Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond

| March 10, 2022
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Delta Democracy: Pathways to Incremental Civic Revolution in Egypt and Beyond, Catherine E. Herrold (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 224 pp., cloth $105, paperback $31.95, eBook $21.99.

Catherine E. Herrold’s Delta Democracy is published by Oxford University Press in coordination with the organization Bridging the Gap, as part of its book series contributing to debates about global issues and foreign policy. Books in this series are intended to be accessible and of interest to policymakers and scholars alike. The book series is one component of Bridging the Gap’s larger effort to equip scholars and graduate students with the skills needed to have their work be relevant to policymakers while maintaining a strong theoretical grounding and rigorous methodological approach. Delta Democracy more than meets these goals and makes important contributions to scholarly literature and to our understanding of international development and foreign policy concerning the complex role of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt and elsewhere.

Herrold’s book is based on her ethnographic research in Egypt on how local NGOs develop and implement strategies to enhance democratic practices and inculcate democratic values. Herrold first arrived in Egypt in January 2010, a full year before the Egyptian revolution began in January 2011. Many researchers would have been completely derailed by a historic event of this level taking place in the middle of their ongoing project, but Herrold describes how she adjusted her work to include the many changes in Egypt while maintaining a consistent approach in studying the role of outside funding and other factors related to the operation of civil society organizations. The result is a book that has a clear and well-grounded methodological approach, presents novel information to scholarly and policy-oriented audiences, questions and tests the received wisdom about how to view NGOs in autocracies (not neatly fitting into categories of full co-optation or adversarial contestation), and offers specific advice to policymakers charged with formulating U.S. international development policy.

The author convincingly argues that there is more going on with many Egyptian NGOs than meets the eye. Her description of her research trajectory during the tumultuous period following the Egyptian revolution is transparent and should serve as a model for how successful fieldwork happens in a dynamic environment. Herrold’s ethnographic method of snowball sampling (whereby study participants recommend and recruit further participants) and direct observation took her from an initial focus on foundations, to human rights NGOs, and then to the organizations at the heart of this story, the many development NGOs across the country. (It is noteworthy, however, that the snowball approach brought the author back to the foundations—her initial focus—for reexamination.)

The development NGOs play the starring role in this volume. In ways that are not always obvious, these organizations do the quiet but effective work of incremental democratization, creating opportunities for participation; free expression (defined, more broadly, as including artistic expression); and rights claims (in areas such as public health, education, employment, and public local services). These local NGOs do not always explicitly articulate democracy as a goal or mission, yet Herrold sees them as affecting democratic outcomes. The integration of the democratic elements mentioned above and an understanding of national economic and policy issues presents a different and perhaps more powerful approach to democratic development than the focus on procedural democracy more often promoted by the United States and international organizations. At times, the author slightly overstates the emphasis the United States placed on promoting procedural democracy and exporting American-style institutional designs, missing the ways that U.S. development policies have evolved over the last few decades. But her main point is still well taken.

There is much to criticize when examining U.S. development policy in the Middle East and North Africa. In surveying the last several decades, it is difficult to name a great success of U.S. democracy promotion in the region. The author points out that this is partly due to the strategy employed by the U.S. government of focusing on institutions and formal processes, and also due to a failure to define and measure progress in developing democratic practices. Yes, institutions and formal procedures still matter, and a certain emphasis on legislatures, judiciaries, and elections is reasonable and appropriate. But these types of projects are narrowly focused on the behavior of a small segment of society and represent a highly technical approach to institutional capacity building. This strategy also presupposes that what is most important is what can be most readily measured and reported as part of the monitoring and evaluation requirements for the contractors implementing these projects. It is much more challenging to assess long-term progress toward the inculcation of democratic values and practices, something that is well known at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

To be fair to USAID, an increasing number of projects work with local partners and focus less on formal national institutions. And progress has been made in creating more nuanced monitoring and evaluation approaches, but useful and accurate assessment of democratic development remains an overall challenge for both policymakers and scholars alike. This is one area where the book could use more evidence regarding its claims about the NGOs in Egypt: These organizations maintain their approach is more effective and sustainable in the long run. But is this the case? On the face of it, it makes sense that local organizations would be more effective than external actors, particularly those attached to the U.S. government, which comes weighed down by the baggage of other policy decisions and mistakes. But the argument—by the NGOs and the author—needs supporting evidence. This is not an oversight by the author. Instead, Herrold clearly makes a point of highlighting the tricky nature of defining and assessing democracy and weighing claims (or promises) of progress. The local development NGOs, in the end, face the same challenges to doing so as the U.S government.

Yet one challenge faced by the local NGOs that is not shared by the U.S. government is funding, which poses an existential risk. Accepting outside funds is in many circumstances illegal and, at the very least, imperils the organizations and leaves NGO staff concerned about legal consequences. These concerns are not merely theoretical either. In the wake of the 2011 revolution, there were crackdowns on international NGOs, including expulsions and arrests. More recently, laws governing the licensing and operation of NGOs have constrained the reach of the organizations and limited their ability to accept foreign funding. This is true even when the funding is coming from the United States, which Egypt sees as a key regional ally. In fact, it is the very nature of U.S.-Egyptian relations that constrains development assistance to NGOs that support, either explicitly or implicitly, democracy. Egypt receives a large amount of U.S. military assistance, approximately $1.3 billion per year. This amount underscores a strategic relationship that does not include democratization as a core element. While there are members of U.S. Congress advocating to have the subjects of democracy and human rights included in decisions about continued military funding to Egypt, it remains largely a peripheral issue, no matter which party controls the White House.

Herrold’s advice for U.S. policymakers focuses on the formulation and implementation of development policy. This includes “de-siloing” grant making (seeking more connections across functional areas), supporting new types of grantees, reforming the notoriously onerous proposal and reporting requirements for USAID grantees and contractors, and promoting national values rather than institutional ones. This is all good advice, and current USAID administrator Samantha Power appears to agree. She recently announced reforms intended to give more grants to local partners and to streamline the USAID bureaucracy. Taking on the major U.S. development contractors who benefit from the current system is a major challenge that has been attempted before, notably during the Obama administration and the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the time might be right to make more progress in reforming the way USAID does business, and      encourage U.S. development programs to work more closely with the State Department’s many public diplomacy initiatives.

It is an open question how much of the Egyptian case can be generalized to other countries. The answer might be ultimately mixed. The author’s study of local NGOs and the ways in which they deftly support the enhancement of democratic practices and values is certainly required reading for anyone interested in this topic—scholars and policymakers alike. The methodology and the findings are important steps forward and can illuminate other cases of NGOs operating in authoritarian contexts. However, questions about the nature and structure of U.S. development policy in Egypt, particularly on the subject of policy aimed at supporting democracy and governance, are likely less generalizable because of the overarching weight of the strategic bilateral relationship. In fact, the author’s important points about how to improve U.S. support for democracy might well be more effective in many places other than Egypt, in countries that are not seen as geostrategic bulwarks (the word used about Egypt for decades) and where there is some flexibility to experiment and do things differently. Nevertheless, this is an outstanding book and highly recommended for anyone interested in local NGOs, in how democracy advances incrementally, and in the ways in which U.S. foreign policy can be adjusted to be more effective.


—James Ketterer

James Ketterer is dean of the School of Continuing Education at the American University in Cairo and senior fellow at the Bard Center for Civic Engagement.

To access a PDF of this review, please visit Cambridge Core.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 36.1

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