Foreign aid is the U.S. government's most significant and wide-reaching channel of involvement in the Middle East. Through financial assistance, Washington seeks to influence markets, militaries, societies and governments abroad. But just as recent popular uprisings demonstrate the Arab world's disapproval of long-standing regimes, so too do they indicate objection to the external powers that have backed and funded the region's status quo.
A recent poll by Zogby International reveals that favorable attitudes toward the United States in the Middle East are lower now than they were in 2008, during the last year of George W. Bush's presidency. This represents a marked shift from the relatively positive perceptions of the American government following President Barack Obama's Cairo speech in 2009. Polling conducted by the Abu Dhabi Gallup Center between March and April 2011 shows 52 percent of Egyptians opposing any sort of U.S. economic aid to their country at all.
Although these stances may be in part a product of the vocal political climate currently pervading the Middle East, they unquestionably reveal the need for a drastic transformation of America's financial engagement in the region. A new approach should stabilize Middle Eastern economies in order to bolster the progress of the Arab Spring, empower individuals to become involved in public affairs, and demonstrate that Washington is interested in supporting the people of the Middle East, and not just the governments that march in step with U.S. policy.
In the months since the Arab Spring blossomed, both President Obama and U.S. policymakers have sought to communicate a change in aid strategy-away from top-down statebuilding and toward increased civil society assistance, investments in small- and medium-sized enterprises, and public-private partnerships. Ideally, such efforts would bypass corruption-ridden state bureaucracies and allow communities to achieve prosperity and democracy through decentralized and locally tailored means. Obama's May 19 pledge of $2 billion to the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) for new ventures in Egypt and Tunisia supports the government's recent and growing focus on producing bottom-up development by providing much-needed capital to entrepreneurs in the Middle East and by building bridges between U.S. and Arab businesses.
At a July 21 event hosted by the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN), Tamara Cofman Wittes, formerly with the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy and now deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, further conveyed the U.S. government's intent to transform its aid strategy, stating that "the citizens of the region have made their own priorities clear" and that Washington will redirect foreign assistance programs according to the demands and democratic framework put forth by the Arab public. Wittes cited the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative as an example: it distributes grants of $25,000 to $100,000 to civil society groups that are locally run and benefit their own communities. Such initiatives are extremely important-especially since historically, as noted by James Zogby of the Arab American Institute, eighty-two cents on the dollar of foreign assistance have remained in American hands through donations and payments to major development organizations and U.S. contractors.
Despite these efforts, Washington's rhetoric on restructuring its foreign assistance still fails to overcome many of the weaknesses that have defined its Middle East aid policies and provided support to autocratic regimes for decades. In a review of the federal budget and appropriations for fiscal year 2012, Stephen McInerny of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) describes burdens on U.S. foreign assistance, including "dysfunction in the congressional appropriations process," unsatisfactory levels of funding for democracy programs and civilian assistance throughout the region, and an enduring "imbalance between military and nonmilitary aid. …