The Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust—A new partnership

by Senator Richard G. Lugar
To learn the status of development in the countries of the Greater Middle East, it is best to ask experts from those countries themselves. That’s just what the United Nations did, and the answers have raised concerns both in the region and elsewhere.

Per capita income growth has been the lowest in the world outside sub-Saharan Africa. Labor productivity is low and has been declining. The whole Arab world translates only 330 books each year, one-fifth the number that Greece translates. Sixty-five million adults in the Arab world are illiterate, almost two-thirds of them women. Only 1.6 percent of the population has Internet access, and the quality of the education system is declining.

These are some of the important findings from the two U.N. Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs 2002, 2003), written by independent teams of Arab academics and researchers. While the region has eliminated most dire poverty, “it is richer than it is developed,” the experts found. They concluded that despite its natural resources and the talent of its people, the region has been overwhelmed by three important deficits: the lack of freedom; the lack of women’s empowerment; and the lack of knowledge, particularly with regard to science and technology, computers and the Internet.

Many of us believe that these factors—the isolation from the modern world, the hopelessness felt by young people with few prospects, frustration at falling behind other regions, the absence of political expression, low education levels—help foster, at least in part, extremist organizations and their terrorist ideologies, which have global reach.

That’s why I proposed, in a speech in Washington in March, a new partnership of Western, Asian and Middle East countries willing to join a “Greater Middle East 21st Century Trust.” This Trust would promote common interests in improved governance, economic and educational reform and empowerment of women.

At the heart of the Lugar Trust concept is a social compact between the donor countries and the recipient governments that does not impose a plan from outside, but instead works with each beneficiary to develop priorities. The Trust would pool money from the G-8 countries (the U.S., Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia and Japan) as well as from rich countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to deliver grants based on high-priority needs identified by the nations themselves.

Vigorous two-way interaction between donors and recipients is vital: change cannot be dictated by outsiders. The Lugar Trust concept is based on new aid models, like the G-8 Africa plan, that require each project to meet specific performance criteria, so that progress can be measured. Programs would be proposed by the recipient countries, and accepted or rejected by the Trust based on standards it sets--thus the beneficiaries can claim “ownership” of the reform process. The Trust could be structured along Islamic financial principles.

Similarly, the Trust would go beyond the primary development paradigm of growth, infrastructure and health. It would help realize what the AHDRs called “a restructuring of the region from within.” This would include political reform to give citizens more space to think and to have a voice. As the 2003 AHDR notes, political instability and struggles for power “in the absence of….democracy… impede the growth of knowledge on Arab soil.”

I recognize that many of the policies that have hobbled the Greater Middle East have been endorsed by the region’s governments. They will have to see change as serving their long-term interest. The Trust will seek to engage all elements of society, “the state, civil society, cultural and mass media institutions, enlightened intellectuals and the public at large,” as the Development Report puts it.

My proposal was developed separately from the Bush administration’s plan, which has met some resistance in the region. I hope the Lugar Trust concept will revive discussion about those ideas. I understand that, regrettably, any proposal labeled “Made in America” will be viewed with suspicion. That’s why the Lugar Trust concept includes European and Arab countries. It’s also not a traditional development bank, but rather a vehicle for action whose course would be determined by the countries of the region themselves.

In my speech, I acknowledged that the search for stability in the Greater Middle East must proceed hand in hand with the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Development Report calls the conflict “a contributing factor to the region’s democratic deficit, providing both a cause and an excuse for distorting the development agenda.” I supported bringing moderate Arab countries more directly into the peace process, and offering them a future role in rehabilitating the Palestinian Authority.

Change is in the air, as shown by Bibliotheca Alexandria’s successful March conference on Arab Reform Issues, which called reform “necessary and urgent.” But the abrupt postponement just days later of the Arab summit in Tunis shows reform is controversial. By working as partners with the countries of the Greater Middle East, we can encourage reform and create broad opportunities for millions of people to enjoy more promising lives for themselves and their children.

- Republican of Indiana, Chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This article is part of a series of views on the America’s "Greater Middle East" initiative for reform, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
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A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East
A view from Washington
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective
Let us be Democratic about Democracy
The Greater Middle East Initiative
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East
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Other articles in this series

A Small State for Palestinians: A Great Step for the Greater Middle East by Gidi Grinstein
A view from Washington by Pamela and Robert Pelletreau
Reform in the Arab World: Tensions and Challenges by Shafeeq Ghabra
Promoting Reform Efforts in the Middle East by Nizar Abdel-Kader
The Greater Middle East Initiative, a Turkish Perspective by Dr. Duygu Bazoglu Sezer
Let us be Democratic about Democracy by Dr. Abdul Aziz Said
The Greater Middle East Initiative by Richard W. Murphy
The Greater Middle East: Moving Beyond Mutual Refutation to What is Required by Hazem Saghiyeh
Reform in the Arab World Requires that True Intellectuals Speak Out by Daoud Kuttab
Difficult but necessary: a joint strategy to promote political reform in the Middle East by Dr. Steven Everts