How We Became Foreign Aid Junkies

Tuesday 13 April 202106:04 pm

Swayed away by the musicality of the Cairo dialect, the fumes emanating from one thousand and one hookahs, the scintillating beams of nocturnal Zamalek, and a third round of whatever we were eating or drinking that night, I sat with a group of friends from around the Arab world complaining about how foreign aid is corrupting middle eastern elites and perpetuating the cycle of colonial oppression. One fellow, who was listening attentively throughout the conversation, abruptly stood up and announced in a zealous tone “Let’s make a social experiment”!

The social experiment consisted in advertising on social media for a fake conference taking place in a dazzling location on the turquoise shores of the Mediterranean. We swiftly designed a logo for a phony international organization based in Italy and wrote an outrageous description using all the buzz expressions of international development: Women rights, youth empowerment, peace building, freedom of expression, and even sexual education… For the sham to be complete we needed to add the magical words “all-inclusive and fully sponsored” event.

In the next few days, a tornado of applications and motivation letters hit the bogus email address. Around 500 Arabs working across the fields of development, media, academia, and the arts from more than twelve different countries responded to the appeal. Among the tragicomic and incongruous answers, were candidates who pretended to have collaborated formerly with the fictional organization, others who wrote full essays on how this conference will contribute to the advancement of their home countries, while some grew to become famous leaders and public personas. Far from the innocent amusement and cynical sarcasm that motivated that hoax years ago, we unveiled how the Arab elites became dependent on international development funds and confirmed foreign aid junkies.

Old and new colonial powers are not concerned in addressing the origins of Middle Eastern ailments, as they are themselves an intricate part of the crisis. They prefer to give a philanthropic spectacle of false charity to appease their consciousness

The False Generosity of the Oppressor

In his magnum opus “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, Paulo Freire describes how the oppressor targets the symptoms of the problem rather than its root causes in an act of “False Generosity”. Old and new colonial powers are not concerned in addressing the origins of Middle Eastern ailments, as they are themselves an intricate part of the crisis. They rather prefer to give a philanthropic spectacle of false charity to appease the consciousness of their taxpayers and perpetuate the cycle of tyranny and dependency.

When the first development agencies, including United Nations’ bureaucrats and the Bretton Woods’ arms, came to our region in the 60s, they declared their intention to “modernize” and “democratize” the barbarian outmoded societies that we were. The white man once again wanted to create a miniature disfigured chimera in his own image within the imaginary borders he drew for us. 

When the first development agencies came to our region in the 60s, they declared their intention to modernize and democratize our barbarian outmoded societies. The white man once again wanted to create a miniature disfigured chimera in his own image

In a heated debate at the UN on the tumultuous Palestinian situation, my friend Abeer, who is a veteran development worker at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), made a comment that resonated with me for many years “We lost our independence and right to negotiate with the first sack of rice we accepted”. It will be ungrateful and duplicitous to deny how many lives were saved by foreign relief operations in the Arab world, how many children were schooled, how many starved fed, and how many displaced sheltered. Yet, these countries pouring generous aid money are the same ones colluding, disrupting, conspiring, and intentionally funding insurgent groups and inciting sectarian divisions and violence. When I refer to the oppressors, it evidently comprises not only the west but also new regional powers who joined the game of the carrot and the stick, development and chaos, including Turkey, Iran, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Our Arrested Development

Arab countries keep naively waiting for a Marshall plan of their own, like post war Europe that received a generous $15 Billion grant from the US to help finance rebuilding efforts of the continent in 1948.  Still, a small detail persists. Unlike Europe, we did not fatally clash with each other prior to the colonial encounter and the insertion of an alien parasite called Israel at the heart of the Arab body. Our societies might have been traditional in modern terms, but they were always plural, open, and cohesive. Individual and knowledge mobility was permitted, a middle class was slowly building up, and a sense of transnational identity prevailed. For us, the hands of time are moving backwards. We were already a European Union-type of entity that was shattered by imperialist borders and agendas.

The Marshall plan never came. What we obtained instead were structural adjustment programs that convinced a country like Egypt that growing strawberries is better than planting its world famed cotton, and a country like Morocco to abandon wheat and barley harvesting in favor of a service economy based to a big extent on prostitution tourism. To accompany these colossal shifts, a group of neo-liberal elites and technocrats needed to be trained in the ways of the masters. A first generation received higher technical education in France, UK, Russia, and the US and brought us back their amassed inferiority complexes and white masks that shamefully hid their tanned Arab faces. These are the corrupted elites that rule over us to this day and who would never change their monochrome vision of reality even if you scrub their brains as hard as you can with a raw brick of Nablus soap.

The second generation are those who benefited from the post 9/11 cash flow boost to fight the so-called rise of “violent extremism” in the Middle East. A new set of EU and US state agencies and private foundations’ capital that aimed at stabilizing the region and shaping new elites that believe in democracy, human rights, and free speech. We can understand easily why young Arabs starved for personal freedom, self-expression, and recognition like myself would sign up for these programs, scholarships, and conferences and keep begging for more like drug addicts.

No one can deny that we were all groomed by foreign development organizations, trained on activism and political participation, and spoon fed the hope of a better future. #ArabSpring

Many Arab countries imploded in 2011 in rebellious movements followed by waves of demonstrations, civil wars, and even terrorist establishments at times. I do not support the theory promulgated by the media at the time that revolutionary youth are traitors supported by foreign money and agendas. Undeniably, the Arab Uprisings came primarily from popular agency and decades of exasperation and subjugation. However, no one can also deny that we were all groomed by foreign development organizations, trained on activism and political participation, and spoon fed the hope of a better future. There is no shame in benefiting from other countries’ experience and funds in empowering and improving one’s selves. The disgrace is to be part of a massive “social experiment” without being aware of it. If me and my humble friends fooled some of you, imagine who else could.


*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Raseef22

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