- Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation by Sheila Carapico
Over the last decade, international funding for democracy promotion has expanded significantly as has scholarly interest in understanding the efficacy and impact of this aid on processes of democratization. Much of the existing research on democracy aid exploring this line of inquiry has often relied on quantitative cross-national analysis using data on democracy aid provided by donor governments and international organizations to arrive at conclusions about the effectiveness of this aid in producing democracy. Details and specifics of individual projects are difficult to parse out, if at all, from such data relaying a lopsided portrait of this aid and obscuring the contested nature of the aid itself.
How do donors define democracy? How do they compile aid data? What metrics are used to gauge its ability to foster democratization? How are projects and aid recipients chosen? These questions underscore the politics inherent in democracy promotion — a point well-known to scholars and practitioners of this aid. Despite this, there has been relatively little engagement with the contested nature of democracy aid data, the mechanics of this aid, and the interests, idea, and motivations animating projects that are funded by a vast constellation of actors engaged in democracy aid. Sheila Carapico’s latest book, Political Aid and Arab Activism, is thus a welcome and critical contribution to the literature on democracy aid and foreign assistance and for those seeking a nuanced analysis of aid and processes of change in the Middle East.
Carapico brings a critical perspective to the study of democracy aid in the Middle East as a scholar with extensive experience studying that region’s politics as well as her past experience as a practitioner working on election monitoring in Yemen. Her analysis focuses on transnational democracy aid in the Middle East: a region that has been the site of intense efforts by the international community to promote democracy particularly in the last decade. She is not concerned with asking whether democracy aid works, but rather, wants to know how it works. The research strategy she employs to answer this question is one that is interdisciplinary in approach, engaging debates and ideas at the intersections of sociology, political science, [End Page 157] and anthropology to explore the meanings behind democracy promotion. To investigate how this aid has worked in the region, she does extensive participant observation coupled with analysis of reports, evaluations, and commentaries produced by experts, academics, and practitioners with first-hand knowledge and experience working on aid projects. Aid projects were directed primarily to nine Arab countries, many of which she notes are often thought of as moderate, Western-leaning states. Her analysis focuses on these countries but also encompasses aid spent on transnational conferences and networks to promote democracy in the region.
Carapico acknowledges the difficulty inherent in navigating the volume and range of reports to make sense of the mechanics of aid in the region. She manages to handle the task with admirable dexterity, with analysis structured into four chapters that reflect key subfields within the field of democracy assistance: aid for promoting the rule of law, elections, gender, and civil society. Each chapter builds nicely on those that precede it and balances broad analysis and discussion of dynamics across the region with specific case studies of projects within states. The result is a richly detailed, nuanced, and thoughtful examination of the politics that underlie and shape transnational aid projects in the Middle East. Her chapters on civic activism and election monitoring in particular provide insightful discussion on the production of knowledge by donors in reinforcing specific modes of aid that often run counter to or ignore local context and actors engaged in activism. This disconnection between international concerns and localized struggle resonates throughout the text, underscoring the contradictions of this form of aid. Rather than support activism in the region, aid projects may actually suppress it, or be irrelevant altogether. This point comes across clearly through Carapico’s analysis and is...