Improving Understanding: Supporting Muslims in Their Own Vision for DemocracyAmbassador Randall Tobias,
Director of U.S. Foreign Assistance and USAID Administrator
Remarks at the 7th Annual Conference of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy
May 5, 2006
Thank you, Dr. Masmoudi, for that kind introduction, and thank you all for the warm welcome.
I am honored to be with you today as the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy gathers to discuss one of the most important issues of our time–the challenge of democracy in the Muslim World.
Democracy, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has noted, is not “Western.” Traditions of public reasoning can be found in nearly all countries and is part of the common human inheritance. The pursuit of democracy in the Muslim world today draws from a long history of religious tolerance and public discussion – two key tenets of democracy.
As President Bush has pointed out, more than half of all the Muslims in the world live in freedom under democratically constituted governments.
“They succeed in democratic societies,” the President has said, “not in spite of their faith but because of it.”
“A religion that demands individual moral accountability, and encourages the encounter of the individual with God, is fully compatible with the rights and responsibilities of self-government.”
The compatibility of Islam and democracy is reflected in a recent Gallup poll that examined views of the West in the Muslim world. An overwhelming majority of people in the Muslim world view their devotion to Islam as their greatest asset. Yet, when asked what they admired about the West, a majority cited freedom – particularly the freedom to speak out without fear of retribution. When asked what they wanted from the West, the majority put it simply – people in the Muslim world want the West to respect Islam, and when it comes to their future, they want self-determination.
In his second inaugural address, the President laid out a vision that now defines America’s conduct in the world. “It is the policy of the United States,” he said, “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Achieving that vision requires self-determination among those we support.
Our international development assistance then, must support such self-determination through a paradigm that focuses on local ownership and collective problem solving. In all that we do as a nation, to assist citizens in nations around the world – and we do a lot, we have to remember that it is not about us, it’s about them. Good intentions do not always add up to transformation—and the challenges we face today require no less than transformation.
For any of you who may be unfamiliar with the terminology, international development assistance is the money we provide to promote such things as economic growth; social welfare, including health and education; and good governance in underdeveloped nations. The United States spent about $27.5 billion in 2005 on such assistance—a number that has risen significantly under this Administration.
Why do we spend this money? The first reason is our sense of moral obligation, to be sure. We cannot turn our backs on the millions of children who succumb to starvation and disease each day, when the ability to address it is in our hands. We cannot turn our backs on citizens who toil under oppressive poverty, seeking their families’ daily survival, but with little opportunity to secure the future.
The second reason, however, is that our futures are inextricably linked to those we seek to assist. Promoting freedom, democracy, and development are primary elements identified in the President’s national security strategy. It’s part of our strategy for addressing the root causes of terrorism. Governments that rule justly, encourage economic freedom and opportunity, and invest in their people—the hallmarks of democracies—do not produce or tolerate terrorists.
By supporting countries to live up to these principles, the United States will strengthen and expand the community of nations united in building global peace and prosperity. People who see a hopeful future for themselves and their families are not willing to bind bombs to their bodies.
Interestingly, this second reason is tied to the first. No true democracy has ever experienced a famine. The accountability of government to citizens, the free press that flourishes under democracies, doesn’t allow for such failures of government.
While well-intended, some of what has been done historically by the donor community – including the United States – has too often left few lasting traces beyond the immediate impact of short-term programs. To be sure, charity has its place, especially when it is charity in response to urgent emergencies. And besides the moral obligation to respond to human suffering, our partnership with Pakistan, for example, in assisting in the aftermath of a terrible earthquake did lead to increased understanding and dialogue. Nothing revealed more about what we have in common than the response we shared to the human tragedy we faced.
Yet it’s important to distinguish between charitable humanitarian assistance, and support for a nation’s true development and transformation. Development must engender lasting economic, social, and political progress, through a transformation of institutions, economic structures, and human capacity, so that nations can evolve to sustaining further progress on their own.
The ultimate responsibility for achieving this transformation rests with the leadership and citizens of developing nations themselves. But the assistance and policies of the United States can and must play a vital and catalytic role. And the way we implement our assistance can have a major impact on enabling local leadership and local responsibility. By focusing on local ownership and supporting local solutions, United States foreign assistance supports tools for collective problem-solving—another requirement of democratic societies.
A crucial element of the overall equation – one too often overlooked – is the role of host governments. It is no secret that many governments in developing nations have demonstrated an inability – or worse, an unwillingness – to be accountable, and respond to the needs of their citizens.
The international system, including donors such as the United States, have thus stepped in to deliver those services, often by creating parallel systems of service delivery through international mechanisms.Now that is an understandable response, and for a famine or a major flood or a global pandemic, it is essential.
Clearly, within these donor led responses, the international system has an important role to play. But the dominance and the permanence of such donor-led responses has had the effect of shifting the focus of responsibility from host governments to donors. We’ve often created parallel systems of service delivery that have allowed governments to shirk their responsibility—and shifted citizens’ expectations from their own governments to the international donors. But outsiders cannot, with sustainability, secure citizens’ health and safety, educate a critical mass, or create the conditions needed for economic growth—all of which are necessary for development and the responsibilities of government.
If true progress is to be made, the people of these nations, and their governments, must increasingly become equipped to do these things for themselves. Citizens must understand that they and their governments must take responsibility. Once citizens understand this, they can and will make demands of their governments, and reject government excuses for failure. This understanding is a prerequisite for – and exists in – true democracies. By fostering the growth of civil society, of indigenous capacity, our foreign assistance can strengthen fragile democracies.
Recently, I had a conversation with an African friends from my former life as the United States Global AIDS Coordinator. She is an extraordinary doctor named Agnes Binagwaho. Dr. Binagwaho is head of Rwanda's National Commission to Fight AIDS, and an example of inspiring leadership within her nation's government. Given her role, you might expect her to urge more U.S. financial support for the Government of Rwanda. But what Agnes has helped me understand is that United States support for grassroots organizations in Rwanda is important well beyond HIV/AIDS. It is also important because it is supporting the development of democracy in her country.
By fostering the growth of civil society, of local organizations, of indigenous capacity, she believes that we are also strengthening Rwanda's fragile democracy. She has helped me better understand that democracy is not just about having an elected government it's about teaching people to participate, and how. It's about supporting people to identify their own solutions, and teaching them how to advocate for the adoption and implementation of those solutions. It’s about empowering them, supporting their ideas, and providing the right tools—and appropriate incentives—to support their leadership and responsibility to sustain further progress on their own.
This, I believe, is what United States foreign assistance must be all about.
This Administration has made an enormous commitment to transformational development. In fact, the total official development assistance (ODA) provided by the United States has tripled under this President’s leadership. And much of that assistance reflects the U.S. Government’s broad and deep commitment to the Muslim world. There are 49 countries in the world that have more than 50 percent Muslim population. The U.S. Agency for International Development has missions in 27 of them. Excluding assistance to Iraq, the majority of USAID funding went to predominantly Muslim countries in two of the past three years.
Our commitment to supporting self-determined transformation through effective foreign assistance is shared – and its importance understood – at the very highest levels of the U.S. Government. The creation of my new position – as Director of United States Foreign Assistance and Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development – signals that commitment.
Charged with ensuring that foreign assistance – across the U.S. government – is used as effectively as possible to meet our foreign policy objectives, we have begun the process of strategically linking how we deliver foreign assistance to what we seek to accomplish. The overarching objectives for U.S. foreign assistance will focus our resources on our intent to achieve peace and security; improve governance and democratic participation; promote investments in people; and engender economic growth.
These overarching objectives are vital to achieving the goal we seek to accomplish, which Secretary Rice clearly laid out in January – to help build and sustain democratic, well-governed states that will respond to the needs of their people – and conduct themselves responsibly in the international system.
No where is meeting that goal more important than in the Muslim world today – where the United States can play a vital role in helping people in nascent democracies build a free and prosperous future for themselves. We know foreign assistance can improve understanding with the Muslim world. We saw it after the tsunami and the Pakistan earthquake, when the outpouring of support from the US – the government, the private sector, non-profits, and countless volunteers – made clear to the Muslim world that the West cares about its future.
When hate-mongers like Osama bin Laden tell Muslims to reject assistance from the West, we know that it is because he understands that foreign assistance promotes partnership and understanding. All of our assistance must be delivered in ways that make clear to those we seek to assist that our efforts are rooted in partnership, not paternalism. By focusing on results and sustainability, our new strategic framework will make our intentions and our expectations clear.
A few days from now I will make my first overseas trip in my new role. The first countries I will visit are in the Muslim world. I will see first hand how we can better work in partnership and better leverage resources on the ground to support both the citizens of the Muslim world and the committed Americans working with them in their valiant efforts. Together, we can make progress toward achieving democracy – a system of governance that empowers human beings to create peaceful societies, where healthy and well educated people are free to provide for themselves and their families.
These, we know, are the aspirations of human beings regardless of ethnicity, religion, or geographic location. With a renewed focus on sustainability and supporting Muslim countries in their own vision for democracy – a vision that builds on a proud history stretching back thousands of years – our foreign assistance can and will strengthen democracy and improve understanding with the Muslim world. By providing a forum for authentic Muslim voices to debate the critical issues facing their societies, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy is making a vital contribution to that understanding.
I commend you for your efforts and look forward to working with you in the years ahead. Thank you very much.
Released on June 15, 2006