Countries yearning for freedom should be priorities for development support

This article was published in The Wall Street Journal 

How to build democracies in the Mideast 

9 March 2011 

The revolts in Arab and Maghreb nations as well as the Green Movement in Iran are an opportunity to reshape Western policy in the region. In his speech in Kuwait last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron called for reforms there, for rule of law, and for freedom of association. Mr. Cameron quoted his favorite political philosopher, Edmund Burke, saying that such reform is vital to conserving liberty. Few would disagree. But how to make it happen?

The recent past offers several examples. The most famous is the Marshall Plan, which was as much a political vote of confidence in European democracy as it was a financial transfer. Later, in the 1970s, to consolidate democracy after the end of Spanish and Portuguese dictatorship, Germany and Nordic nations sent down hundreds of political organizers and millions of pesetas and escudos to support post-authoritarian political parties. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the U.S. back into the International Labor Organization and used trade unions to support Polish Solidarity. He also sent an African-American to be Ambassador to apartheid South Africa, as U.S. and European trade unions worked with multinationals to show how freedom of association was a fundamental element of stable democratic rule.

Today Britain could set up a Foundation for Democracy Development to provide an all-party source of income, travel grants, and overseas seminars for Arabic and Farsi speakers in Britain to turn Mr. Cameron’s appeal into a practical, step-by-step plan for economic freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. The City and Bank of England could make clear that credit lines will be available for independent business operations in Tunisia and Egypt.

In the House of Commons on Monday Mr. Cameron told me: “I very much support the whole idea of greater party-to-party contacts and political contacts, and building up what I call the building blocks of democracy in terms of civil society and political parties. This is an area in which Britain has expertise and excellence.”

Mr. Cameron should ask employers and trade unions to release Arab-speaking experts to go and help the wannabe democracies along North Africa’s shoreline, as well as finding ways of helping the Iranian people striving for freedom. The model should be the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which under different administrations has promoted democratic change around the world. It is soft power with muscle, unafraid in rejecting the cultural relativism that both the left and the advocates of stability-over-liberty use to argue that “Western values” cannot be imposed on the East. The values Mr. Cameron mentions are universal and as much the right of the poorest Nile farmer or Iranian student as they are of European intellectuals.

Britain spends £8.4 billion per year on charity for Third World countries, despite mounting evidence that giving money to unreformed corrupt states that reject open markets, free press, and rule of law, simply allows authoritarians to maintain their grip on power. London does have a small outfit called the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, but its budget equals less than 0.005% of Britain’s foreign-aid allocations. If Mr. Cameron wants to put flesh on his calls for democracy he should insert the concept of democracy development alongside the ineffective poverty-reduction charity work that currently occupies British time and resources.

Tunisia and Egypt have received nothing from Britain in recent years while cash was poured into Zimbabwe and other authoritarian states further south. A small adjustment in spending would mean that the Arab countries yearning for freedom, as well as other countries willing to take the reform road, could now be priorities for British development support. The vested interests of the aid lobby may cry “foul,” but the best way to eradicate poverty is to promote democracy. A British Foundation for Democracy Development would begin that work.