Sunday, April 20, 2014

When is Foreign Aid Meddling? El Yuma weighs in at the NYT

Last week the New York Times invited me to participate in an online debate about the political uses (and potential abuses) of development programs offered through the USAID.

The debate was triggered by the AP story about the USAID funded "Cuban Twitter" program known as ZunZuneo.

Here is a link to my contribution, where you can also read the other four specialists weigh in as well.

The Times pieces were limited to just 500 words - perhaps a good policy given that we specialists aren't always good editors of our own work.

Still, my original unedited piece follows below.

Q: Is the U.S. justified in using foreign assistance to promote democracy or any other political changes abroad?

A: During a 2007 trip to the editorial offices of the independent Catholic monthly Vitral in Cuba's Pinar del Río province Dagoberto Valdés, the magazine's editor, told me of a visit he once received from Joseph Sullivan, the then head of the U.S. Interests Section. Clearly impressed with Vitral's critical analysis, Sullivan inquired how he could help. Valdés' unhesitating response: "If you really want to help us, I ask that you not help us at all."

This poignant, powerful anecdote came back to me during the recent hubbub surrounding USAID's "Cuban Twitter" program, ZunZuneo.

No U.S. foreign development program is politically neutral. Apart from humanitarian motivations, foreign aid is a form of "soft power" and proto-political influence. The U.S. is not unique in this, of course. Cuba itself is a leader in deploying very effective and well regarded medical missions throughout the developing world – a laudable project that is also aimed at deploying Cuba's own soft power to garner support for the Revolution – not to mention earning the country and its doctors desperately needed hard currency.

This selfless/self-interested dynamic is also a part of the work done by USAID. However, given the need to balance our promotion of democracy and human rights with a respect for the sovereignty of our neighbors, great care should be taken to minimize possible negative fallout of political activity for in-country nationals and U.S. contractors alike.

This is especially the case in countries with which the U.S. has antagonistic relations and more so when assistance is directed toward vulnerable groups within those countries.

Such programs must also operate under a strict policy of "informed consent." Those who receive assistance or training must know beforehand that the help is coming – either directly or indirectly – "from the American people," a longtime motto of USAID.

Finally, foreign aid is not a blunt instrument. Development programs with political aims must be geared as nimbly as possible to a country's cultural and historical landscape. While the recent controversy over ZunZuneo shows great technological savvy given its quick adoption by between 40,000 and 68,000 local users, it also reveals a surprising tone deafness to both the local and transnational context.

While the U.S. is justified in using foreign assistance to promote democracy as well as its other interests abroad, in the wake of ZunZuneo, USAID would do well to heed the following four lessons for any future programs in Cuba or other places with severe restrictions on the political freedoms we value:

• The USAID is not the CIA: In the wake of the AP ZunZuneo story, the White House engaged in a bit of Orwellian doublespeak as it unconvincingly tried to parse the difference between its "covert" and "discrete" foreign programs. Such a weak and risible explanation surely came as little comfort to imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross.

• Ensure informed consent: ZunZuneo was offered to Cuban users without letting them know that the service was developed and paid for by the U.S. government. This omission is especially egregious given the Cuban government's systematic targeting of suspected recipients of U.S. aid.

• Don't undermine indigenous voices for democracy: For whatever good they may do in helping to break Cuba's own information embargo, ill-conceived programs like ZunZuneo risk endangering and delegitimizing truly independent local cyber-activists while simultaneously empowering the Cuban government to more effectively play the tired but often potent "mercenary of imperialism" card.

• Don't pay for something when you can get it for free: The most glaringly ironic revelation of the AP story was that USAID paid tens of thousands of dollars to the Cuban telecom monopoly (in possible violation of our own embargo) to subsidize text messaging for Cuban citizens while the U.S. embargo forces companies like Google and Microsoft to block Cubans from using free web-based and cloud computing services.

In sum, it is illogical to spend money on programs when much more could be achieved by removing the parts of our own isolationist policy that actually help cut the Cuban people off from the free flow of information while doing little to "renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society."

In fact, much more could be accomplished to this end simply by expanding President Obama's totally transparent people-to-people policy by through lifting the travel ban against Americans and putting an "audacious" end to our anachronistic and counterproductive embargo that isolates the Cuban people far more than it undermines the Cuban government.

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