The Rise of Global Civil Society
by Don Eberly
Encounter Books, 2008
300 pp., $27.95
The Rise of Global Civil Society is an ambitious book with an ambitious title. In roughly 300 pages of text, Don Eberly explores global poverty, foreign aid, philanthropy, corporate social responsibility, microfinance, anti-Americanism, Islamic extremism, the war on terror, Iraq, democracy promotion, nation-building—and more. For many authors, that might be a bridge too far. Yet Eberly’s book benefits from an exhaustive amount of research and reporting. While written for a general audience, it offers strikingly nuanced and sophisticated analysis.
At root, it is a defense of globalization. “The problem with much of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America is too little globalization,” writes Eberly, who served as an aide to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush and has also worked as a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department. In the course of his impressive global survey, Eberly dispels some popular misconceptions about America’s role in the world.
Take the issue of foreign aid. The United States is routinely denounced for being “stingy” in its allocation of official development assistance (ODA). In aggregate terms, America is far and away the world’s biggest aid donor; but its “aid-to-GDP ratio” ranks very poorly among advanced Western countries. Along with other critics, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs cites this as proof that the United States is guilty of dereliction in the fight against poverty.
Yet, as Eberly notes, ODA statistics do not include “the many forms of engagement sponsored by the American private sector, including philanthropies, universities, businesses, and hundreds of religious and humanitarian enterprises that are producing results, often more effectively than government assistance programs.” This is a significant omission, for “America’s commitment of private sector resources far exceeds that of other nations and is growing every year, with private contributions to developing countries representing 62 percent of all worldwide charitable contributions.”
Following the 2004 Asian tsunami, Eberly served as the State Department’s “director of private sector outreach and coordination for tsunami reconstruction.” He points out that American individuals and businesses “gave $1.6 billion in private donations to the affected area.” In fact, “that figure understates the actual amount of private sector donations because it does not include the hundreds of millions that flowed into American NGOs from international donors, nor does it include amounts raised by religious congregations or denominations sent directly to partners on the ground.”
Such assistance would not count as ODA. “Neither would remittances, which are now over $60 billion per year,” and neither would U.S. military spending on emergency relief and nation-building in places such as the Balkans. “Two decades ago,” Eberly observes, “70 percent of the resource flow to developing countries was official development assistance, whereas today, over 80 percent of all outflows come in the form of private philanthropy, remittances, and foreign direct investment.”
Though Eberly has kind words for Jeffrey Sachs, he is clearly partial to the aid strategy advocated by Sachs’ “principal nemesis,” New York University professor and former World Bank economist William Easterly, who has called for a “piecemeal approach” that focuses on small-scale, narrowly targeted initiatives and constant accountability. In his 2006 book, The White Man’s Burden, Easterly stresses that aid programs should be tailored to fit “local conditions,” and that “most solutions” to poverty in the developing world “must be homegrown.” Like Easterly, Eberly recognizes that sound governance and the rule of law are inseparable from economic growth and development. Sending massive dollops of aid to corrupt regimes can be a total waste: witness the recent history of Nigeria and Kenya.
“The general verdict on the impact of foreign aid is not very positive,” Eberly says. But he is hopeful that a new model for development is gaining currency. This model emphasizes “bottom-up” solutions, rather than “top-down bureaucracy,” and close cooperation with the private sector, including business firms, NGOs, faith-based organizations, grantmaking foundations, and universities. For example: “Partnering with Cisco and Hewlett Packard, USAID helped create a multimillion-dollar global e-learning endeavor that resulted in the creation of 239 academies with strong local control in 60 Third World countries, with 700 instructors training 10,000 students.”
Throughout the book, Eberly tempers his optimism with reminders that promoting global civil society will be a frustrating, fitful process. He cheers the worldwide proliferation of NGOs, but also realizes that many of them are jaundiced by anti-capitalist and anti-American prejudices. (“Global advocacy groups with an ideological agenda have often been more committed to opposing American business or foreign policy than to genuinely helping the poor.”)
While he lauds the expansion of microfinance—giving small loans to the poor—as “a major breakthrough for poverty reduction,” he notes that, despite its promise, it “is not a panacea for poverty.” Microcredit programs have been hampered by the paucity of reliable infrastructure in many rural areas, and they have often failed to work in tandem with local institutions. They have been most effective in countries or regions where local credit and saving organizations have played a leading role. Whether or not microfinance fulfills its potential as an anti-poverty tool will depend heavily on the efforts of such local actors.
Eberly is gung-ho on the notion of corporate social responsibility, but acknowledges that “succeeding in business is a service to humanity in itself. The measure of success for business is its ability to make a profit and employ people, which is hard enough. There is no need for private enterprise to apologize for this.”
As it stands now, “the corporate social responsibility movement does not have a coherent and compelling strategy.” Championing environmental causes and boosting internal governance standards may be worthy endeavors for a company to undertake; but to make a real difference in the lives of the developing world’s poor, business leaders must think more practically. Eberly reckons they should concentrate on “actions that would contribute directly to prosperity for the poor,” such as creating “a worldwide network of businesses and business associations committed to the rule of law, strict curbs on corruption, and a variety of other badly needed state reforms.”
Many of Eberly’s recommendations for nurturing civil society and democratic institutions in Muslim lands are fairly prosaic: embrace genuine reformers and modernizers; forge a cohesive, consistent public diplomacy plan; build partnerships with local NGOs (as the United States has done through the Middle East Partnership Initiative, launched in 2002); encourage greater dialogue between ordinary Americans and the citizens of Islamic countries; avoid counterproductive interventions. He cautions that “free elections can produce illiberal results”; that democracy promotion will often collide with religious, ethnic, and tribal obstacles; that the debilitating effects of dictatorship and repression should not be underestimated; and that Islam is not a “monolith.”
But Eberly also makes a crucial point that often seems lost on the U.S. foreign policy establishment: “promoting secularism as an alternative to officially supported Islam may be the least effective antidote to extremist thinking, because it only confirms the suspicion of many Muslims that America is anti-religious generally and opposed to their religion in particular.” Could civil society function as “a seedbed for democratic reform” in the Muslim world? Hopefully, yes. But as Eberly stresses, democratization strategies “that rely on the expansion of civil society will be fruitful only to the extent that civil society can take root within the framework of Islamic faith and daily life.”
These are all thorny issues that will occupy Western leaders—including, to be sure, Western donors—for years to come. Lucky for us that Don Eberly has done such a fine job of illuminating the new global environment.
Duncan Currie is managing editor of the American.