BY ELLY ROSTOUM
If you were given half a billion dollars, what would you do to advance democracy around the world? That’s what people at the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) strategize about. MEPI, the U.S. State Department’s most innovative soft power tool, funds projects in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region that advance American democratic values. I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Rita Stephan, MEPI’s Director, who is responsible for the development and implementation of MEPI’s institutional vision to further U.S. foreign assistance goals, priorities, and impact.
Dr. Stephan brings an interesting background to bureaucracy– she holds a Ph.D. in Sociology, and told me less than 10 minutes into meeting her “I love math. I love an analytical, evidence-based approach to thinking about U.S. engagement in MENA. We need to be doing that.” Dr. Stephan is also Arab American of Syrian-Lebanese descent, and is fluent in Arabic and French. Her heritage comes in handy when she is on the ground – she cuts through the superficialities, she is relatable and “she understands,” as a newly elected Tunisian municipal official told me. I met with Dr. Rita Stephan in my capacity as the Director the U.S. – MENA Experiential Partnership – a pioneering initiative led by the Arab American Institute Foundation that matches current and former Arab American public servants with newly elected officials in the Arab world and provides year-long, hands-on learning and co-mentorship exchange.
I had a chance to interview Dr. Stephan for the Harvard Kennedy School Review. Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Thanks for you your time, Dr. Stephan. You bring such an interesting background to public service. What brought you to MEPI?
I am actually a State Department veteran – I started my career at State as a social media analyst, at a time when social media tools were just emerging as a medium to shed light on some of the political and social trends in the region. So, these were new areas of inquiry and methodology in studying the region. With post Arab Spring developments, my work at the State Department geared towards conflict analysis and public diplomacy. I was privileged to advise former Ambassador Robert Ford and the United States’ delegation to the United Nations’ Geneva II negotiations on Syria, applying analytical methods such as game theory, spatial bargaining, and statistical cluster analysis in predictive conflict modeling. I then spent the next few years as a strategic planner with the Center for Strategic Counter-Terrorism Communications, before going on to lead the development of the Office of Advanced Data Analytics, as Deputy Director. My passion was always in doing democratization work in the Middle East. When the MEPI Director role became available, I said this is the perfect job for me – it’s where my training is! My Ph.D. dissertation was on the making of women’s rights in activism in Lebanon, and my master’s degree training is in international peace and conflict resolution. What I love about my job is that I am able to bring my methodological and quantitative background to our engagement in the region.
As the Director, how do you envisage your role, both vis a vis the American audience, and as the face of MEPI abroad?
Dr. Stephan: Internally, I see my role as embodying the vision for the work we do, and particularly to contextualize the why and the ‘so-what’ of our program. Externally, I see myself as representing an aspect of U.S. foreign policy and foreign assistance tools and show that we have this specific vehicle in MEPI that focuses on innovation, and on trying new ideas in order to make breakthroughs in our relations with the region, as well as on revitalizing, internally, how we have done things in the past.
As an initiative, MEPI is relatively new at the U.S. State Department. What was the impetus to create it?
Dr. Stephan: MEPI was an initiative of the George W. Bush administration and was officially launched in 2004 – so it’s about 15 years old. The initiative was created in response to a United Nations report on human development in the Middle East that really highlighted the deficit in knowledge and rights in the region. The idea of MEPI was to connect the people of the region and begin to bridge those deficits and gaps.
Is it fair to say that MEPI exists more in the foreign policy arena as opposed to the development sector?
Dr. Stephan: We are absolutely not in the development business. We see our work as a foreign policy tool. We are actually the face of US foreign policy that directly connects with the people and with non-state actors, as well as government representatives. What we try to do is to identify shared goals between citizens and governance officials in the MENA region, that reflect the values of democratization that are championed by the United States. We shape our work around that intersection of interest and shared goals.
MEPI was created only a handful of years before the revolution in Tunisia that led to the Arab Spring. It must have been opportune that the U.S. government had this initiative already in place to address the post-revolutionary needs of this strategic region. Has MEPI’s regional programming increased with the Arab Spring? How has MEPI navigated that transition in the region?
Dr. Stephan: It has actually been an ebb and flow for us. During the prime years of the Arab Spring, our budget increased in response to the needs on the ground. With the crowded space in the region with other donors and governments, and a tight-budget environment, our work has tended to reflect the changes on the ground. What we really pride ourselves in is that we are always on the cutting edge of the latest research and latest developments. I really believe that MEPI’s agility and responsiveness stems from its presence at the local level and its partnership with local actors who give us the pulse of the region. In doing so, we also empower many civil society organizations.
Are there any countries within the MENA region where you have not been active but where you would like to go?
Dr. Stephan: MEPI is not currently active in the United Arab Emirates or in Oman, and we are generally less active in Egypt. But we are pretty much active everywhere else. Generally, MEPI has been actively engaged with champions of democratization such as Tunisia and Morocco. We have also worked closely with reforming countries such as Jordan. Unfortunately, our work is more challenging in countries like Libya and Yemen, given the ongoing hostilities. Nonetheless, we’re still there, very much present and working! I would say that we want to be more present at the local level, at the municipal level – that’s where our impact is most felt, and is most transformative.
Our U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership is a prime example of the importance of working locally. Following the historic 2018 elections in Tunisia, we have been working with newly elected municipal officials in Tunisia to champion their work towards a more inclusive, participatory relationship with their constituents, boosting local economic growth through private-public partnerships, and on decentralization efforts to give municipalities and cities greater autonomy in decision-making.
What is unique and really pioneering with U.S.-MENA Experiential Partnership is our collaboration with the Arab American Institute Foundation to match newly elected municipal officials with Arab American public servants. This program is really unique in that it takes advantage of the competitive advantage the United States has in the diverse heritage of its public servants, in this case with Arab Americans, thanks to a shared cultural, historical and linguistic background.
One of the key lessons of the U.S–MENA Experiential Partnership was that many of the challenges the Tunisian officials face are similar to those that American officials face with their own constituents. That was very revelatory – good governance values are universal. They are about accountability, transparency, and responsiveness everywhere in the world – whether in Michigan or Tunis.
With political transitions in Algeria and Sudan in addition to countries like Syria and Yemen that are still mired in conflict, has MEPI learned any lessons from doing work in Morocco or Tunisia that it could apply to any potential work in say, Algeria?
Dr. Stephan: Our work in Algeria has been pretty consistent actually. I am very proud to say that MEPI is the only US foreign assistance program that has been in Algeria for some time, and remains in the country. While we are very supportive of all the initiatives that are taking place there, we are paying attention to the pulse on the street and to what our partners on the ground are focusing on. We realize that there is a lot of political discontent on the street, but economic problems remain very significant. Even with regime change, if you don’t have the economic foundation and democratic processes, it can be very difficult to transition peacefully.
A cross-cutting theme of MEPI’s work is a focus on fostering a rapprochement between the government and the citizen in the MENA region. Why did you choose to champion this notion?
Dr. Stephan: Participatory government is one of our primary focus areas. Recent research has shown that the third wave of democratization in the world has not really been as impactful and transformative at the citizen level. One of the guiding questions in our work is “how can we change civic mentality from that of citizens as recipients of goods and services from the state, to one where they are partners in decision-making and allocation of resources?” We are the U.S. foreign policy tool that focuses specifically on that; on pitching citizens as partners and encouraging governments to view them as such.
How has it been championing citizens while navigating your relationship with governments as an American foreign policy tool? Are you welcomed?
Dr. Stephan: MEPI has been so committed to advancing the voice of citizens that we have, at times, faced some criticism and resistance from governments, particularly during the heydays of the Arab Spring. We remain committed to our work, nonetheless. We have certainly learned some lessons along the way. Today, the political environment is very different than immediately after the Arab Spring, or even before. Presently, when we pitch our new vision to countries that previously would not want any programming, they are a lot more receptive. We really have seen these countries change attitudes. It’s a testimony to the efficacy of our work. We believe that to have any meaningful change, you do need the state to be involved. As such, collaborating and getting buy-in from the state is something we have been very successful in doing.
Another area of focus for MEPI is on economic prosperity. Why is that? Is it a response to the grievances that you see in the MENA region? Or is it just a traditional American value that you champion? Or maybe both?
Dr. Stephan: It is both – economic advancement without advancement in democratic values can produce totalitarian regimes. Democracy without economic advancement really cannot go forward either. Economic wellbeing is very important for a budding democracy. After the Arab Spring, many countries were quick to embrace democratic traditions, with elections, for instance, being held throughout the region. However, several components of the democratic transition were not present; especially economic opportunities. For MENA, economic opportunities to really revolutionize the economy of the region have to look at the challenges, but also the opportunities that the breakthroughs of the 21st century have brought, so they can be ready to govern economically and technologically in a progressive environment.
A survey of your work indicates that you put a great value on public-private partnerships and in engaging the private sector in your programming. Do you see a lot of growth there for MEPI?
Dr. Stephan: Absolutely. For us, this is for us a win-win solution. One, we know that the American brand is a recognized brand worldwide, and people have great respect for our products and our values. When we promote American products in the region, we also promote American standards. When the American private sector is also invested in many of the projects we champion, we find that these initiatives are a lot less likely to die after funding. Our programming is rooted in the notion that economics are a very big part of diplomacy and democracy promotion – that’s an integral part of our work.
How does MEPI measure success for its programming?
Monitoring and evaluation is a cornerstone of our programing. We have also adopted a very rigorous approach in how we measure success called the Outcome Evaluation Index (OEI), which measures and scores the efficacy of our programming based on six factors: responsiveness to local demands, scalability, meeting targets set, follow-up activities, organizational credibility, and ripple effect. This methodology has the added benefit of allowing us to evaluate different programs against one another to assess how they satisfy the six categories. This exercise is quite important since it also informs our decision to continue funding the project.
Do you have a favorite success story or a favorite country where MEPI’s programing has been particularly impactful?
Dr. Stephan: My favorite success story is the get-out-the-vote (GOTV) campaign in Tunisia that was spearheaded under the #iVoteTunisia hashtag campaign. On the run up to the historic 2018 elections in Tunisia, MEPI was able to mobilize resources – within a week – to support a group of students who had previously participated in our Student Leader program run by Georgetown University, in their GOTV campaign. The students got a bus and took their caravan traveling all over Tunisia to encourage citizens to vote. They launched the hashtag #iVoteTunisia which was hugely successful. It reached 2 million people in less than 2 weeks. Given how small the population of Tunisia is, that’s really huge.
Another wonderful MEPI success story that we are immensely proud of is having two Nobel Peace Prize Winners within the MEPI family: Tawakol Karman in Yemen, who was a MEPI graduate, and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet in Tunisia, which negotiated the writing of Tunisia’s constitution after the revolution.
A final question, where do you hope to see MEPI in five years? Or ten years?
Dr. Stephan: I would like for us to be more analytically-grounded. I’d like to gear MEPI into using analytics and data science more effectively. I would also like for us to offer every entrepreneur, whether she/he is a social entrepreneur or agent of change, the opportunity to realize their dream and impact their community. Given the challenges and this transitional period in the MENA region, MEPI’s work couldn’t be more impactful as it is right now.
Edited by: Hilary Gelfond
Photo by: Elly Rostoum