Madrid – It appears the initial widespread enthusiasm over the so-called “Arab Spring” is fading away quickly, now that hard challenges and bitter facts have started to surface in different areas of the Arab world. There is hope and optimism that these revolutions, mass protests, uprisings or opposition movements — whatever terminology may suit the anti-regime action in each different country — may lead to something positive in the future, as the process will take generations to unfold. But in the short run, Turkey and other countries’ shortcomings in dealing with many Arab countries will become apparent, as has been clearly demonstrated by the example of Turkey’s neighbor Syria, where the opposition is in disarray.
Participants at a workshop in Madrid last week called “Cooperation with the Arab world: a new scenario for communication,” organized jointly by the Spanish Agency for Cooperation in International Development (AECID) and Rome-based Inter Press Service News Agency, (IPS) sought some answers to these tough questions. Our colleagues from the Arab world as well as from Western countries of the Mediterranean worked to arrive at solutions for the upcoming challenges arising from the Arab Spring.
In light of the developments taking place in many restive countries, the paramount question for developed countries and emerging economies is how best to channel the development aid to countries in need of assistance. Spain and Turkey, as co-chairs of the UN-led Alliance of Civilization (AoC) initiative on the opposite side of the Mediterranean basin, can cooperate effectively to address many of the problems in the region. I think we will face two major challenges when it comes to directing the development aid flowing to Arab countries. One is the need to devise new tools to cope with decades-long poverty, hunger and political instability in some Arab and African states, and the other is to go about shoring up the democratic development of the Arab Spring countries, looking especially to the opposition in autocratic countries, where anti-government movements are taking a strong foothold.
Everyone recognizes what needs to be done with respect to poor Arab and African countries in need of assistance due to drought and hunger. The Arab Spring should not overshadow the pressing need to meet basic the requirements of daily life in some countries. Access to better health care and sanitation, and addressing food and water shortages must come before the establishment of democracy, as millions of lives are at risk. But we have to develop new strategies to solve these issues. Providing cash or rushing food stocks will not really solve the problem in countries like Somalia or Kenya. It may provide temporary relief to the population, which is no small accomplishment by any standards. But the real problem lies with structuring assistance to these countries so that they can become self-sustaining.
We all know that it is necessary to invest in agriculture, rural development, environment, infrastructure, education, the empowerment of women, health, and micro-credit development programs. We have been employing these tools for some time now. Other than stating the obvious, we have to come up with new strategy to address the crucial question of how to sustain development aid so that it bears fruit in the long term. I think the solution lies in the state-public partnership effort to mobilize all assets when rushing to the assistance of poverty-stricken nations. If the development effort is limited to state agencies or leading international NGOs, then public interest in the plight of aid recipients will evaporate with the passing of media interest. I’m not advocating something like the Public-Private Partnership, or P3 as it was called, but rather something that should cut across all public and private enterprises. It should be a national endeavor to mobilize all available assets at all levels.
We also have to fight for increased awareness among a donor country’s public, which in turn will transform itself into increased awareness among the recipient country’s public. A case in point is the initiative Turkey undertook last month during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, to send aid to poverty-stricken Somalia. The government and NGOs worked hand-in-hand to raise funds across Turkey, and the media paid special attention to the suffering and famine in Somalia. First-page news headlines helped raise awareness in Turkey to the point that even first graders donated their allowances to Somalia.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu on Aug. 19, becoming the first head of government to do so in 20 years. He risked his life to arrive in Mogadishu, the most volatile and dangerous city in the world, in order to draw international attention to the famine sweeping across the Horn of Africa. He was accompanied by his family and five cabinet ministers as well as two planes full of celebrities, journalists, NGO workers, and businessmen. All these people saw how terrible the situation is on the ground with their own eyes. When they came back, these people generated lots of stories in the Turkish media.
The visit came on the heels of an emergency meeting held by the member countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on Aug. 17 in Istanbul. The OIC pledged $350 million in aid to fight the famine, which has left 3.7 million Somalis at risk of dying of hunger. It was interesting to note that private donors in Turkey, ordinary citizens, matched or exceeded the amount of the contributions the OIC was able to raise at its Istanbul conference. This shows the power of communication and media to mobilize average citizens.
The second challenge for development aid in our times comes with the Arab Spring, in which anti-government movements in several countries have succeeded in overtaking repressive regimes or are in the process of doing so. In Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, revolutionary movements have forced authoritarian regimes out of power. Now they need assistance in consolidating political and constitutional reform, democratic development and election organizing. In other places like Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, where the opposition is still demanding rights from established regimes, people need assistance to organize a coherent opposition strategy without throwing these countries into a vicious cycle of violence.
I think we should focus on empowering the youth in these countries, as they represent the best hope for a change in the future. Educational assistance should be provided, with scholarships for bright students and training on how to establish civil society groups and NGOs and how to manage them afterwards. The funding matters greatly in authoritarian regimes. As a media professional, I would say networking is also important. Just as we have seen how beneficial social media have been to Arab street demonstrations, we also realized the risks associated with the unconfirmed reports making their way onto the airways or into the print media.
Young journalists need to be trained in the ethics of media reporting and on how to conduct themselves professionally, to avoid the pitfalls of erroneous or exaggerated reporting. Partnerships with local media can be helpful for big media outlets which are feeling increasing tension under economic difficulties. If we succeed in creating a pool of talent that can help exchange reliable information in the future, we could establish a healthy dialogue with these countries. For that we have no choice but to invest in the youth. Education is a key to success in this undertaking. We can create internship programs, provide grants and offer training seminars to qualified candidates. Some development aid could be earmarked for programs like these.