Rediscovering Multilateralism: Toward a Cooperative Approach to Middle East Reform
On 30 September and 1 October 2009, a total of twenty foreign policy and civil society professionals from Europe, the Middle East and the United States convened at the Wilson Centerfor a two-day workshop to discuss multilateral modalities for political reform in the Middle East. In pairs, the participants presented on five major platforms: the United Nations Arab Human Development Report, the G8 Broader MENA Initiative, the OECD's Good Governance for Development Initiative, the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Middle East Partnership Initiative. After a period of open discussion, participants divided into smaller working groups to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each platform, and their usefulness as tools for effecting political reform. Below is a brief summary and assessment of each platform based on the working groups' findings.
United Nationals Arab Human Development Report (AHDR)
The AHDR is one of the flagship products of the UNDP. It began in 2002 with the aim of making a positive contribution the region's development, and in 2008 a second set of reports was launched under the heading of human security. Overall, workshop participants lauded the fact that the reports are produced by Arab scholars and present a local, original perspective on the development needs of each country. Moreover, by focusing on human security the reports address people's most basic needs and draw attention to areas for reform that would create tangible change in people's day-to-day lives. The resignation of the author of the 2009 report, however, belies a key weakness in the reports. Though written by Arab scholars and meant to reflect indigenous perspectives too often ignored by development practitioners, the most recent report was subject to controversial editing by UNDP staff. Nevertheless, participants agreed that in general the AHDR is a useful tool for identifying areas for reform that other initiatives can then act upon.
G8 Broader MENA Initiative (G8-BMENA)
G8-BMENA was launched in 2004 when the United States held the G8 presidency. It was meant to strengthen European-American cooperation on Middle East reform, culminating in annual Forum for the Future conferences bringing in civil society actors from the Middle East to partake in dialogue on democratization. While agreeing that enhanced European-American cooperation is in order, the participants agreed that the initiative was doomed from the start. An agenda driven by U.S. interests, ignorant of years of European-Middle Eastern partnership, was unpalatable to the countries of Europe while Middle Eastern governments considered their exclusion from the process to be an affront. The workshop recommended rebranding the initiative to shed its unfavorable image and being more inclusive of Middle East governments to gain their cooperation. More essentially, G8 programs suffer from a "flavor of the month" temporality as each new president country brings its own pet project. More needs to be done to ensure continuity.
Good Governance for Development Initiative (GfD)
A little known yet unique initiative, GfD was created in 2005 at the behest of Jordan, and works mainly with the OECD. Its focus is on modernizing governance with an eye to including civil society on such sectors as judiciary reform, public service reform, public finance, public-private partnerships and media-civil society partnerships. The participants largely welcomed the presence of an Arab government-led initiative and the opportunity it provides for much needed improvements on enhancing regional cooperation, while recognizing the weaknesses inherent in such a framework. The agenda being dominated by Arab governments, civil society is included only selectively as the focus becomes technical reform rather than fundamental political reform. Given the dearth of information on GfD, the most pressing recommendation was for it to become more transparent about its own purposes and activities, which actors are involved, what activities are they engaged in, and what the incentives are to accountability.
European Neighborhood Project (ENP) and Union for the Mediterranean
In 2004 the ENP was designed to replace the Barcelona Process, the European Union project initiated in 1995 to promote greater regional ties between the EU and its Mediterranean neighbors. Since the principle goal has been the alleviation migration pressures, the main focus is on economic cooperation, economic development and political modernization, as opposed to political reform. Recognizing the difficulty of promoting democratization through government-to-government initiatives given their focus on economic policy, the workshop highlighted the opportunity to step up its civil society-to-civil society aspect. A key recommendation was better screening of civil society actors destined for EU funding to ensure their independence from their respective national governments. Like G8 programs, certain EU projects can likewise languish as "flavors of the month", with attention and resources inadequately continued from one presidency to the next.
Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)
A branch of U.S. State Department, MEPI was launched in 2002 to promote political, economic and social reform in the Middle East based on the findings of the new Arab Human Development Report, designed as a bridge between U.S. diplomacy and international development. It created the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to provide funding to countries based on their performance on democratic standards such as ruling justly, investing in people, and economic freedom. Though not multilateral, MEPI was included in this discussion as an interesting point of comparison. Participants agreed that the U.S. should modestly "multilateralize" MEPI by coordinating certain policies and communicating its activities to Europe, in order to reduce the ability of Middle Eastern regimes to skirt political reform by shopping around for aid donors.