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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.3 (2004) 38-54

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Creating a New Era of Islamic-Western Relations by Supporting Community Development

In December 2002, US Secretary of State Colin Powell, speaking before an audience at the Heritage Foundation, remarked on the emergence of Islamic extremist movements: "A shortage of economic opportunities is a ticket to despair. Combined with rigid political systems, it is a dangerous brew indeed."1 Given the increasingly dangerous world we find ourselves in today, few would argue with this assessment. A year later, Secretary Powell visited Morocco, and showing the US government's willingness to back up its words with actions, announced a fourfold increase of economic aid to that country—to roughly $170 million over three years, starting in 2005. Leaving aside the size of the aid package, to many the real question is whether the international community, led by the United States, is willing to offer real economic assistance to the poor nations of the Islamic world in the form of aid that directly reaches communities and those most vulnerable to the messages of extremists. Actually, many such development programs already exist. Because they are typically modest in scale, they tend not to receive much attention from policy makers or the public. It is now time to turn a spotlight on them. For a relatively low cost, far less than that of typical aid programs,2 these off-the-radar programs may turn out to be some of the most [End Page 38] effective tools we have to combat the discontent that fuels political instability and terrorism. If Western countries vigorously supported this kind of assistance to Islamic nations, an era of regional stability and international security would ensue. Morocco offers a striking example.

Throughout the winter and spring of 2003, I was part of a Moroccan-American team of facilitators that organized interactive and widely participated in community meetings in the High Atlas Mountains, south of Marrakech. The villages in this region are among Morocco's poorest, with extremely high rates of infant mortality (mostly due to unclean drinking water), illiteracy, and joblessness. The population's dependence on fuel-wood for cooking and on grazing animals as their main source of income has contributed to massive deforestation and mountain erosion. The dialogue among community members, government officials, and nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives resulted in a $10 million development plan for the region. If funded, the plan will significantly help secure the economic, educational, health, and environmental future of fifty thousand people by establishing projects in potable water, modern irrigation, fruit and forestry tree planting, school construction, women's cooperatives, food production, mountain terracing, water-generated electricity, and artisan crafts. It is possible to estimate that the relatively small amount of $3 billion for similar community-designed development projects would be sufficient to bring prosperity to Morocco's rural population of 13 million people in a country of 30 million.3

What is the magic bullet, so to speak, of these projects? In general, community-wide participation in the design and management of development projects creates prosperity through a pluralist democratic process. By directly responding to its self-defined needs, the community has a strong incentive to maintain the projects its members establish. Around the globe, such projects [End Page 39] have diversified income, provided food and healthcare, furthered education, preserved natural resources, and forged public-private partnerships.4

In the process of communities working together to realize their development goals, they also establish local associations (civil-society institutions) to manage projects and create new ones.5 New tiers of cooperation then form as neighboring communities join together in implementing projects beneficial to the entire region.6 In brief, achieving local development through inclusive community dialogue has positive economic and political consequences.7 The diverse benefits can be immensely valuable for Middle Eastern and Muslim nations, as they would greatly increase international security by dealing directly with economic and social despair.

In the next section of this essay I look at some of the countries in the Islamic world and...


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