How Egypt thwarts USAID
The United States provides Egypt with an annual injection of around $200 million in development aid — a vestige of the U.S. wheel-greasing that accompanied the 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt. It is the job of USAID to distribute a portion of that money to democracy promotion programs. A recent audit offers a ...
The United States provides Egypt with an annual injection of around $200 million in development aid — a vestige of the U.S. wheel-greasing that accompanied the 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt. It is the job of USAID to distribute a portion of that money to democracy promotion programs. A recent audit offers a depressing verdict on USAID’s efforts: the impact of its programs was “unnoticeable” in improving Egypt’s democratic environment. Of the programs for which USAID distributed funds, donors carried out only 65% of the activities promised and achieved only 52% of the planned results, based on predetermined metrics.
The audit lays the blame for USAID’s failure at the feet of the Egyptian government. The government, “has shown reluctance to support many of USAID’s democracy and governance programs and has impeded implementers’ activities,” says the report. Egyptian delays are caused by a combination of resistance to democratic reforms, bureaucratic red tape, and plain old cronyism. In one example, the audit describes how study tours abroad were subverted by an Egyptian contractor who kept selecting the same people for the tours. One particular Cairo University professor, the report states, was selected for three separate trips on USAID’s dime.
Stop the presses: the Egyptian government is riddled with corruption, and hostile to democratic reform! After three decades of distributing aid in Egypt, these facts shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone — and shouldn’t be an excuse for why USAID has been flushing taxpayers’ money down the drain.
Fortunately, in 2005 Congress provided USAID with the authority to issue direct grants to Egyptian NGOs, bypassing the approval of the Egyptian government. As the audit shows, USAID “achieved its greatest success” with these direct grant programs. Direct grant recipients completed 80 percent of their planned activities during the 2008 financial year, in programs that ranged from anticorruption initiatives to programs emphasizing political processes and civic participation. The Egyptian government often still found ways to stymie these programs: in one case, the government delayed distribution of the civic education material produced by one recipient, making it difficult for the material to reach schoolchildren.
However, these obstacles pale in comparison to the difficulties of working directly with the Egyptian government. It is naive to expect a regime that is preparing to elevate Gamal Mubarak to the presidency will be willing to make aggressive reforms. And it is hypocritical for the United States to preach the virtues of democracy while still devoting most of its funds to efforts which have proven ineffective. U.S. policymakers know perfectly well how to design more effective programs in Egypt. They should do it.
David Kenner was Middle East editor at Foreign Policy from 2013-2018.
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