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Sheila Carapico. Political Aid and Arab Activism: Democracy Promotion, Justice, and Representation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 252.

Reviewed by: Wanda Krause (Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University; CEO Krause Consulting)

Political Aid and Arab Activism by Sheila Carapico, published in 2014, provides a refreshing perspective on the promotion of democracy and on politics of the Middle East. It analyzes the role of North American, European, and other transnational agencies in promoting human rights and democratization in the Middle East over the last two decades. It questions whether their involvement has served to promote Arab transitions from authoritarianism in the Middle East, or whether it retrenched Western hegemony instead. The book focuses on projects in Egypt, Palestine, and Iraq. It also discusses projects in Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, and in the Arab region, in general. Carapico emphasizes that the goal of the book is not to give policy advice, but to analyze policy and professional practice.

Security Council Votes Unanimously to Increase Humanitarian Aid in Syria. photo credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Carapico’s main question is not whether political aid worked, but rather how it worked. To understand the controversial and contradictory effects of political aid, Carapico analyzes discursive and professional practices adopted among researchers and practitioners across four key subfields: the rule of law, electoral design and monitoring, female empowerment, and civil society. From the institutional arrangements, such as Saddam Hussein’s trial and Palestinian elections, to frameworks applied for gender education or NGO development, Carapico’s research explores the paradoxes. Carapico concludes that professionals understand that these discursive and professional practices in law, elections, gender, and civil society intersect with international and domestic power arrangements in complicated ways.

Unlike other books on the topic, the author does not offer any straightforward answers to her questions, nor does she provide a straightforward argument. Instead, Carapico suggests that contradictory trajectories are at play. Her book corroborates findings from Jane Harrigan and Hamed El-Said’s book Aid and power in the Arab world (2009). These findings called into question the optimistic view of aid. They argue that many of the MENA countries, which are receiving aid through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, have not been successful. Carapico’s conclusions overlap with the critique of positive outcomes of aid found in Sahar Taghdisi-Rad’s 2010 book, The Political Economy of Aid in Palestine. Taghdisi-Rad’s book examined the nature of donor operations in Palestine and concluded that aid failed to achieve any lasting developmental outcomes. The complexity drawn out by Carapico through her comprehensive analysis provides a greater nuance to the topic of aid and adds depth by illustrating the paradoxes at the level of praxis.

Poor forage through trash in Cairo, Egypt. photo credit: UN Photo/Armineh Johannes.

Given the depth of the book’s analysis and its broad interdisciplinary focus, it is best suited to scholars, students, policy makers, activists, and donor agencies. The Political Aid and Arab Activism will be especially useful to those interested in civil society, gender, democracy, international relations, comparative legal studies, and globalization. The book cannot be categorized merely as a critique of power imbalances concerning political aid in the Middle East. Carapico’s work is pedagogical. She leverages the voices of local counterparts and intermediaries to broaden the reader’s understanding and to facilitate reflection among European and U.S.-based scholars and practitioners around macro-effects of programs, which they support in their quest to promote transitions from authoritarianism to democracy in the Middle East.

Carapico has done a comprehensive job of deconstructing the dominant narrative that supports the view of democracy promotion as spearheaded by the U.S., which she introduces at the beginning as ‘Uncle Sam’s soliloquy’. She does this to question an erroneous belief of a single super power in juxtaposition with the Middle East. For example, she shows that the U.S. is a major donor in only three of the countries located in the region. Carapico illustrates the inflated projection by using years and amounts of money transferred by donors for democratic development (pp. 11-17). She further challenges two views in the existing literature: a prescriptive, optimistic view, and a critical, opposing view. The optimistic view proposes that the U.S. should engage in activities enhancing the prospects for a transition from authoritarianism to a democracy in the Middle East. The critical and cynical opposing view sees the U.S.’s involvement as connected to American hegemony, and serving to stabilize elites and orchestrate the overthrow of adversaries. Through the inclusion of voices on the ground, Carapico amasses the evidence to show how Washington-based “democracy makers,” – think tanks, World Bank’s offices, the NGO sector, and the literature – as she calls them, have ignored and obscured the fact that such a juxtaposition does not exist. For her, the two views serve to inflate the role of the U.S. While we hear mostly about U.S. based donors in the media, Carapico observes that donors are international players with many of them situated in the EU.

Even though donors are cosmopolitan, this does not mean that their voices are differentiated. In other words, the agenda of the donors located in different countries may be similar. By analyzing the discourse, she shows that inter-governmental institutions and transnational regimes express universal values. Carapico argues that values are shared and concretized into a global governance regime through research, pedagogy, and institution building (p. 177). She illustrates the power of ideas in her work. For example, Carapico shows that ideas have been institutionalized in signatory conventions that are followed by the states. She demonstrates that aid then becomes not only a political tool practiced by a cosmopolitan scene of donors with shared universal values, but also one that produces power imbalances by enabling resources to flow to selected organizations, agents, and causes power imbalances. Carapaico details how a donors’ provision of expertise, technology, publicity, or funds to executive, judicial, legislative, or civic institutions affects the balance of power between governing bodies.

Carapico also dismantles the view that local democracy brokers, such as Arab jurists, election monitors, feminists, and civil society activists, are simply the recipients of aid and its discourse. They are not merely agents for Western governmentality in which they police themselves and conform to Western agendas. Carapico explains that many feminists and others advocating for justice, free elections, and civic agency in the Middle East have concluded that foreign funding is inherently political and paradoxical. Representing their views, Carapico further shows that these groups are also activists, who favour human rights, empowerment, and the rule of law. Oftentimes, these groups bring different perspectives. Examining a report on a project for Yemeni women, that “clearly signified voting as positive and ‘sharia’ as negative,” Carapico illustrates, how reports blatantly ignore actual discourse on the ground. In the Yemeni case “some female raconteurs held Islamic law in higher esteem” (p. 122).

In a quest to uncover the bigger picture, Carapico teases out the paradoxes of the phenomena by reflecting on the contradictions that promote Arab transitions. She looks at the mixed motives and messages of political aid, convergences of empowerment and ‘power over’, and the ethical and practical dilemmas. Instead of viewing aid as promoting liberalization or hegemony, many see both occurring at the same time. Carapico argues that the U.S.’s political hegemony exercised through aid can be in conflict with international institutions, human rights norms, and norms of non-intervention. She points out that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) apply universal laws selectively. For example, more attention is provided to drug trafficking than to humane treatment in prison. Carapico says that paradoxes among gender programming occur in the sense of “merging of aspirational messages of self-realization with a rescue paradigm, and political in the same ways as any infusion of resources into a competitive environment” (p. 113). Sometimes, women find themselves stuck between the patronizing of Arab men and patronizing of Western feminists (pp. 113-114). The author discusses how the project is not always clear on whether it is aimed to promote democracy or to keep the heads of state in power to ensure stability. Carapico highlights the cases of Egypt and Yemen. She points out that “[m]ilitary Order No. 4 of 1992 banned independent relief efforts, directing that all local and international donations be channelled through the Egyptian Red Crescent, chaired by First Lady Suzanne Mubarak and overseen by the Ministry of Social Affairs” (p. 158).

Egyptian IOM Volunteers Assist Refugees from Libya. photo credit: UN Photo/OCHA/David Ohana.

Political Aid and Arab Activism ranks as one of the most important works published on the involvement of Western and other transnational agencies in Arab transitions from authoritarianism. The book fills a critical gap on the complexities of aid, especially at the practical level. The book dismantles the undifferentiated notion of a ‘democracy promotion’ through pertinent examples and country case studies. Thereby, the book exposes the exact roles of local experts, the precise pathways of donor involvement, and the agency of actors on the ground. Political Aid and Arab Activism differs from the books that provide a one-sided perspective, singular argument, or a glimpse of the broad factors at play. Carapico intricately weaves together numerous on-the-ground perspectives with evidence-based analysis to provide a whole picture of great complexity with reference to aid in the Middle East. The author deserves praise for her presentation of a highly nuanced analysis of a topic of significant importance to macro-level politics involving the role of aid.


Harrigan, Jane and El-Said, Hamed (2009) Aid and power in the Arab world: World Bank and IMF policy-based lending in the Middle East and North Africa. London: Palgrave.

Taghdisi-Rad, Sahar (2010) The Political Economy of Aid: Relief from Conflict or Development Delayed? London: Routledge.