Q&A with Manal A. Jamal, author of Promoting Democracy

We sat down with author Manal A. Jamal to talk about her book Promoting Democracy: The Force of Political Settlements in Uncertain Times (2019). Jamal takes us through her inspiration, research surprises, and how her book is relevant to our upcoming 2020 election.

*What inspired this book? What inspired you to research democracy, democracy promotion, and its successes and failures specifically?

During the late 1990’s, I worked in Jerusalem as a journalist and researcher. The main research project I was working on was about foreign donor assistance to the Palestinian territories. What became evident to me very early on was that despite the ample foreign aid that Palestine was receiving, and the sizeable allocations to government recurrent costs, the building of infrastructure, humanitarian support, and democracy promotion efforts, this aid was not yielding the anticipated positive outcomes. On the contrary, although the Palestinian territories had become one of the highest per capita recipients of foreign donor assistance in the world, the lives of the majority of Palestinians did not improve as a result of this aid. Moreover, the substantial allocations to democracy promotion and civil society development did not lead to a stronger civil society or more promising democratic outcomes. On the contrary, prospects for democracy remained bleak, and at the level of civil society, there was increased polarization and an overall weakening, and political organizing in general deteriorated.

Much of the literature examining these outcomes in the Palestinian case focused on the impact of NGO professionalization- a host of organizational changes that institutions undergo once they receive Western donor assistance. I was unconvinced by this explanation and keen to understand what had led to these unexpected outcomes.

These initial observations shaped this book project.

*Why pick Palestine and El Salvador?

I was determined to understand what had actually led to these outcomes in the Palestinian case. Unconvinced with the prevalent explanations, especially relating to institutional professionalization, I began examining other cases that had undergone a conflict to peace transition and had received ample foreign aid from the international community. El Salvador was one of these cases. Similar to the Palestinian case, El Salvador began a conflict to peace transition in the early 1990s, and it also shared similar modes and trajectories of grassroots organizing. Unlike the Palestinian territories, however, democracy was taking root in the El Salvador, and civil society and grassroots and civil society organizing were not taking the same hit as they did in the Palestinian territories. This comparison seemed intriguing, and although initially not intuitive, the more research I conducted, the more convinced I became that there was much to be gained from this comparative frame. I was also inspired by cross-regional work such as Ian Lustick’s Unsettled Disputes and Joel Migdal’s Strong Societies and Weak States.

*What were you most surprised about in your research in Palestine and El Salvador?

When I began the background research for this project, I thought I knew the answers I would find, especially related to aid conditionality and how an influx of foreign donor required a host of organizational changes, which institutions, including social movements, undergo once they become the recipients of Western donor assistance. When I delved into the research, especially related to democracy promotion assistance, there was the obvious question about whether foreign aid could make a huge difference in a context like the Palestinian territories. These initial, very honest questions moved my research to a completely different direction.

I expected the comparison to be interesting and that it would speak to a broader audience. What I did not expect was the extent to which my cases would speak to each other and would enrich the analytical depth of the research. The comparative frame helped me arrive to conclusions that I would certainly not have reached examining a single case.

*Do you have a favorite anecdote of conducting your interviews and all the people you met?

I developed an impressive tolerance for caffeine and sugary desserts. In the beginning, many of my interviewees could not understand why I limited myself to one dessert a day and did not drink tea or coffee in the late afternoon. Worried that my interviewees would interpret my limits on caffeine on sugar as not accepting the generosity I was offered, I bit the bullet and became more flexible about my limits. Thankfully, I managed caffeine and sugar spikes much better by the time I finished my fieldwork.

Throughout, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of my interviewees and how forthcoming and eager many of the activists (both former and present) and political organizers were to share their stories and to reflect on their perspectives related to the changing political landscape. So many of the individuals I met went out of their way to put me in touch with other activists and political organizers, and to arrange my interviews for me. Directors and program officers in foreign donor agencies were often as forthcoming.

Although initially setting up my interviews, preparing questionnaires, and getting my Spanish to a level of research proficiency was incredibly stressful, being in the field and conducting my interviews was a tremendously fulfilling and rewarding experience.

*What lessons can the general public (American, Palestinian, Salvadoran, and the world) learn from your research?

When it comes to assessing foreign aid, and especially democracy promotion assistance, many academics and policy-makers, simply examine the recipients of the aid and attribute any changes to this aid. What my work clearly showed was that this an inadequate approach, and that it is critical that one take the research a step back and carefully and intimately understand the contexts in which this aid is operating. The whole notion that external democracy promoters can determine outcomes and bring about democracy needs to be fundamentally questioned; assuming that this is how democracy comes about is ludicrous to say the least.

*Is Promoting Democracy relevant to the upcoming presidential election? How do you think Western donor assistance will be addressed (or not addressed) in the upcoming presidential election?

Promoting Democracy is certainly relevant to the upcoming election. A defining feature of Trump administration policies, among other things, has been the substantial reductions in the US foreign assistance budget, especially in the programmatic area of democracy and governance. The overall focus of US foreign aid has shifted to security assistance and the advancement of US national security interests, while slashing budgets in other programmatic areas. It is not that US foreign aid was apolitical before, but under the Trump administration, US assistance is now explicitly political, and first and foremost, endeavors to serve US national security interests with little regard for the people it is supposed to benefit. These shifts present increasing challenges given that there is greater demand for US aid in light of COVID-19 health and economic crisis.

Trump administration policies related to US foreign assistance particularly stand out when it comes to the Palestinian territories, and to the Palestinians more generally. The Trump administration has eliminated all civilian and humanitarian funding to the Palestinians, but security assistance has continued. These cuts include an end of US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), reversing a policy of support by every American administration – Democrat and Republican – since UNRWA was established over 70 years ago. These cuts in US aid to the Palestinian territories are part of a comprehensive policy to coerce the Palestinian leadership to accept the hideous “Deal of the Century- a plan which seeks to end all Palestinian national and political claims, with complete disregard for international law or established international consensus about how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be resolved.

In my research, I am often critical of US foreign aid, especially in relation to the democracy and governance programmatic area. But what my research also shows is that it is necessary to distinguish between different types of aid, and in particular, humanitarian aid should not be lumped together with other forms of aid. Moreover, it is critical that nuances be appreciated and that we do not over-simplify nuances and differences. My research also shows that US aid to democracy and civil society initiatives can play a more positive role at the local level, especially when the political context and the implications of that aid is fully appreciated, as was the case in El Salvador.

There certainly is some continuity in US foreign aid policies under the Trump administration, but this administration also represents unprecedented policy departures that could not have been imagined under other administrations.

*If there is one thing you hope to debunk about a common misconception of Western donor assistance with your book?

Many are quick to label this aid as negative or positive. What Promoting Democracy, however, clearly and systematically shows is that the political context is pivotal in determining the efficacy of Western donor assistance. This is especially the case in contexts where key political actors are excluded from the democracy arena. In contexts in which the overall political settlement that shapes political relations between key political groups is not conducive to democracy, democracy will not take root, even in the absence of democracy assistance. In these contexts, democracy assistance will shape or exacerbate certain dynamics, but unlikely to determine them.

*For those interested in teaching about Western donor assistance, how best could they use your book and the research/interviews in it?

Promoting Democracy will be quite useful for those interested in teaching about democratization and civil society, about democracy promotion and the role of external actors, and about conflict to peace transitions. The book carefully weaves together these different bodies of literature, illustrating how some of the most enduring propositions in the democratization and conflict to peace and peacebuilding literature should be applied to the democracy promotion literature. Promoting Democracy situates the argument about the primacy of political settlements in the extent literature and develops the argument with the careful use of data and interviews.

The book will also be useful to those wanting to teach about qualitative, cross-regional comparative research. For those interested in teaching about foreign aid, parts of the book also carefully explain the different types and categories of assistance, as well as the variation in donors-  bilateral versus multilateral donors, state- sponsored donors, or foundations etc… It also shows how to corroborate findings related to foreign aid since national, donor, and NGO reporting is not always a straightforward process. 

For scholars wishing to teach about Palestine and El Salvador, parts of the book provide an illuminating discussion about the history of the conflicts, political organizations, and social movements, especially the women’s sector, and overviews of the peace agreements in each case. Ultimately, the book is an account of the transformation of political life in the Palestinian territories and El Salvador during the years leading to the peace agreements, and the political transitions after these agreements.

*How does the research you did for Promoting Democracy lend itself to your next project if at all?

My next project deals with how economic crisis and resultant patterns of economic inequality shape different patterns of social upheaval. My interest in social movements and political organizing remains central to my work, and I will be exploring these patterns through a cross-regional lens. Similar to Promoting Democracy, I plan to conduct indepth research and to bring into focus underrepresented voices. When I picked up Promoting Democracy and leafed through the pages for the first time, I was very proud of the final product. The argument is provocative, and whether my readers will agree or disagree, my book seriously contributes to the debate, and I hope I will achieve this with my next book. This time around, I have the added advantage of having a much better sense of how a book comes together. I am eager to get back to the field and to immerse myself in the research, and although challenging, I am looking forward to the immensity of satisfaction and pleasure that this process brings to my life.

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“Jamal combines mastery of the theoretical literature and political history with extensive field work, including over 150 in-depth interviews with grassroots activists, political leaders, and officials from donor agencies and NGOs.”—CHOICE Magazine

Manal A. Jamal is Associate Professor of Political Science at James Madison University. She has held research fellowship positions at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

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