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Foundation Silence on the Middle East

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It would appear that my many foundation colleagues and their institutions are failing miserably to recognize the remarkable and lightning-quick changes taking place throughout the Middle East. There is basically radio silence from our sector on this subject, and frankly, it's disappointing. It's also a failing of the social contract we have with society.

Foundations live outside the tax system, enjoying all the benefits of taxpayers, while contributing nothing to the costs. Indeed, it can be argued correctly that foundations siphon billions from the public coffers by allowing the wealthy to divert what would be taxable funds to institutions they control or influence. The quid pro quo is that they are poised to act on critical concerns facing society, and to do so from the unique position of being neither government nor private enterprise, each of which has its own sectoral constraints.

Like many Americans, I've watched in amazement as the remarkable wildfire of protests in the Middle East spread from Tunisia to Egypt, and now beyond to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, and Iran. It is clear that something profound is happening. At the same time, neither major party in the US can seem to figure out the best way -- or any way, really -- to respond publicly to this political and social sea change. FOX pundits -- the closest thing to a conservative voice these days -- find themselves bending like pretzels to find fault with the street demonstrations that have removed long-standing dictators from power by calling for true democracy with virtually the same language that George Bush used to argue for a 'regime change' in Iraq and Afghanistan that sent thousands of American to their deaths to achieve. Of course, not all conservatives condemn the democratic motives of the demonstrators, but most do.

Among progressives, we don't see much difference. Some admire the bravery of the young people who are doing in their contexts what many of us did here in the 60's and 70's to stop the Vietnam War. Others are so worried about the "loss of stability," that they are willing to do what they can to keep some of these characters in power despite their clear loss of internal support. (That, of course, is what got us in trouble in Vietnam, but I digress.) Even the Administration seems confused and hesitant.

Their fears are not unwarranted. Israel sees itself at risk and may very well come to regret its failure to come to terms with the Palestinians during these past years of stability in Egypt and elsewhere. We have strategic bases at risk in Bahrain and elsewhere. And our allies in Europe may find their dependency on Middle East oil (ours is far smaller) to be problematic in coming years if the movements for democracy take hold in Saudi Arabia and other producing countries. It is truly a remarkable time.

Our government is confused. Our allies are fearful and largely silent. The private sector hardly ever will expose itself to criticism by taking sides in social or political disputes in other countries (Google and its stand in China against censorship is a brave exception). The one sector that can take risks to stand for principal and which could make a real contribution here is the non-profit sector. Human Rights Watch clearly has done, and continues to do, the right thing, monitoring abuses and bringing them to world attention, but there are few other examples one can see here.

Why haven't foundations in the US done what some did during the Civil Rights movement to create support for those leading the movements for democracy? Why haven't we funded the few news organizations that can actually reach into the region effectively, like Democracy Now!, to vastly expand their coverage? Why haven't they formed a collaborative approach with intermediaries able to give support to these nascent movements for media, logistics, and experts to help them with their negotiations with transitional governments? Why haven't they convened the best and the brightest folks in the US to recommend enlightened ways for the US government to relate to these emerging movements and their leaders? Why haven't they at least tried to make a difference?

The simple answer, I suppose, is that they don't have to. The social contract with foundations is that they are relatively unfettered by government or other outside influences. But to maintain that contract, they have to contribute substantively by doing things government and private enterprise can't or won't do. The youth movements to democratize and open up the social and economic institutions of what have been secular authoritarian regimes deserve our support. And, if we step up now, we have a chance to transform America's image and role in a region where both have been in decline for decades. Seems worth the risk, no? After all, foundations are created to survive any failure so as to permit them to take risks just like this.