The defining story of the Arab Spring belongs to Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit seller who set himself on fire, in protest of the humiliation he had received at the hands of local police.
In one act of desperation-a figurative explosion made literal-he reminded us that deep within every soul lies a desire for self-determination and its ensuing dignity. And he began a chain reaction that has changed the world we know.
The authoritarian winter that had gripped the Arab world for so long, finally began to thaw. Even though protestors in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and eventually Syria met deadly resistance to their calls for freedom, the Arab Spring had begun.
It is a powerful story, one that resonates in all of us whether it stirs our empathy or calls us to the streets. It shows the power that individual human acts have to cause global and generational change.
But there is more to the Tunisian story.
Bouazizi's story doesn't mention the hundreds of protesters who rushed to the mayor's office immediately after he set himself aflame. It doesn't highlight their internal debate, as they first chanted "Dignity before bread!" before settling on the anti-corruption call: "Working is a duty, you thieves."
It doesn't describe the fearlessness protestors showed when fired upon by Tunisian police, or the thousands of young bloggers and amateur cell phone filmmakers who documented this violence and organized rallies on Facebook.
And it doesn't mention Rachid Ammar, the commanding general of the Tunisian Army who refused to order his troops to fire on protestors gathered in the capital. The day after General Ammar's brave decision, President Ben Ali fled.
That larger story-one of supporting people's desires for freedom and dignity, of determining the path of progress, of using technology to unite people, of empowering leaders to make courageous stands-is what I'd like to speak about today.
As a voice for vulnerable people around the world, I believe USAID can and should play a larger role.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton have both made clear that it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform and democratic transitions. As a result, we must work to elevate the importance of self-determination and human dignity in our foreign policy and in our approach to development.
For years, a criticism of USAID's assistance has been that we've worked too closely with governments that refuse to respect the rights of their people…
…that we have taken direction from regimes, limiting our investment in civil society or democracy promotion so as not to upset strategic partners…
…that we have pulled our punches, complicit in unbalanced relationships between autocrats and their people.
These criticisms have some merit.
Despite being the world's largest supporter of democracy, rights and governance assistance, we still act as though democracy and development are two different objectives.
Because we fear pro-democracy orthodoxy will limit our ability to work in countries with unsavory leaders, we prioritized economic growth.
And as gutsy as we've been in places like Zimbabwe, in other countries where foreign governments limited the scope of our democracy, rights and governance promotion, we worked in the margins.
But as the President made clear in his recent speech, we are living in a new world, with a new paradigm of national interest that tracks more closely to our national values.
We cannot rely on the unsustainable stability provided by autocrats, or limit our assistance to groups that have been endorsed by governments. Instead, we will seek real democratic reform as a means to further peace and give people the ultimate voice in their own destiny and development.
USAID's work must reflect a deeper understanding of the words "country ownership." Instead of equating a country with its government, have to partner much more closely with an entire range of stakeholders: parliaments, opposition parties, civil society and most crucially, the citizens themselves.
More than any other Agency or Department, our main relationship with foreign countries is with their people, whether we empower a girl in Afghanistan to attend school for the first time, or provide shelter to a family in Haiti.
That personal level of interaction gives us a significant advantage to play the long game of political reform. By working to empower citizens and shape institutions and power structures over time, we can support a person's call for self-determination and dignity in a way other institutions can't.
That advantage is one we must assert across the countries in which we work, as we help citizens express their desire for freedom, organize behind their beliefs, broadcast their views and ultimately elect their leaders.
But to effectively play that long game, we must move past some of the unwarranted tensions that exist between the development and democracy communities, integrating the best lessons of each into a united approach.
We should not wage decades-old debates about whether democracy or development should proceed first; about dignity before bread or bread before dignity. As the Arab Spring has reminded us, economic prosperity and political freedom must go hand in hand.
This isn't to say that democracy is necessary for economic growth-to ignore the experience of China and Vietnam. But for every country that manages to grow quickly without embracing democracy, there are five dictators who consign their countries to economic and political despair.
Even when growth does occur in dictatorships, it can be frighteningly uneven. Over the past decade, Equatorial Guinea has grown faster per capita than any other country, even China. Yet over 70% of its population still lives in dire poverty.
Growth that is not broad-based or equitable, that empowers leaders to mistreat their people, that enriches oligarchs while missing the poor, is just a statistic that has little bearing on the well-being of citizens.
For instance, around the world, we have seen spectacular gains in infant and maternal mortality over the last 15 years. More mothers are giving birth safely and more children are living past their fifth birthday than at any time in history.
But the rare countries that aren't seeing that progress all have one thing in common: they are dictatorships. We can no longer seriously address problems like child death or famine without a willingness to confront corruption and autocracy.
I don't claim this is easy to do. Our industry is full of incentives designed to keep assistance dollars flowing, even to countries where corruption undermines its effectiveness. Efforts to pull back support in an attempt to make assistance conditional are often met with criticism.
The Millennium Challenge Corporation and the UK's Department for International Development have both worked to change this perception, emphasizing that assistance works best when tied to demands for strong democratic and governance reforms.
This is a movement we will embrace at USAID. If we wish to be a credible supporter of sustainable growth and progress-if we hope to expand opportunity to the people we serve-then we must work to support both democratic and economic empowerment. We must help countries deliver democracy with a dividend.
Delivering democracy with a dividend means breaking down the wall that has long existed between development practitioners and democracy, rights and governance experts.
I come from the development world, and I've both lived and witnessed the struggles our community has embracing and emphasizing the importance of democracy, rights and governance in our work.
Development practitioners must understand that without capable, transparent and accountable public institutions…
…without political stability or property rights…
…without fighting corruption and graft…
…without lowering the investment risk that private-sector partners face…
…our development work cannot achieve the sustainable results we seek.
Now, any close look at our budget will show that in many countries facing difficult democratic and governance challenges, the bulk of our assistance is devoted to our Presidential initiatives: primarily Feed the Future and the Global Health Initiative.
But we mustn't let that budget scenario mean we shortchange the necessity of expanding democracy, rights and governance.
Improving the quality of public institutions, enhancing government accountability, addressing corruption and giving citizens the opportunity to vote out ineffective leadership are all crucial to fighting poverty, eliminating hunger and improving health.
Without political reform, we're not helping to develop countries; we're delivering services, undermining our chances for long-term success.
Therefore, we must be innovative in how we allocate our funding so we can support the governance structures necessary to accelerate and sustain economic empowerment.
Here, PEPFAR can serve as a useful model. In Kenya, a PEPFAR grant was used to train, mentor and provide ongoing support to journalists to educate the public on effective HIV prevention and treatment methods.
These journalists used a number of media-print, photography, radio, television and new media-to effectively transmit their message. And over time, they matured into some of the best journalists on the continent.
Those same journalists went on to cover Kenya's disputed presidential election and subsequent political crisis, using the skills they learned to draw the world's attention. Today, three of them are up for CNN's African Journalist of the year award.
Not only can smart investments in democracy, rights and governance offer immediate support to the goals of our development initiatives, they can live on, supporting freedom and transparency in the long run.
That's why today, I am announcing a second track of funding within our Presidential initiatives. Using the resources we have already committed to the Initiatives, we will create a new, formal funding channel to offer resources for democracy, rights and governance programming, designed to improve the sustainability and effectiveness of these efforts.
In Ethiopia, we are making democratic governance a core part of our Feed the Future strategy. We know that effective land and natural resource management not only spurs agricultural growth, it reduces tensions and empowers citizens.
And in Rwanda, our Global Health Initiative is working to expand the transparency of the country's health system. Under a nationwide performance-based financing program, health facilities must submit payment requests for the services they record in patient registers. Members of the community work with the Health Ministry to verify that individuals actually received the services claimed.
By raising expectations and eliminating fraud, that simple act of verification has led to meaningful gains in access to health services. We immediately saw a 23% increase in birth attendance at health facilities that participated in the initiative. Because Rwandans trusted their doctors, they visited them more often.
Just as our development portfolio must be informed by our democracy, rights and governance work, so too must our democracy work reflect the best lessons of sustainable development.
The most critical lesson is that our efforts must be evidence-based and subject to evaluation. The idea that democratic empowerment is somehow too intangible to measure, too complex to base on data or evidence or too pure to escape scrutiny, is false.
Moving forward, our work in democracy, rights and governance will measure performance to determine what really works; rely on that data to generate the best possible returns; harness the power of science, technology and innovation to speed progress; and be redirected if we find it to be ineffective.
With consultation with our partners in Congress, we plan to launch a new democracy, rights and governance Center of excellence, designed to become the heart of evidence-based research in the field.
We already have some sense that democracy, rights and governance investment can alter a country's democratic trajectory. A 2008 study we commissioned by the University of Pittsburgh and Vanderbilt showed that for every $10 million investment USAID made in expanding political reform, we saw a measureable increase in the amount of democratic change a country could otherwise expect, as measured by Freedom House indicators.
But we want to deepen that understanding. What the MIT Poverty Action Lab has done for development effectiveness, our Center of Excellence can do for democratic effectiveness.
We will invite leading scholars from a range of fields-political scientists, sociologists, practitioners and economists alike-to work with us to study, analyze and rate the effectiveness of our initiatives and programs, using this data to shape our programming.
We will increasingly rely on public opinion survey data , using the demands of populations to shape our strategies, assessments, programs and evaluations.
The Center's first task will be to provide a comprehensive medium- and long-term democracy, rights and governance analysis of our priority countries so we can integrate these findings into our country strategies.
We will work closely with our staff in the field, our colleagues in the interagency and our colleagues on the Hill to make the Center an effective shared resource.
The Center will also play a key role in our agency-wide procurement reforms, from analyzing the effects of our direct assistance to ensuring our implementing partners meet standards of responsibility and behavior. For example, we have made sure that all our contractors and sub-contractors comply with strict anti-trafficking regulations or face serious consequences.
This work has been greatly informed by our history of work preventing trafficking in persons. Over ten years ago, we partnered with MTV to create MTV-EXIT-a broad multimedia initiative that was designed to combat trafficking in women and girls for sexual exploitation.
Through documentaries, public service announcements, social networking and even music videos, MTV EXIT produced vivid and arresting messages about the tragedy of human trafficking.
Since that first engagement, we helped expand the program globally, while broadening its emphasis. Today in Asia, the program focuses on labor trafficking and forced servitude, in addition to sex trafficking.
MTV-EXIT now reaches 300 million households worldwide and has led to greater collaboration between NGOs and governments on anti-trafficking efforts in countries throughout the world.
MTV-EXIT is also a great example of using innovative approaches and new forms of communication to help people around the world communicate ideas, raise awareness and expose atrocities.
In Azerbaijan, in response to near complete government control of traditional media but free access to new media, we're investing to build unrestricted high-speed Internet hubs throughout universities and villages in the country, so citizens can create their own new content. These hubs give Azeri's the freedom to read objective news and express their own voices online, while simultaneously building the skills of the country's youth.
When I visited India last year with President Obama, I learned about a USAID-sponsored program that encouraged students to use mobile phones to fight teacher truancy.
When teachers fail to show up for class-an all too common occurrence in developing countries-students send a text message to the local school administration. This reporting has helped to dramatically reduce absenteeism, from 25 percent to just three percent.
But there may be no better example of maximizing the power of technology to hold governments accountable than Videre, a partner who joins us here today. In its groundbreaking work, Videre has used social media to expose political and ethnic violence and human rights abuses.
Recognizing that the most powerful soldier in the fight for human rights holds a camera, not a gun, Videre has trained citizens to document, publicize and share footage of abuses and atrocities, raising awareness and shaming governments into action.
By offering this integrated approach between development and democracy, we can ensure our assistance helps expand rights and improve governance, laying the foundations for democratic change.
But we must acknowledge that our assistance can also lead to unintended consequences. Assistance can become a rent-much like resource wealth-that creates incentives to limit progress or slow political reform.
We have a responsibility to limit the potential harm of our assistance. As part of USAID Forward, we developed a financial risk assessment to evaluate our government-to-government assistance. This isn't just an accounting exercise; in Malawi, we chose not to provide funds to government ministries because we could not guarantee they would reach the people we intended to serve.
We will expand that assessment to include an analysis on the impact of USAID's government-to-government assistance on democratic freedom, public financial management, transparency and rights.
This democratic credit check will determine whether our investment could empower a government at the expense of its people. If so, we will explore options to redirect our funding around the government, through other partners.
And just as we will offer Malawi the support to improve their financial accountability, so too will we provide governments the support they need to improve their democratic accountability.
Some may find that proposal controversial.
But we must continue to engage with and incentivize government leaders to seek broader freedoms. At a time when many developing countries are growing at double-digit rates, the idea that we can encourage reform solely through conditionality is unrealistic.
We must discover new ways to encourage and support the behavior we promote, not simply condemn and limit the behavior we dislike.
One organization committed to encouraging good leadership is the Africa Governance Institute, spearheaded by Tony Blair. Recognizing that poor governance is not always an issue of intention, but often of capacity, the Institute works to support governments by helping them identify priorities, act against them and expand the reach of reform.
Beginning this year, we will fund a partnership between the Institute and the Government of Sierra Leone's. This assistance will help President Koroma strengthen his country's institutions, while deepening his leadership bench.
In the end, our assistance is no substitute for the leadership necessary to drive through reform. We must promote, build and nurture leadership so that governments have a realistic chance to provide results.
And we must realize that foreign leaders face enormous pressure to satisfy multiple constituencies, while operating with limited resources and capacity. Understanding that complex political reality will help us shape our assistance in more effective ways. As Prime Minister Blair has said "If we miss the politics, we miss the point."
I realize what I've called for today is not easy to implement. For decades, an integrated approach to democracy and development work and a rational approach to partnering with governments have eluded our community.
But today, the Arab Spring has given us an unprecedented opportunity to address the aspirations and respect the dignity of people whose freedom has been denied for a generation.
Playing that role will require recognizing some tough truths about the pace of progress and the scope of what can be accomplished.
Rather than drastically overestimating what we can do in the short-term-that we can deliver democracy tomorrow-USAID will focus on the medium- and long-term, prioritizing our opportunities to create vibrant democracies. We will work closely with people in the region to shape the institutions and built the checks and balances that will support their political future.
This approach reflects much of what we learned in Central and Eastern Europe after 1989. Despite successful work in countries like Poland and Estonia to expand democratic governance, transformation still took years, with several disappointments along the way. Retrenchment, the success of communist and ultranationalist political parties, and of course, ethnic violence and genocide all reared their head.
Countries that confronted past crimes were able to expand the rule of law, form better relationships with regional neighbors and improve local governance and transparency. Poland's state institution on historical memory-modeled after Germany's-helped inspire a vibrant free press, while President Medvedev has recently acknowledged the ghosts of the past still haunt Russia's attempts to modernize.
In countries throughout the Middle East, we are already witnessing brutal crackdowns and repression. In fledgling democracies, developing coherent political parties, settling grievances and overcoming internal divisions will pose tremendous challenges. And when countries that have undergone revolutions do hold open elections, we will likely see statist or Islamist parties do well at the polls-an outcome nearly preordained by past dictatorships.
Recognizing that the seeds of revolution may take years or even decades to flower, we must do what we can to ensure that one day, they bloom.
In Tunisia, we should look to the Estonian experience; a country whose embrace of democratic rights, innovation and e-government has led to rapid growth and EU and NATO accession.
With similar starting conditions-a small country with a highly educated population and a tolerance for religious and women's rights-Tunisia has the opportunity to become a model democracy for the Arab world and an enduring foundation for change in the region.
Our government-USAID included-will play a sustained role in seeing the country's transition through, giving credibility to the source of the Arab Spring's inspiration. We will work closely with governments, partners, private foundations and staff in Eastern Europe to share their experience with the people of Tunisia.
We are already taking this approach in Egypt, where USAID sponsored a delegation of transition experts from Chile, Romania and Serbia to consult with political leaders and civic activists.
We will also continue to reform our assistance to focus on empowering Egypt's people, extending our partnership to a far broader number of NGOs and local groups. We will embrace civil society and help people engage directly in the political process, supporting constitutional reform and empowering women and youth.
In Libya, where the United States joined an international coalition to prevent an imminent massacre, we've seen the opposition launch a legitimate and credible interim council. Over the past two months, USAID teams have been in Benghazi, assessing the current needs of this emerging government. Our work today will solidify a meaningful transition to democracy when Gaddafi is forced from power.
As the United States and USAID work to reorient our assistance to the Middle East and North Africa, many are asking us about the ultimate prize of the Arab Spring.
It's easy to look at the expansion of democracy and progress that has occurred in Eastern Europe and envision a similar future: a region that is peaceful, prosperous and free.
But as we think of the prize of democratic transition in grand terms, we must not lose sight of what expanded dignity and freedom means for the individual.
Development practitioners-myself included-fall victim to defining human welfare solely in terms of GDP, hunger or mortality. So great is our passion to expand the opportunity for people to live healthy, productive lives, that it clouds our appreciation of political freedom.
I know how deeply my concern runs when I see a starving child or a young girl sick with HIV. I know how angry witnessing that very tangible and very unnecessary suffering makes me. I think of my own children-all three young, all three healthy, all three with limitless potential-and question why we can't deliver that same opportunity everywhere.
But I take for granted that my own children's opportunity is guaranteed not just by a vaccine or a good education, but by the fact they grow up in a free and fair society…
…that if they are wronged, they can seek amends...
…that if they are mistreated, they can protest...
…that if their representatives fail them, they can vote them out of office.
Clear in the faces of the protestors in Cairo and Damascus, in Tehran and Rangoon, is that the greatest pain of all may not come from illness or hunger… but from a dream deferred.
The greatest rage may not arise from a fallow field, but from a powerless citizen.
The greatest ache may not come from a preventable disease, but from a soul that yearns to breathe free.
We must remember that when we invest in a smallholder farmer in Uganda, we invest in an entrepreneur with a growing interest in a free society. When we help a mother safely give birth, we expand her stake in the future. When we support the rights of citizens to vote a corrupt leader out of office, we are helping them assert their dignity.
If we can expand our engagement with citizens, if we can successfully integrate democracy, rights and governance into our broader development portfolio and if we can embrace the momentous opportunity presented by the Arab Spring, than we can deliver this truer understanding of human welfare.
- Remarks by Eric G. Postel, USAID Assistant to the Administrator for Africa at Congressmember Karen Bass April 2015 Africa Policy Breakfast
- Janina Jaruzelski Remarks at USAID Human Rights Champion Awards Ceremony
- Remarks by USAID Cambodia Mission Director Rebecca Black at the Launch of the Cambodian National Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking
Last updated: April 27, 2015