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Ben Barber Headshot

Foreign Aid Is a Very Sad Weapon

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I see that once more the U.S. government is threatening to cut off aid to millions of hungry and illiterate people -- this time in Egypt -- to punish their government for annoying America by refusing to follow Washington's instructions.

And once more these threats are making America even more resented. Some say you can't buy love. In some seedy neighborhoods they say "you can rent it."

But if you hope to win friends and influence people through aid, threatening to withhold promised assistance certainly will win enemies and influence people to oppose us.

Ironically, we threaten to cut aid to countries where the people who might get the food, medicine, school books and other aid, have absolutely no control or responsibility for the actions of their governments.

North Korea sets off a dud missile in April and the United States blocks 240,000 tons of American food aid to starving people -- who have absolutely no ability to influence the North Korean government.

We blocked international aid to Sri Lanka because it ignored U.S. demands it investigate charges that the army killed civilians herded as human shields by the Tamil Tiger rebels, hoping to prolong a 25 year civil war. I'd spent some dangerous days traveling with the Tigers during warfare by Indian peacekeepers and Sri Lankan troops and concluded they were simple peasants corralled by devious Tiger thugs masquerading as ethnic nationalists. (But I must acknowledge the Tigers treated me and two other journalists with respect and kindness that they did not show to their own people.)

Now we are telling Egypt's army it must obey U.S. demands and hand over power to civilians. And not just any civilians. The Muslim Brotherhood, which most Egyptians fear, intends to create a religious state akin to Saudi Arabia or Iran.

The United States refuses to learn the lessons of recent history. In 2006, both the Palestinian Authority and Israel had predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot -- Hamas -- would win upcoming elections and asked they be cancelled.

But NO, said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The elections are the new God. They will go forth in all speed and henceforth Gaza shall be known as Democratic.

Not so fast. In fact, after Hamas won the elections, it took over Gaza with tough thugs in black uniforms, making it a mini-fascist state run by the party. It is the only Islamist state in the world that was put in place by an election. Even Iran had the tradition and respect for the old ways to install its theocracy by means of an armed uprising of the "people" meaning the ones who had enough power to suppress the others.

So here we go again.

Millions of Egyptians stand between two evils: a revival of the old Mubarak-style regime or the power hungry and aggressive moralists of the Brotherhood.

Already the Islamists have threatened to force women to stay at home and abandon the workplace, reduce marriage age to 16, ban women from the presidency, support female genital mutilation, remove woman's right to no-fault divorce and give children to fathers in a divorce. The Brotherhood promised to run for a minority of parliament seats and not to seek the presidency -- but they reneged on both promises. They told simple peasants that to vote for the Brotherhood is to vote for God.

Who are we to force Egypt's army to hand over power to these people?

Why are senior U.S. Defense and State Department officials threatening to cut off military and possibly civilian aid when Egyptians already resent the aid, telling pollsters they believe it is only given to bribe senior officials and to force Egypt to back U.S. foreign policy directives?

I have walked through many of the teeming streets of Cairo and through villages in the Nile delta. People are generally sweet and friendly. They work hard, planting their corn and vegetables, raising water from canals to irrigate fields and hawking shoes and beads and everything in between from tiny huts to shiny shops on Talaat Harb Street.

I know that many live on a dollar or two a day and can barely feed their children. They need family planning, medical care, education, and -- above all -- peace and security.

One of the finest Egyptians I ever met was a young Muslim cleric who used his mosque as a meeting place for young families who could learn about family planning, which he told them was not in conflict with Islamic teaching.

But the Brotherhood is a different order of thing. Members have to work for years to rise through the ranks. They are required to be obedient to the rulings of the leadership which expels dissident voices and enforces a rigid hierarchy and ideological purity that eliminates all independent thinking.

Is this what U.S. officials are trying to force Egypt to install in power? Has our own doctrinaire belief in our own image grown so dulling to our senses that we imagine the magic word democracy can transform an Islamist frog into a liberal democracy with a kiss from the ballot box?

Let's step back for a moment. Let's shut up about the aid. Let the Egyptians work their future out in ways that are acceptable in their culture. We've already learned that many of those who come to power in U.S. type elections leave power 20 years later at the point of bayonets.

We anointed Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai with democracy's blessings in costly elections, but he then allowed relatives and friends to loot its banks and rob the people of the little wealth they own. In one northern city a farmer considering a U.S. crop substitution program told me that he would switch from opium to wheat only after the police chief stops growing opium on his fields.

Sometimes it is hard for our evangelical nation, steeped in the view that we are "exceptional," to accept that what others decide for themselves is probably best for them.

It sometime hurts. Young girls in the mainly Tajik Badakshan province of Afghanistan told me they now cover their faces with the Burka for fear a man twice or three times their age should find them pretty and demand them in marriage, showing their guns to the girl's father as an un-veiled threat. This was while tens of thousands of U.S. troops patrolled the country. Can you imagine what those girls' lives will be like once we are gone? It will be horrible and there is little we can do about it.

We need to rethink what we are hoping to accomplish with our foreign aid. Is it aimed to support U.S. national security, as USAID leaders often say, hoping to win Congressional support?

Or is aid aimed at helping the poorest of the poor, regardless of the geopolitics of the moment?
How do we deliver aid without seeming to be bribing local officials and buying their support?
Can we muster up the dispassion and thoughtfulness to explore the cultures we assist, find the levers to help women advance and promote innovation without triggering the backlash of the old timers?

One wise aid program in Nepal was faced with ignorant local healers who told parents to withhold fluids from babies dying from dysentery. So aid groups trained young medical teams to work with the old healers, teaching them to use oral rehydration therapy to cure dysentery. This merged old and new cultures.

Above all, let's not force Egypt, standing today at a historic cliff edge, to leap into a new Islamist age because America wants to push its weight around.