11.01.2021

A Decade of Disincentivizing Democratic Change

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the “Arab Spring”, a number of articles have been published highlighting the limits of political change – and democratic progress – in the Middle East and North Africa since the uprisings. In taking stock of political developments over the last decade, however, it is also worth considering the influence of donor countries on this limited political change.

Shifts in development aid since the “Arab Spring” have transformed civil society landscapes in the region, undermining the ability of civil society to support democratic reform. In Jordan, it transformed a cohort of democracy-focused organizations into intermediaries that deliver depoliticized, supply-driven programing.

When the “Arab Spring” erupted, civil society landscapes across the region had already been neoliberalized and securitized. The former began in the mid-to-late 1990s when the structural adjustment programs of the “Washington Consensus” gave way to a “softer” neoliberalism that emphasized the benefits of good governance. With increased emphasis placed on the engagement of a wider range of actors, civil society was identified as a key stakeholder with which governments should partner to foster good governance. Emphasis was consequently placed on partnering with local organizations that possessed the desired isomorphic qualities of international development, which encouraged the professionalization of civil society.

The effects of this near-hegemonic neoliberal development paradigm were augmented by the subsequent securitization of foreign aid. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, security concerns moved center stage for donors, frequently trumping the Millennium Development Goals that were agreed to on the eve of al Qaeda’s attack.

The effects of this “armoured neoliberalism” were intensified in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring”. In the Jordanian context, the onslaught of the Syrian war, the consequent refugee crisis, and the growing threat of Daesh yielded significant changes in the policies of the Jordanian government and its international benefactors.

These shifts occurred for two reasons. Firstly, donors in Jordan had to reprioritize their funding in response to the refugee influx. And secondly, in the midst of the regional crises, the geostrategic importance of Jordan expanded, encouraging the donor community to place increased emphasis on safeguarding the stability of the Kingdom. As a result, most donors grew increasingly unwilling to back contentious civil society engagements, instead supporting organizations that could buttress Jordanian stability.

These changes had a profound impact on a group of democracy-focused Jordanian organizations. These organizations had emerged during the decade or two before the “Arab Spring”. In line with the softer neoliberalism, international actors seized upon them in the 1990s and 2000s, providing significant support to scale up and professionalize their operations as well as fund their efforts to pursue (often contentious) socio-political reforms.

After the “Arab Spring”, this support changed drastically, reflecting the sharpened focus on security and stability. Myriad funding mechanisms remained, but the organizations complained that opportunities for co-creation were dwindling while supply-led programing grew in prominence. These complaints were not entirely accurate; programing remained partly demand led, but the demands were increasingly dictated by the Government of Jordan, not civil society.

Despite their frustration with the shifting aid environment, the democracy-focused organizations were eager to not be left behind. Already familiar with the ins and outs of the development industry, they repositioned themselves as attractive funding options for the new programing priorities. They quickly adopted the dictions of good governance and stability and framed themselves as experts of the technical areas coming into vogue.

As a result, Jordan saw the emergence of a cohort of organizations that have, in other contexts, been referred to as “intermediary organizations”. These intermediaries received high levels of donor funding. They were contracted both for the provision of “local” input into programing as well as for a range of requisite services, including organizational capacity building, training and staff development, research and advocacy, collection and dissemination of information, and networking.

Over the past decade, these intermediaries have tried to maintain their independence and avoid becoming “too close for comfort” to their donors,1 but they have had to abandon their more contentious goals – their democratic goals.

As a result, the genesis of intermediary organizations in Jordan’s post-“Arab Spring” landscape has marked the disappearance of a key pillar of democracy promotion in the Kingdom.

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*For more on intermediary organizations, see the author’s contribution “Supporting Civil Society: Jordan’s Changing Development Landscape” in the forthcoming Canada and the Middle East, eds. Bessma Momani and Thomas Juneau (University of Toronto Press).

E.J. Karmel is a PhD candidate at the University of Guelph in Canada.


1David Hulme and Michael Edwards, eds. NGOs, States and Donors: Too Close for Comfort? (London: Macmillan, 1997)

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