By Patrick Galey
AWKAR, Lebanon: The United States will focus its regional financial aid program more on civil society and less on governments following the events of the Arab Spring, according to a senior U.S. official.
Hady Amr, USAID deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East, said that recent events had shown leaders in Washington that people in the region, including Lebanon, “had the ability to shape the laws that they are living [by],” and were poised to act accordingly.
“We don’t have a Marshall Plan for the Middle East,” Amr said, referring to the multibillion dollar assistance the U.S. provided Europe with in the wake of World War II. “But we are changing the way we work to encourage civil society there.”
He added that the U.S. was seeking to work with governments “in a new way that encourages them to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens.”
In Lebanon, in particular, he said many young people “felt a sense of frustration, an inability to get their jobs without wasta [connections],” and that civil society empowerment was one way of breaking up the nepotism still prevalent in many employment sectors.
Amr’s comments came on the same day as he visited a USAID-funded plastic factory in Akkar and a school rehabilitation project in Tripoli, the latter of which has a budget of $75 million provided by the organization.
In 2010, USAID provided more than $100 million worth of financial assistance to Lebanon in projects varying from education, democracy and governance and the environment.
Jim Barnhart, USAID Lebanon mission director, said that reforms that would see greater transparency and decentralization – which have been held up for years at draft law level – would enable his organization to have a greater positive impact in the country.
“It’s a good reason to push reform. For instance, local municipalities really need the ability to collect more revenue and then spend that revenue. They are fighting for that,” he said. “We work with our political officers and ambassador to try and come up with a policy approach that we engage with the Lebanese government on important ideas and this is central to that.”
As USAID has operated in Lebanon since 1951, several of its assistance projects have expired and even fallen into disrepair, leading some to question the sustainability of the program. Barnhart said that it was up to local and national authorities to continue projects after USAID’s assistance expired.
“We have signed memorandums of understanding and put [time frames] in place but after a certain time when we are finished it really is the local community and the political establishment that has to follow through,” Barnhart said.
A group calling itself the “People of Hermel” this week announced that it did not want areas of Lebanon to receive foreign assistance, alleging that funds from development projects were often embezzled. While it did not mention USAID specifically, the Bekaa Valley is one of the regions in which the organization had provided marijuana farmers with funding for alternative crops.
Barnhart, in response, said: “All the funds that we spend are U.S. taxpayer funds and we are held accountable for every single dollar we receive. Therefore we have very strict monitoring and evaluation for the criteria we have to follow.”