Monday, April 25, 2011

BOOKS OR GUNS?

MENA Protests

We often read that exporting training and educational materials to change people’s perspectives on democracy and improve their organizational skills is a lot more effective than exporting guns and military programs— and a lot cheaper. Too seldom do we see the evidence that this is true. An article in The New York Times, “U.S. Groups Helped Nurture Arab Opposition,” provides ample support of the thesis that training can be a powerful tool for positive political change.

The article points out that the U.S. democracy building campaign in the Middle East, through such NGOs as Freedom House and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, while cost-wise very minute compared to what the Pentagon spends, played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known. Leaders were trained by Americans in campaign and coalition organizing and using new media tools, among other techniques.

According to the article, American officials assured skeptical governments that the training was aimed at reform, not promoting revolution. But there is no question it fomented dissent. Activists objected that the same U.S. government trained the state security investigative services, which harassed and jailed many of them. While the Middle East leadership saw the U.S. democracy education program as a conflict of interest, it is clear that at least in this situation—at this particular time—the education strategy may have been more potent than the more costly military one.

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