National Values and Nation-Building – Out of Sync Concepts?

There have been several papers lately on issues such as governance, democracy, national values, citizenship, and related topics, mostly analyzing the disruptions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Some astute observers have noted that we have similar concerns in the United States given the fault lines that became more obvious as a result of the 2016 presidential elections. The common thread is that political societies are constantly evolving, and technology is providing the means to accelerate and mobilize forces for change that are challenging how people are governed. The notion of “consent of the governed” is altering notions of the relationship between a government and the people.

In this blog, I want to look at “civic education,” the process by which citizens become acculturated to a country’s values and its political system. 

I first became conscious of the importance of civic education in my eighth grade “civics” class, as it was then called, which looked at the United States and how it pursued its interests at home and abroad. There was no discussion about the correctness of the national values on which these interests were based. It was assumed that our values were the best model for any country to emulate. This experience focused my interest on wanting to make the US better understood in the world by engaging in programs that facilitated cross-cultural dialogue. As a son of immigrants, the US for our family was and still is something unique and full of promise. That hasn’t changed in the following 50+ years, and neither has the need for America having an open discussion about its priorities and interests.

Definitions of civic education have common elements. A recent paper by CSIS says “Civic education in schools and beyond teaches citizens how to vote, what their community needs are and what values it holds, and what the social compact between elected officials and their constituents means in practical terms.” A study of civic education in the Arab world conducted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace listed these characteristics, “This education for citizenship has three main components: knowledge of civic concepts, systems, and processes of civic life, including education for human rights and democracy; skills of civic participation; and students’ general disposition, including a sense of belonging to the state and shared values and ethics.”

The Arab Spring has challenged the notions of citizenship from a top-down perspective as young people and others feeling marginalized threw down the gauntlet to redefine their country’s social contract between the government and citizens, demanding accountability, economic opportunity, transparency, and political inclusion. How this still rings true today, with even more urgency, is underscored in a joint paper from the Atlantic Council and Brookings Institution as part of the Middle East Strategy Taskforce series. The paper, “Real security: Governance and stability in the Arab world,” argued, among other points, that governance was in the process of being redefined and the core issue was one of restoring social trust through dialogue and resolving conflicts at all levels.

One of the key elements raised by several of the panelists is that the process of reconstructing the social contract to achieve sustainable governance is a decentralized, bottom up approach based on local sensibilities and priorities. This means investing in civil society, civic education, and building out the political space for decision-making by local officials.

There are programs that can be helpful. NGOs such as Civitas and Street Law, enable young people and communities to proactively learn how democracy works, the roles of government and citizen, major influences shaping a country’s civic values, and many other topics. The CSIS article is clear that programs that work in one country will not necessarily work in another – an important caveat for those who think that democracy and governance programs can be implemented without thorough consideration of local sensibilities.

It also notes that what is critical in states going through transitions, whether through elections or post-conflict, is “rebuilding trust in the government and educating the voter base on what to expect…Civic education combats disillusionment among voters and opens a dialogue between government officials and citizens.” The importance of building trust with youth cannot be overstated, as they have “unprecedented access to information” but very low rates of participation in their countries’ political space, which is monopolized by traditional players.

Easy to be deceived by data.

Easy to be deceived by data.

The National Democratic Institute recently published a blog on the potential negative impact of social media on democracy. It builds on this point with the observation that “Social media and the Internet have had a drastic effect on the surprise results of yesterday’s election in the United States, driving the spread of information—and misinformation—at times bringing voters together and, perhaps more often, pushing them apart….It’s important to recognize that this is not a uniquely American trend.” A study  across 26 countries indicates that more than half of Internet users use social media as a primary source of news, and more than 25% call it their main news source. Percentages may be even higher in developing countries with high Internet penetration.

The long-term challenge is to protect the government-citizen interaction from malicious and misleading attacks from external and internal foes. As NDI points out “Creating and protecting safe platforms on the web for genuine political discourse will require collaboration among a host of actors. Governments, technology companies, media outlets, the academic community and organizations around the world must come together to develop policies and practices to aid civil society and citizens in addressing this problem, and build norms and standards for democratic governments to support an open Internet.”

Protecting this valuable suite of tools for promoting democratic values in the coming years will require significant efforts to shield political discourse from those who would damage a country’s transition to a stronger national consensus on its key values. The need for inclusive dialog for countries in transition can have no better starting point than a refresher course on a country’s national values and social contract.



What is “Inclusive” Democracy?

And what are a country’s national values?

Much of the commentary following the recent US presidential election is about if and how “American values” will be defended and promoted by the next administration. Potential appointments, speeches, and interviews of President-elect Trump and his surrogates are parsed to speculate about priorities and possible actions that may or may not become emblematic of the new administration. Yet aside from generalized nods towards “making America great again,” there does not seem to be a coherent definition of which values are most salient at this time and under what circumstances.

Some would argue that values are enduring, not situational. Yet the relevance of specific values to what one believes is right and actionable is not always clear, particularly when there is confusion about the transactional nature (this for that) that characterizes most global political exchanges. As we look  at the results of these elections, we can’t help but question which “American values” will be most important to President Trump as he takes office and begins to steer his agenda through Congress and has to deal with groups of engaged citizens.

A recent article on the emerging Trump policies noted the importance of interests in framing how values are expressed to the world at large. There is often confusion between interests and values, the former situational and subject to negotiation, while the latter are supposedly existential and often more enduring than interests. But that distinction doesn’t explain how values become honored within a culture, how they are acquired, and how they evolve or not over time.

In the US, we have several foundational documents that characterize American values: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, equality, and justice for all, to list the more obvious. Over several hundred years, these have evolved into notions of democracy, human rights, equality before the law, defense of the homeland, and peaceful relations with other nations, among others that most Americans, at least conceptually, would agree on.

image: Tipperary Republican

image: Tipperary Republican

This is not the case in most of the developing world where constitutions are sometimes treated as ephemeral statements that reflect political conditions at the time of independence including, prevailing political centers in the regime, strong cultural mores, and dominant themes such as anti-colonialism, third-world solidarity, and the language of rights espoused by the UN. As countries in the MENA and Africa move through post-independence to more robust political systems, they face the challenge of defining their national values anew, promoting their adoption within an adaptable framework, and sustaining relevance to governments and citizens alike.  This is especially difficult as subgroups within the country start to differentiate their unmet aspirations from the prevailing narrative associated with the national identity.

Ultimately, the central question is how countries can adopt core values that are resilient over time and accepted by the vast majority of citizens. These shared values are at the heart of a country’s social contract that embodies the mutual obligations of the leadership and the people. And it is the erosion of these basic ties that are at the heart of the current contradictions in forming a “more perfect union.” The Arab Spring as well as the wave of populism in Latin America and Africa are both reactionary in terms of dissatisfaction with the status quo, and proactive as people seek to find a responsive, inclusive, transparent national political culture.

Part of the problem is that in many countries, the depiction of national values at the time of independence has come under criticism as either having been imposed by elites who drove independence, borrowed from regional and international organizations (think the AU and UN for example), or come about through consensus building among various groups, which often includes resolving conflicts and expanding definitions of nationality, while excluding others.

The current unrest in these countries in transition reflects the nexus of two currents: the need of citizens to articulate their own narratives abetted by technology, and the mistrust that divides rulers and citizens as the original social contracts have lost their relevance and binding power. In the case of the US or anywhere else, the issue of how values are formed and sustained continues to be relevant as technology and external influences are redefining what matters in building national cohesion in a country.

In my next blog, I will look further into what tools can be useful in this emerging definition of “nation-building” and national values.


Featured image from the Immigrant Welcome Center


Morocco Works on Balancing Security and Democracy

Political Space Defined by Addressing Reforms and Safety Issues

With the increasingly complicated and disruptive political landscape in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the debate about the prospects for democracy in that part of the world continues to boil. Some claim the dominoes are falling as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya succumb to violence, and spillover threats spread to Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Others point to the deterioration of old regimes and out-dated social contracts as the central issues of concern – people’s aspirations are being thwarted. Challenges from extremists and militants elude simple solutions, though some analysts and pundits point to economic development as the core factor in mitigating the attraction to violence.

Whatever the perspectives being proffered, there is in reality no “one-shot” solution to these crises, each of which has its own local characteristics. These conflicts were years in the making, and it is the speed at which tipping points were reached in the last six years that really separates these crises from previous conflicts in the region. And it raises again the question as to when is the ideal time, and what are the ideal conditions for promoting democracy – beyond the simple exercise of voting.

This is the core of the issue today: how can a leadership of a country pursue a formula for growth and stability without circumscribing civil and human rights, particularly in today’s environment, where pursuing security is often at odds with speeding up political and economic reforms as an antidote to extremism.

Let’s begin with the assumption that there are no “one-size-fits-all” models, whether one’s point of reference is Singapore, Vietnam, or the populist governments in Latin America. So where do we find working examples of moving towards democracy? It may be that we should spend more time on the ground, assessing how countries that have complex yet manageable development priorities define on a continuing basis the balance between security and freedoms.

Democracy-building is a Full-time Job

Morocco is a country that shares American values — both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have noted that Morocco’s foreign policy reflects shared values and, to a large measure our common interests as well in a safe, secure, and prosperous world. Morocco’s own internal reform process has received support and recognition internationally, and the US has responded favorably with strong economic and diplomatic support, ranging from the only Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in Africa, to an upcoming second Millennium Challenge Compact, to American support for a negotiated settlement to the Western Sahara conflict built on the concept of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.

Another very critical area of cooperation is in dealing with threats from radicals and extremists. Morocco has constructed an extensive effort that has earned praise from Europe and the US. While some may express concern that security issues are now emphasized more than human development, one only has to look at reforms enacted and in Parliament, the broadening educational program promoting moderate Islam, and security cooperation against ISIL to understand that Morocco is responding to local realities with a balanced strategy.

The pace and extent of Morocco’s reforms reflects the sensibilities of its political culture, which are constantly being stretched by the vision of King Mohammed VI, who is clear and consistent about collaborative progress. In a recent address delivered to the Crans Montana Forum, he noted that North-South and South-South “cooperation must be rooted in mutual esteem, be based on balanced approaches and show that the interests of the various partners concerned are duly taken into account.”

His strategic approach to human development encompasses all facets of Morocco’s society, from ethnic and gender issues to economic, social, and political concerns. And these are also central to Morocco’s effective multifaceted counterterrorism approach – alongside harder measures necessary to address the threat from radicals who oppose Morocco’s liberalizing society, as well as its close collaboration with the US.

As the US debates its strategic responses to encourage both security and human development around the globe, it faces a daunting task. As Danya Greenfield and Faysal Itani write in the Atlantic Council’s Issue in Focus, “The United States struggles with a palpable tension between its immediate security interests and the need for broader institutional reforms in the MENA that would address the root causes of anti-US militancy.”

They argue that “To secure its long-term strategic interests, the United States should urgently and simultaneously pursue its security needs…and support pluralism, basic human rights, and inclusive economic growth.”

Growing a democratic culture is a never-ending challenge — as witness the continuous evolution of the UK and US. When looking abroad for aspiring partners who seek the humane, just, and prosperous world that is a core element in America’s global vision, US policy, according to the paper, “should reflect that political and economic development go hand in hand.” While there may not be ready-made solutions, working with partners like Morocco will enable both parties to more fully exploit opportunities to reduce threats and promote progress through strengthened collaboration.

Sowing Democracy – a Messy Affair

Can the US get it right?

I’ve just read an article by Stephen M. Walt* in Foreign Policy, “American Values Are to Blame for the World’s Chaos – Why trying to spread democracy, liberalism, and human rights always backfires.” It appeared just two days before we celebrate America’s Independence Day, perhaps our most beloved national holiday, and started me thinking about how liberal values become part of a country’s political culture, and if there are better questions we might ask to get the right answers for advancing liberalism.

Stephen M. Walt

Stephen M. Walt

While on the topic of liberal values, I took part in a discussion last week in which a professor from the UK called out multilingual/multicultural programs in North Africa as a tool by which ruling classes maintain power. Her thesis is that multilingual programs divide people by social and ethnic background, affecting their economic advancement. She made this claim despite the fact that officially sanctioning one’s native language, in this case Amazigh, has been a long-standing demand across the Maghreb.

I rebutted her charges against “neo-liberalism” on historical and factual grounds, indicating that the issue of “identity” tied to language/culture expression was far more salient in countries such as Morocco that are still integrating complex national identities. And so it was quite interesting to find neo-liberal Stephen Walt, for whom I have tremendous respect, taking a one-way-street view of democracy promotion.

His basic thesis, with which I don’t disagree is, “the moral appeal of these basic liberal principles [democratic government, rule of law, freedom of expression, market economies] does not mean that they are a sound guide for the conduct of foreign policy.” He goes on to claim that “In fact, the past two decades suggest that basing a great powers foreign policy primarily on liberal ideals is mostly a recipe for costly failures.” My contention is that, in the 21st century, most countries believe that they are able to make choices about governing without reference to liberal values promoted by the “Washington consensus.” Moreover, with the erosion of the US as the global hyper-power, countries perceive more options for circumventing even the most stringent condemnation by other nations, short of outright warfare.

Furthermore, looking at neoliberal values only from the US perspective alleviates receiving countries from responsibility and accountability for their actions, positive and negative. It is true “that liberalism does not translate its moral absolutes into clear, effective strategies for bringing them about.” It is as guilty of this charge as any political ideology that posits “truths” and not tactics. And besides, there is the nagging reality that one size does not fit all and so neo-cons and neoliberals need to do much more homework in order to recognize where opportunities for and obstacles to their democratic agendas occur.

Taking the Plunge – Democracy Lite

There are lessons to be learned in various post-World War II democracies illustrating that liberal values are still critical to the functioning of tolerant, progressive systems of government. Morocco, which is working towards a parliamentary democracy, is a good illustration of the road forward for integrating liberal values into a traditional society that has honored the family over the individual, cooperation over competition, and consensus over innovation.

Morocco-US relations, full of firsts

Morocco was the first country to recognize the US in 1777

Morocco’s receptivity to liberal values begins with the articles of faith often heard in any discussion of Morocco’s relations with the US: first country to recognize the nascent republic; first US Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, still in force today; first multilateral treaty in which the US agreed to help fund a lighthouse in Tangier; first US Free Trade Agreement in Africa, and other hallmarks including the first Strategic Dialogue in North Africa, and other defense and security ties.

So can we learn anything about advancing democratic values by looking at our relationship with Morocco? And the corollary query, can Stephen Walt’s thesis be clarified by understanding the path Morocco has chosen if we agree that it is a liberalizing society?

Interestingly, Morocco’s only colonial experience was with France, which originated human rights as a contemporary political concept. It has historically been a kingdom, ruled by elites appointed by the ruler or pledging fealty to the sovereign for some six hundred years or more. Its transition to the 21st century has not been without difficulties as traditional interests and networks resist change and have little interest in sharing power. Yet it is changing. Initiatives stem from a visionary king working to empower civil society and citizens to challenge “business as usual” and remake politics and governance into tools that promote human and economic development.

There are three parts to this equation if forces supporting constitutional democracy are to succeed: continued clear messaging in support of liberal values from a well-respected king; growing cadres of civil society and political participants who utilize constitutional reforms to promote power and resource-sharing at all levels; and benefits accruing to the population from a more receptive, responsible, and accountable government.

Morocco's Parliament

Morocco’s Parliament

How does this fit with Walt’s thesis? Well, turns out his real target is “perfecting these [liberal] practices at home instead of trying to export them abroad…[if so] people in other societies will want to emulate some or all of these practices, suitably adapted to local conditions [emphasis added].” And here is the rub: even if the US were the paragon of liberal values, would others follow this pied piper of democracy and rule of law? Since the end of the 20th century, it is apparent that there are no pure models of neoliberal values, and each country will move to its own rhythm in reaching new social contracts defining relations between government and citizens.

It is important for the US to show that, despite our own uneven progress, these values are worth striving for and are the true measure of closing the gap between a country’s aspirations and its achievements. The Morocco-US relationship illustrates that when liberal values are shared across a range of political and economic activities, and are promoted by a trusted leadership without forcing concepts that are antithetical to the local culture, the outlook is worth supporting and encouraging.


* Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

How does Morocco Measure up to the Challenge of Defining ‘Citizenship?

UN Study Opens Debate on Citizenship Post-Arab Spring

In a multi-year study of the impact of the Arab Spring on democracy, social development, civic activism, and governance, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) released “The Promises of Spring – Citizenship and Civic Engagement in Democratic Transitions” in mid-2013. The report team was led by Maha Yahya, a senior associate at Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. She recently visited Washington, DC where she discussed the trends emerging from the study to date.

ESCWA Report Cover

ESCWA Report on Citizenship after Arab Spring

As could be expected, most of the analysis and commentary focused on Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, with some references to Lebanon and Syria. This is not surprising, but I believe that a broader perspective would be helpful to adequately represent varying perceptions of citizenship, as well as to understand what factors impact the debate about citizenship and deeper issues of equality, justice, and dignity. Morocco’s experience, before, during, and after the Arab Spring, is instructive.

Demise of the Traditional Social Contract

Much has been written about the demise of the social contract whereby citizens of a country muted their political activism in return for their government’s guarantee of economic security and political stability. The study provides a useful overview of the weakening of social contracts in the Arab world, although there is a bit too much emphasis, in my opinion, on the impact of the global financial community in promoting structural changes. It asserts that “a new social contract implies rethinking past and current approaches to socioeconomic development so as to address existing inequities and ensure social justice.”

To that end, the study looks to new constitutions that define the evolving relationship between state and citizens, which ideally should address: “civic freedoms, including the right to assembly; the rights of women and minority groups; and the socioeconomic and developmental rights of citizens as part of a broader approach to social justice.” As we have seen in countries affected by the Arab Spring, constitutional birthing processes are not without contention. And it is the constitutions, subject to multiple interpretations, which embody many of the “new” dimensions of the emerging social contracts. The ESCWA report stresses that even though there have been many setbacks to participatory democracy in countries affected by the Arab Spring, the empowerment of citizens has not been derailed as a central feature of emerging people power.

It is ironic that Arab countries, which strongly emphasize consensus on major issues, often find that in short supply when it comes to redefining the political process in the post-Arab Spring environment. In fact, the redefining process is not only about power-sharing and dignity, but core practices that embody public affairs – the engagement of stakeholders in the political system. The study notes that “active civic engagement by Arab citizens is one through which they would actually be seeking to reinvent themselves and their societies.” Thus, it goes beyond comparing models of democracy and political organization to focus on the values of citizenship as proactive forces behind political participation.

Quite instructively, the ESCWA report notes that “…the historical, political and social context of different countries matters…each country has its own dynamic. It evolves according to the specifications of the societal fabric as well as with policy or tactical changes, where those are made by the state or by civil society activists.” It is in this framework of citizenship, constitutional reform, and public space that Morocco’s progress should be measured.

Citizenship, Participation, and Challenges to Progress in Morocco

In evaluating why conditions of political exclusion and economic marginalization prevalent in the Arab world did not explode before Mohamed Bouazizi’s death in Tunisia in December 2010, the report concludes that “multiple political, economic, social, and cultural injustices and exclusions that Arab citizens were subjected to for decades, and the absence of meaningful venues to voice grievances were among the central catalysts…” In Morocco, opening of public space can be traced to 1998, when King Hassan II, recognizing that stability required greater power-sharing, took two important steps: naming the head of the opposition coalition as Prime Minister, and permitting the large scale growth of hundreds of civil society organizations.

His son, the current King Mohammed VI, was quick to build on these openings, and indeed, the role of “citizen” has been a constant theme of his reign, both as a prod to the political parties to become more mature and develop as vehicles for change, and as a recognition that civil society has an enormous role to play in shaping the country’s growth. As MAP reported in 2013, this emphasis is clear in the King’s speech on the 38th anniversary of Morocco’s Green March.

“Our aim is to see the Moroccan citizen properly honored, endowed with the attributes of full-fledged citizenship,” he said. “It is in this spirit that we have undertaken a series of profound reforms and major projects,” including the establishment of national institutions and regional bodies for the protection and promotion of human rights that are “known for their independence and credibility.” He also said that no country accepts being “subjected to behavior that is harmful to their security and stability, especially as violence, subversion and intimidation of citizens are incompatible with human rights, and the exercise of freedom can only be done in compliance with the law.

The King’s constitutional commission was instrumental in including many references to the rights of citizens in the 2011 constitution, a theme he has reinforced before and after Morocco’s experience during the Arab Spring. In April 2014 he said:

“To me, all Moroccans are equal. I make no distinction, be it on the basis of social status or affiliation. As far as I am concerned, there is no difference between a bank manager and a person who is unemployed, between a pilot, a farmer and a minister. They all are citizens with the same rights and the same obligations.”

When the King argues that “The main goal of economic growth remains the achievement of social justice, which is the bedrock of social cohesion, ” he echoes the centrality of social justice that is a key touchstone of the ESCWA.

Understanding that power-sharing and devolution of power are requisites for true civic participation, the King promotes regionalization to enable Moroccans to have greater control over their lives. Yet he is not naïve about the challenges involved in creating a new civic culture in a society that is in transition to decentralized governance and strong civic activism. In 2012, in his annual Green March speech he remarked:

Morocco's Parliament

Morocco’s Parliament

“In this regard, I call upon stakeholders and officials in all institutions to be worthy of the trust placed in them. In addition to the executive and judicial branches, I call upon elected institutions, at all levels, to comply fully and at all times with the new concept of authority. Elected officials must serve the citizens and be worthy of their trust, avoiding any personal or narrow-minded considerations.”

While pundits may challenge the pace at which Morocco is making progress, it is hard to minimize the salutatory role that the King, greatly respected throughout the country, is playing in a peaceful transition to participatory democracy. It is instructive, in looking at the ESCWA report’s data regarding economic disruptions, that among the non-oil exporters, only Morocco did not suffer large-scale negative consequences from the Arab Spring. This is another indicator of the international and domestic support that Morocco’s reform process, started more than 15 years ago, enjoys.

In its early conclusions, the ESCWA report calls for:

“…rethinking the current development agenda [with] one that considers the achievement of social justice based on the principles of equitable citizenship rights a fundamental pillar for maintaining social cohesion and consolidating democracies in Arab countries.”

Morocco’s commitment to full citizenship for all Moroccans is enshrined in its Constitution and the implementation legislation coming from the Parliament. Many challenges to enabling progress and reform remain. Many are being tackled through consensus-building among multiple stakeholders – which is a product of Morocco’s recognition that progress and democracy grow from practice and capacity-building that concretely support its citizens’ aspirations.

The Core of Democracy is not Elections – It’s Rule of Law and Civil Society

*Pundits wonder why democracy is failing judgment based on mistaken assumptions*

It’s hard not to look at the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the broader collection of emerging states without disappointment at what has happened to the democratic impulse that held so much promise at the end of the last century. Whether one is assessing the color revolutions in the former Soviet Union, the Arab Spring, the growth of democratic practices in Latin America, or Central Asia, the verdict is the same—why has democracy failed to grow deep and sustainable roots?The issue of the future of democracy has been addressed in several recent articles that should be required reading for anyone interested in something more than sound bites about freedom and progress. The core issues these articles address are: what are the ingredients that make democracy enduring and what are the factors that slow or inhibit its growth at a time when “people power” seems to have replaced the ballot box as a leading edge of change?

A major criticism directed at the “democracy now” crowd is their over-reliance on elections as the primary vehicle for expressing and managing change. The key question this bypasses is how to determine what people really want—is it a constitution that describes power sharing and the process of getting there, or is it a bill of rights that guarantees basic civil and human rights to the broadest possible number of citizens in a country?

In the MENA at least, where elections are an event rather than a reliable indicator of democratic values, the clear preference of the majority of Arabs, based on anecdotal and polling evidence, is to have their rights, with less concern about who can guarantee them, which goes to the longevity of the former leaders of Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria in the present, and others. Democracy/elections are perceived as a way to better determine distribution of economic benefits. This should come as no surprise, considering the lackluster progress in promoting democratic participation in governments, the weak mobilizing and educating roles of political parties, and the general sense of malaise when it comes to making institutional political reforms.

Resetting Assumptions about Democracy

In thinking through the future of democratic governance, a review of the indicators in the Freedom House Index, Freedom in the World, and the Fund for Peace’s Failed States Index, demonstrates the complexity and singularity of the process of effective and equitable self-government. Rankings that are high on stability do not necessarily line up with those that reflect public participation in political space. Speaking to the brief attention span of reporting on political change, Anne Applebaum wrote “the creation of democratic institutions—courts, legal systems, bills of rights—is a long and tedious process that often doesn’t interest foreign journalists at all.”

In a similar vein, Stephen M. Walt wrote about the confusion between “a democratic government and a liberal society.” His point is that “democratic procedures do not guarantee that human rights will be protected, that individual differences will be tolerated and respected, or that public institutions—to include the press and intelligentsia—will not be corrupted or compromised.”

Reflecting on the source of much of the conflict within today’s emerging democracies, Walt writes that “Most importantly, a liberal society emphasizes toleration…” He raises a critical question in this regard, which goes to the heart of raising a liberal democracy today: “But it is much harder to convince a population to prize individual rights over collective identities and local traditions—and to impart in these citizens a sense of toleration for those who are different and for ideas that might seem dangerous or distasteful.”

Struggling for Clarity in the Democracy Debate

While the term democracy invokes a paradigm of responsible civic participation, it is difficult to balance the image with the reality. As Paul Pilar points out, “We should not apply the label of democracy where it does not belong.” In deciding how best to spend US democracy-promotion funding, it would be worthwhile to look at those countries that are growing the credibility of elections as well as focusing on capacity-building for civil society.

Civil Society Summit in MoroccoMorocco is a useful case in point. It not only has successfully held local and national elections that international observers have judged free and fair, it also continues to invest heavily in advancing its civil society capabilities. In the late 1990s, the late King Hassan II, sensing the shift in public sentiment towards having a greater role in governance, undertook two important reforms. He allowed the largest party in Parliament to nominate the Prime Minister, and he opened up opportunities for an empowered civil society as an antidote to bickering political parties. Over the next fifteen years, especially under his son King Mohammed VI, civil society continues to evolve as a potent force in defining political, human, economic, and social development priorities—quite separately from the political parties. More than 40,000 NGOs are currently registered in all areas of the country.

King Mohammed encouraged this activism by convening a year-long civil society dialogue under the National Committee for Dialogue on Civil Society. During the past year, the committee held 18 meetings that drew nearly 10,000 civil society activists, stakeholders, and officials who shared their perspectives on proposed legislation related to the forward status of NGOs. According to El Habib Choubani, the Minister for Parliamentary Relations, the goal of the effort is “to create a legal arsenal that can guarantee the freedom to create organizations” and ensure the “independence of civil society activity and governance.” Rather than treat civil society as adversaries or passive partners, the dialogue seeks to further the goal of the 2011 Constitution to enable civil society to play a major participatory role in the political life of the country. These efforts reflect the essence of building a liberal democracy—knowledge, access, power, and respect.

Middle East economic reform requires robust and constructive citizen participation

A great deal of hand wringing goes on as bad news continues to drown out progress in the transitions going on in the Middle East and North Africa. From Egypt and Syria to Libya and Yemen, nay-sayers and pundits readily point out that there are few short-term solutions that don’t require some pain in the process of moving forward. As national identities crumble under the assault of religious and partisan appeals, it is problematic to come up with short-term remedies that don’t have long-term consequences for the political and economic health of the countries.

It seems to me that, aside from Tunisia at the best of times, which is not often enough, there is a failure by governments in transition to sustain effective messaging that people can understand on how the government is going to concretely tackle unemployment and corruption. Blaming the IMF for subsidy reforms is not a credible strategy for laying the groundwork for other steps that must be taken to reduce public debt incurred as a result of inflated bureaucracies, inefficient labor regulations, and insufficient investment capital available for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Even Morocco’s parliament is encountering problems passing needed reforms to reduce expenditures and stimulate sustainable economic growth.

The challenges in the Maghreb are enormous, and yet citizens are rarely being mobilized to take part in economic development. Rather, they are pulled in different directions by political forces more concerned with scoring points and securing power than contributing to a way forward that is balanced, equitable, and contributes to necessary long-term changes.

Considering the options

Outside organizations are working in the MENA to provide mechanisms to bridge the messaging gap between governments and citizens. The George C. Marshall Foundation in cooperation with the Stimson Center and L’Insitut Arabe des Chefs d’Enterprises recently held a conference in Tunis that “brought together business people, academicians, policy planners and other thought leaders for a day and a half discussion on regional economic integration in the Maghreb…” The purpose of the conference was to determine how the action principles behind the success of the Marshall Plan in rebuilding Europe “might best be applied to contemporary situations where economic reconstruction or mass relief is needed.” One of its principal tenets seemed quite relevant to my thinking about the challenge of promoting both top-down and grassroots support for economic reform, “Political leadership and elements of self-sacrifice and determination are essential to the success of aid programs.”

In the US, Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, built around the message “the economy, stupid,” illustrated how critical it is to capture the public’s imagination and involvement in a dialogue about progress that has consequences beyond slogans. Similarly, the pressures of trying to reverse decades of economic and political mismanagement have resulted in a credibility barrier, especially for the transitional governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. As is evident from the competing demonstrations in those countries, evolving a consensus on key solutions without some parties feeling marginalized is an overwhelming challenge at times.

 Reaching the people

A key lesson in “participatory democracy” that seems to have emerged from the trials of the transitional governments is that the process of engaging citizens effectively in participatory and respectful politics is daunting under the best of circumstances. Their previous experiences with the former governments in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt in particular have not given people a sense of national citizenship that transcends more particular allegiances. To help address this “communications gap,” the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) has launched a series of civic engagement programs in the Maghreb to enable youth, civil society, and advocacy organizations to more effectively engage in the political process.

The World Bank Institute (WBI) along with the World Bank Middle East and North Africa (MENA) recently “brought together government officials and civil society practitioners from Morocco, Jordan and Tunisia to discuss how citizen engagement can contribute to more informed policies; how to develop codes of practice for public consultations; and how to use online tools to facilitate consultations.” The program aims to enable governments to “make informed decisions while creating public trust” by ensuring that the voices of those most impacted by the policy have been heard and addressed. Moreover, the program supports an inclusive process to ensure that the right players are involved, recognizing that public consultations can be critical “since the government may not have all the solutions at hand.”

This program complements others in the region such as the National Dialogue on Civil Society in Morocco focusing on how more inclusive and transparent communications between governments and citizens can reduce conflict and promote consensus around key development and governance issues. An essential element is training trainers in both government agencies and NGOs on the principles of public consultations as a tool for civic engagement.

While these efforts may be small steps in terms of bringing governments and citizens together, they are critical for directing “street” energy into advocacy tools using social media and other outreach technology and e-government programs to provide better access for people and greater knowledge and awareness for public officials. For the international donor community, there is a lesson here from the Marshall Foundation’s tenets: “Any successful aid program must be driven by the country and not imposed by outside countries or institutions.” When people speak as part of a respectful dialogue and government listens and acts to credibly engage its citizens, the street will return to being a thoroughfare rather than an avenue of protest and disorder.

When is a failed state not?

I have to believe that one of the least favorite jobs in Washington is being an author or contributor to one of the annual reports that make you a target of unhappy embassies. Whether it’s from the roll call of State Department publications, which includes Human Rights Reports, International Religious Freedom Reports, Trafficking-in-Person Reports, Advancing Freedom and Democracy Reports, or those from NGOs such as Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, The Heritage Foundation, or any of the dozens of other national and international reports used by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in its selection criteria, being the messenger is no easy task.

Over the past decade, there is a special place of skepticism reserved for the annual Failed States Index (FSI) published by the Fund for Peace, now in its ninth year and increasingly detailed and sophisticated. The title is a bit misleading as the report is not a predictive tool of state failure but rather an assessment of more than 100 internal factors that affect a country’s stability. Of course, since the data is based on the calendar year, the first yellow flag is what has occurred following the six months it takes to prepare the report that could affect a country’s ranking. The natural inclination is to look at a country’s rating and then compare it to others, breathing a sigh of either relief or exasperation. But that’s not where the substance is, and those who take the time to read the key indicators grouped into 12 categories can benefit from the extraordinary analytical efforts the FSI involves.

What makes the FSI useful

Why am I a fan?  Because I believe that the real benefit of FSI is as a tool to facilitate discussion among a country’s stakeholders about its ambitions, core values, and means of delivering credible governance and equitable opportunities. It is less important to be chagrined that the 2012 rankings have France and Portugal in better shape than the US, and more important to drill down into the social and economic indicators (demographic pressures, group grievance, refugees and Internally Displaced Persons, human flight and brain drain, uneven economic development, poverty and economic decline) and political and military indicators (state legitimacy, public services, human rights and law, security apparatus, factionalized elites, and external intervention) to understand why.

In terms of methodology, the FSI relies on crunching tens of millions of pieces of information from around the world, which is then sorted into the 12 key indicators. “The content analysis is further triangulated with two other key aspects of the overall assessment process: quantitative analysis and qualitative inputs based on major events in the countries examined.” Final quality control is a review of the results and comparison with a “comprehensive set of vital statistics …as well as human analysis to ensure that the software has not misinterpreted the raw data.”

Lessons about state building

So what do we learn about state building from this year’s index? In the first instance, countries that work harder on capacity building over the long term are better able to withstand natural and man-made shocks that would drive weaker countries into crisis. It is a country’s ability to deliver a broad range of social services to greater numbers of its citizens while driving more equitable political participation that parallels the recommendations in the CFR report I mentioned last week.

Secondly, there are no magic bullets—not elections, not foreign assistance or intervention, nor increasing social benefits—that will reduce instability rooted in economic inequality, political marginalization, and degraded rule of law. Countries with large disparities in wealth, political access and influence, and public safety tend to be less stable than those that have fewer gaps (yes, Egypt was worse than Mali, but barely). In the section on the Arab Spring, it notes that the 2010 data “tells the story of a storm birthed in North Africa…indicators for Group Grievance and Human Rights were gradually and inexorably getting worse. In November 2010, there was a dramatic regional increase (not a good thing, the higher the score, the worse the ranking) in the State Legitimacy score…that has yet to come back down.”

Well, there may be a claim that this is all hindsight, and in fact the human analysis that is part of the process makes it inherently biased. Or one could take lessons from where the data and negative events have a high correlation, as in the example above, and draw analytical and policy lessons that increase our understanding of managing conflict before it become chaos or worse.

The FSI draws back the curtain on the complexities of state-building by enumerating the challenges, represented by the 100+ indicators that make up the profile of a country’s internal heartbeat. Rather than wait until the patient is in triage or functional failure, international donors and organizations can use this data and other sources to support dialogues with countries at risk to enable them to develop more robust strategies for reducing instability. Even isolated countries such as North Korea or far-away places like Somalia impact our lives. The FSI is a tool that helps us understand the caution flags that increasingly populate our mental maps of countries. It is this kind of solid data tied to the concurrence of values and interests that will enable policy makers and stakeholders to make the right choices.

The challenges to “making democracy” in the Sahel and the Sahara

One of my favorite debates goes something like this: in conflict environments and/or fragile or failing states, what are the relative benefits of short-term democracy promotion versus longer term development programs?

In the context of what to do in the Sahel, recent charges that Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has access to SA-7 surface-to-air missiles bring into sharp focus these issues for those striving for stability and security in the Sahel/Sahara region.

At a recent joint hearing before three House subcommittees with responsibilities for African affairs, government, think tank, and private-sector witnesses provided their assessments of efforts to tackle short and longer-term obstacles to securing the region’s future. In reviewing their testimonies, several critical recurring themes emerged in addition to the current military engagement.  At the top of the list are the humanitarian challenges.

Mali pushed to rush elections in July

In Mali, a country of around 16 million people, more than a half-million people are internally displaced or refugees in neighboring countries.  In addition, a severe drought in 2012 put almost 19 million people at risk for food security, “including one million children at risk of severe acute malnutrition.” Today, although the US has expended more than $550 million in humanitarian assistance (not to mention funds from international donors), “an estimated 10 million people remain at risk of food insecurity.”

As Acting Assistant Secretary Donald Yamamoto, of the Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department remarked,

…our short term successes may be fleeting if we fail to address the longstanding political and economic fragility that make the Sahel susceptible to persistent crisis and conflict. Poor governance, weak democratic institutions, and a lack of development and economic opportunity cultivate fertile ground for instability. Helping those countries to strengthen their institutions and be more responsive and inclusive is equally critical to addressing the region’s deep-seated security, political, and development challenges.

And here is the dilemma. When asked by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) if elections in July 2013 could be free and fair, Nancy Lindborg of USAID replied “While we have not yet solved all of the structural issues in Mali that could impede free and fair elections, it is imperative that we hold these elections so that they can begin to rebuild democratic institutions.” What is missing from the public record is a reminder that US legislation prevents foreign military assistance to countries whose governments came to power via non-democratic means, in this case the coup that led to the secession of northern Mali. This type of restriction is also why the French support the July election, because it then allows Paris to write “mission accomplished” and withdraw its forces.

So what are some of the other ‘structural issues’ referred to by Ms. Lindborg. In a response to a question from Rep. Tom Cotton (R-AK) about Mali’s previous attempt at democracy, A/S Yamamoto offered, “Mali was a very democratic country, but its democratic institutions were fragile. What we’re trying to do is give aid in order to stabilize it, address the humanitarian crisis and extremism, and promote dialog between the north and Bamako.” Excuse me…if it was a “very democratic country,” where were the institutions that reflect the bonds between government and citizens? Where was the civil society? Where were the mechanisms for engaging minority and marginalized populations? Where was the independent judiciary and armed forces that protect order and respond to civilian leadership? Where was the transparency that characterizes government transactions and policies both domestic and international? What happened to the previously agreed “dialog between the north and Bamako?” Or as a colleague from the State Department mused, “Why are we so enamored of elections in countries with no functioning civil societies or competing political parties that are at the heart of a democratic process? It allows us to wash our hands and move on to the next hot spot.”

The humanitarian challenge

Quoting Yamamoto again “Creating viable economic opportunities and meeting the basic needs of its citizens remain a daunting task for countries that consistently rank at the very bottom of any measure of human development.” His colleague, Ms. Lindborg, in response to Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA) added “Progress is possible, but it will take time. We need to help countries, communities, the private sector, and regional NGOs feel that they have a And yet the US and France continue to insist that the July elections proceed, while other voices raise concerns with the timing and inclusion issues.

For example, Rudy Atallah of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council told the hearing “I agree that we should push elections, but first it is critical that we address the local grievances that precipitated the beginning of the crisis. If we force the election without addressing these grievances, it will just be another failed election.” And I will add, perpetuate another failed or failing state in the Sahel/Sahara.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and other setbacks in US foreign policy, wishful thinking and pious statements about the efficacious effect of elections in troubled countries should not play a role in next steps in the Sahel. History and common sense argue against rushing into an election without a Plan B, which is this case means BEFORE any election is on the short-term agenda. As Nii Akuetteh, a well-known African policy analyst told the Members, “I have to reiterate that we must come up with a contingency plan should the Malian elections become problematic, and we need to more thoroughly review what went wrong with Mali.”

For the best antidote to instability, as A/S Yamamoto said, “we must continue our efforts to approach the Sahel and the Maghreb’s interconnected problems with a comprehensive regional and international effort…to address the immediate security threat posed by violent extremists and transnational criminal networks, while at the same time building the institutional capacity needed to address the Sahel’s political, economic, and humanitarian challenges.”

Amen to that, and to some common sense in our strategies for moving the Sahel/Sahara into functioning democracies.

“Egypt: Challenges of Crafting Leadership in Foreign Affairs”

The summer 2012 issue of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, includes an article, “Egypt in the World,” by former Egyptian Ambassador to the US, Nabil Fahmy. He is clearly in the secular/modernist/democratic stream of Egyptian political discourse, and provides helpful insights to those who want to understand the Arab world beneath the stereotypes. His main theme focuses on the centrality of Egypt’s foreign policy in the region and the world, which he defines in three concentric circles. His observations flow from the assumption that “Now, in a region transformed by popular upheaval, Egypt has a chance to pick up the mantle and renew her place as a political and ideological wellspring for the Arab and North African Middle East.”

Well, I hope that the government of Egypt isn’t waiting for an invitation from surrounding countries to lead from in front or from behind. This notion of Egypt as the regional leader “… stems not only from the country’s demographic weight, geopolitical location, and military capability, but also from its historic and contemporary role as the heart of cultural and intellectual innovation in the Arab world.” With all respect to my friend and former mentor, I find the notion of Egypt as the resurrected leader of the MENA region a bit of a stretch given the transitions still in store within Egypt as well as the significant political and economic challenges in the region that make any leadership role problematic. This is even more apparent as Fahmy indicates, “… any new government must learn from the lessons of the past.”

Learning from the past or overturning the past? This was obviously written before Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made waves at the Tehran conference of the Non-Aligned Movement—the first global vehicle for Nasser’s claim to regional leadership, and Morsi’s visit to the opening of the UN General Assembly, where he spelled out Egypt’s new foreign policy perspectives in a long New York Times interview. It is hard to conceive of a country, which may slide to a “collective caliphate,” as an emerging regional power that promotes democratic values when its own legitimizing political process is being sorely tested.

By this I mean that while Salafists call for the new caliphate, one can argue that Egypt must guard against a kind of “collective caliphate” where political and religious/moral leadership is held by a few who claim to speak for the many. We have already seen the problematic and counterproductive impact of Iranian foreign policy for US interests. Can we expect the same from Egypt?

Some more wisdom from Ambassador Fahmy succinctly summarizes the challenges: “Egypt should provide the seeds of freedom by supporting openness, transparency, and the rule of law throughout the Middle East, but the demand for and pace of reform must come from within states, not across their borders.” “…If domestic reality does not match the principled stand of our international proclamations, our newfound legitimacy will be unsustainable and or claim of leadership will fall on deaf ears.”

While I admire Egypt for its past contributions, the reality is that the Arab street has moved towards conflation with its Islamic identity and crossing that line has changed the tone and focus of what leadership means to “the people.” So as Egypt emerges from its transitions and proffers “her natural role as a leader in the Middle East and Africa,” will anyone take up the offer?