NED has worked to adapt to rapid changes on the ground in the past year, including the outbreak of sustained violent conflict in Libya and Yemen. For example, the NED has emphasized in its grant-making support for pro-democracy voices during armed conflict, and is examining opportunities for projects to help rebuild bridges among communities in post-conflict settings…..

For the ninth consecutive year, in 2016 Congress funded the NED in excess of the level requested by the administration, appropriating $170 million in the FY16 omnibus appropriations act, considerably more than the administration’s $103.5 million request. Congress had appropriated $135 million to the NED in each of the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years, and the additional $35 million in FY16 represents a 26 percent increase. These repeated increases in funding since FY09 reflect the opinion of key members of Congress who generally prefer the NED’s approach to democracy promotion, which emphasizes bolstering civil society and support for local grantees, over that of U.S. government agencies.

“As the Obama administration comes to an end, it will leave behind a legacy in the region of continuing close ties with repressive governments and increasing already-robust security assistance, while reducing attention to and funding for democracy, human rights, and governance,” the report notes. “Despite this, the Obama administration has taken positive steps on which the next U.S. administration should build, including supporting Tunisia’s democratic transition, beginning to examine the outdated U.S. assistance relationship with Egypt, and increasing funding for global democracy-promotion initiatives that can be effective in challenging environments such as those found in the Middle East and North Africa,” it adds.


The limited space for independent civil society, especially pro-democracy organizations, is becoming even more constrained across the region – most dramatically in Egypt, but also in Jordan, Libya, and Morocco. Since 2011, growing restrictions on civil society across the region, particularly in Egypt and the Gulf states, have impeded the work of independent democracy and human rights organizations. But more recently, some Arab governments are also putting up new obstacles before U.S. development organizations that work on less politically-sensitive areas such as education, water, and economic growth. If this worrisome trend continues, various forms of U.S. foreign assistance could become even more difficult to administer in the region.

U.S. government spending on programming to support democracy, human rights, and governance in the MENA region reached its lowest level under the Obama administration in Fiscal Year 2015. Democracy and governance programming in the MENA region averaged approximately $380 million annually from fiscal years 2009 through 2014. But in FY2015, the administration spent only $180 million on such programming. Democracy and governance programs have become increasingly difficult to implement across the region, due to violent conflict and instability in some countries and increasing interference and restrictions in other countries. President Obama’s final budget request, for FY17, does include $427.5 million for democracy programming, but U.S. government agencies may continue to experience difficulties in spending those funds as planned.

Concerns remain regarding the diminished role of the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and its future. The democracy-promotion community continues to view the recent folding of MEPI into the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Office of Assistance Coordination (NEA/AC) as cementing a weaker role for MEPI, which was for more than a decade the flagship U.S. program to support Arab reformers. …….

In the past year, funding for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and for the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has increased significantly. In the FY2017 budget request, the administration seeks $75 million in funding for DRL, the highest amount requested for the Bureau since President Obama came into office; Congress also appropriated $88.5 million for DRL’s Human Rights and Democracy Fund in FY2016. Over the past seven years, Congress has also steadily increased funding for the NED, appropriating a new high of $170 million in the FY2016 appropriations act. As democracy and governance programming becomes more difficult in the region, DRL and the NED often are viewed as better suited to the kind of sensitive work that is necessary in challenging environments…….


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