State to award social networking grants in Middle East, Africa

New project attempts to build democracies in a less confrontational way and support a long-term movement for more representative government in those regions, scholar says.

The State Department recently unveiled a pilot program that will award up to $5 million in grants to expand the use of social networking technologies in the Middle East with the goal of increasing citizen engagement and civic participation.

In an announcement released on Sept. 25, the department said it will award five organizations between $500,000 and $2.5 million to expand the availability of social networking and new media capabilities in the Middle East and North Africa. The program is sponsored by the Middle East Partnership Initiative, part of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department.

"MEPI provides coordinated, tangible support and public commitment to local efforts throughout the Middle East and North Africa in the areas of women's empowerment, educational advancement, economic development and political participation," the announcement noted.

A spokeswoman for MEPI declined to comment on the pilot program other than to say it is new and that the only information the partnership initiative will provide is in the solicitation.

The solicitation references President Obama's speech he delivered in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, in which he called for broader engagement between the United States and Muslim countries. State said in the solicitation that it is seeking pilot proposals "that will leverage innovative new technologies to connect people -- particularly youth -- in order to expand civic participation, increase new media capabilities for civil society, and enhance online educational opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa."

State said priority will be given to applications that leverage existing social media platforms to improve the ability of Middle Eastern citizens to engage with one another, exchange information in real time and provide an outlet for them to freely discuss political issues. It also states applicants should take into account "Internet access penetration, connections speeds, costs to users and other functional aspects of new media in the region, including censorship, cultural barriers, nuances of local dialect or language, and infrastructure shortcomings when designing projects."

Henry Farrell, associate professor of international affairs at The George Washington University, said the project is an example of the United States attempting to build democracies in a much less confrontational way than it has done in the past. Despite using phrases such as "strengthening civil society," the implication is the State Department is trying to support a long-term movement toward more representative government in the Middle East, he said.

"There are a whole bunch of people who got their chops from the campaign, who saw the way they used Facebook and other social media tools and are trying to figure out if these tools can be applied more generally to generate meaningful consequences in foreign and domestic policy," Farrell said.

The program has risks, however, he said. Foreign governments could easily construe the program as meddling, especially in countries such as Egypt, which relies on U.S. aid but has drawn criticism for silencing political dissent. "I think the reaction will depend on the government in question," Farrell said. "There's no doubt that in the past when the U.S. has been involved in building civil society, it has been taken as the U.S. government meddling."

Farrell said he was encouraged that the program seems to be aiming at long-term engagement rather than immediate change, and he criticized the notion of a Twitter revolution, calling it a "ridiculous fantasy."

"We're not going to see these technologies used to inspire revolution," he said. "This is a long-term set of goals and aspirations that will attempt to create over years, probably decades, a vibrant civil society that over the longer term can lead to a more genuine transformation and a genuinely viable possibility of democracy.

"I can only speculate to the underlying motivations, but the way the language is presented, my feeling is that this is a sophisticated and interesting approach, which is not the kind of instant gratification approach we are used to," Farrell added.