The Knowledge Economy

How do poor countries advance social scientific research agendas to better their societies? Are their agendas set by their own self-determined needs or by the interests of outsiders? Since the end of the Cold War, says political scientist Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed El-Sayed, researchers dependent on foreign aid have less and less control over how the funds are used. In Egypt, funding from foreign donors is crucial to research on almost any issue. In this short survey of donor institutions – including the US' Ford Foundation, Germany's Friedrich Naumann Foundation, and the World Bank – El-Sayed argues that research institutions in Egypt are also beholden to the interests of their funders, many of whom explicitly aim to promote democratic values, equality of the sexes, and internationally recognized norms of justice. Although these aims are not "of no relevance to Egypt and Arab countries," he says, research centers in Egypt must follow a foreign agenda, "or simply perish." – YaleGlobal

The Knowledge Economy

The South may appear to have shaken off the colonial North, but research is big business and money is influence
Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed
Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The process of globalisation has many faces: economic, political and military. Although the dissemination of knowledge through new media of communication has attracted attention, few studies have dealt with the way the North controls, or tries to control, the process of the creation of knowledge, becoming an indirect means by which the North shapes public policies in the South.

It does not take much to demonstrate that any kind of foreign aid is explicitly or implicitly tied. Foreign aid is a power relationship. The donor is the powerful party. Rarely is it a case of intercursive power, where each party has a degree of influence over the other. The recipient's range of choices is conditioned by this relationship. Some courses of action seem more favourable, either because resources are available, or because they are likely to meet with the donor's blessing. Other alternatives are disregarded, or not even imagined, because they seem out of favour in the donor community.

The importance of foreign aid as a tool of influencing domestic policies of recipient countries has definitely increased in the post-Cold War context. During the Cold War, recipient countries (mostly in Asia, Africa and Latin America) had a certain margin of manoeuvre. They could seek foreign aid from countries of the Liberal camp, led by the US, or from Socialist countries. Petroleum-exporting countries emerged briefly in the 1970s and the 1980s as generous aid donors before the fall in real and nominal terms of prices of oil. With the margin of manoeuvre almost disappearing, recipients of foreign aid have had no other option but to concede to conditionalities. These conditionalities extended to include changes ranging from liberalisation of the economy to liberalisation of the political system.

Such considerations seem to be self-evident in all cases of official development assistance. Is this also the case of private aid that comes from non- governmental organisations? The donors could be private foundations that have no formal links to the respective governments. The recipients are often universities and research centres that could be either completely private or public institutions with a degree of autonomy outside the conventional government structure. Does this kind of aid reflect also a power relationship between the donor agency and the recipient institution?

Egypt, as many developing countries, devotes little to scientific research and social science research in particular. Expenditure on scientific research does not exceed 0.6 per cent of GDP. Most of such allocations go to pay meagre salaries leaving very little for research itself. National universities, which are all public institutions, have very little in their budgets to finance research projects.

Striving to resolve this problem, the government relied on foreign aid to support research in areas of priority to public policy; a preference which favoured some natural and applied science faculties. As some of the research centres operating in these faculties have products that could be marketed, they sought to establish links with both public sector and private sector firms. Some of these centres became indeed quite wealthy by Egyptian standards. This is particularly the case with research centres in engineering and medicine. Unfortunately this was not the case of social science.

Two institutions took the lead in establishing social science research centres: Al-Ahram newspaper and the Faculty of Economics and Political Science of Cairo University. Following Arab defeat against Israel in June 1967, Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, then editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram and confident of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, realised, together with other Egyptian intellectuals, that Egyptians lacked solid knowledge of Israel. Heikal established in 1968 the Centre of Palestinian and Zionist Studies. Some of the brightest social science graduates were recruited to work at the centre. Following Nasser's death in September 1970, President Anwar El-Sadat, his successor, strove gradually to shift Egypt's policy towards Israel and the US. When signs of the new policy became clear, the first generation of researchers at Al-Ahram's Centre, including Nasser's son-in law, left. Two Egyptian social scientists who completed their graduate studies in Canada and the US came back to Egypt and joined Al-Ahram's Centre, which changed its name thereafter to the Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (CPSS). These were namely political scientist Ali Helal Dessouki and sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim.

Reflecting a degree of freedom of scientific research and more generally a degree of political and economic liberalisation in the country, a number of university and private research centres were established. Two were prominent, namely the Centre for Political Research and Studies at Cairo University, whose second director was Ali Helal Dessouki, and the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies led by Saadeddin Ibrahim. The two centres had no public source of financing. Their two leaders, quite knowledgeable about US foundations, turned to foreign foundations for funding. Their impressive success set a pattern that was followed later by others. Even Al-Ahram's CPSS found that foreign funding was the only way to go.

At present, a large number of foreign and international and regional organisations are involved in funding social science research in Egypt. Both the World Bank and the European Union support activities of the Economic Forum of Arab Countries, Iran and Turkey. The United Nations Programme has offered funds to support research activities at Cairo University. The Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development provided indispensable assistance to the Third World Forum that carried out an ambitious research project to explore the future of Egypt. Donor agencies of Canada, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries offer support mostly to government agencies or to human rights groups.

However, the most important of private donors active in supporting social science research in Egypt are the US-based Ford Foundation and three German foundations, namely the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and Friedrich Naumann Stiftung (FNS) foundations. Ford is unquestionably the most prominent. Other foundations rely occasionally on Ford to support their projects. This was specifically the case for the FNS and the French Centre for Judicial, Economic and Social Studies and Documentation, known as CEDEJ.

In their statement of mission all these organisations proclaim their attachment to principles of political democracy and market economy. The Ford Foundation has notably added social justice among the goals it strives to promote. Its enumerated goals are: "strengthening democratic values", "reducing poverty and injustice", and "promoting international cooperation and advancing human achievement".

Similar ideas are to be found in statements of mission of the other foundations. KAS's office in Egypt makes the liberal orientation of the foundation explicit. In carrying out its activities, the office emphasises in particular: (a) "Consolidating the ever democratising political and social order, particularly through supporting the political discourse within the country and the dialogue with partners from abroad"; (b) "Mobilising the enlightened parts of Egyptian civil society with the aim to develop pluralism on the basis of tolerance and freedom of opinion and speech"; and (c) "Strengthening the socio-economic development in view of the worsening economic situation in the country through the support of social market concepts, that promise to be successful despite the widespread poverty and the large differences in living conditions/ standards". The FNS's office in Cairo explains its commitment thus: "The Friedrich Naumann Foundation is the foundation for ideas on liberty and training in freedom. It wants to contribute to the furtherance of the principle of freedom in human dignity in all sectors of society in the united Germany as well as together with partners abroad."

The mission statement of the FNS goes on to elaborate on what it means by basic liberal values: "We believe that the conditions of individual liberty include the rule of law, equal access to full and varied condition, freedom of speech, association and access to information, equal rights and opportunities for women and men, tolerance of diversity, social inclusion, the promotion of private enterprise and of opportunities for employment. We believe that civil society and constitutional democracy provide the most just and stable basis for political order. We see civil society as constituted by free citizens, living within a framework of established law, with individual rights guaranteed with the powers of government limited and subject to democratic accountability."

In order to find out how foreign funding influences social science research agenda in Egypt, one would have to examine all research projects funded by these foundations and compare them to research projects undertaken by nationally funded institutions. However, not all these foundations give a complete list of all the research projects they support. In the case of Ford Foundation, it offers mostly funding to research programmes submitted by research centres, and publishes on its Web site news of all the grants it offered. But the Web site does not provide details of research projects included in each grant.

Both the KAS and the FNS shed some light on specific research or educational activities they support: the KAS by naming these projects, the FNS by defining the area in which they fall. The KAS supported research projects on democratisation (four projects), governance (one project), the situation of private business people (one project), participation in development (one project), the situation of women (one project), the religious situation in Egypt (two projects), the new international economy (one project) and security in the Mediterranean region (two projects). Most of these projects were carried out by centres at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science (four projects by one centre at the Faculty of Economics and Political Science, and Al-Ahram's CPSS (two projects). Activities of the FNS related to civic education (two projects), human rights (four projects), democratic development (two projects), NGO development (one project), media (one project) and women's rights (one project). All these projects belong to one area: "democratic development", which encompasses all of them. Finally, activities of the FES focussed almost entirely in the year 2000 on environmental awareness and protection and moved in 2001 to provide support to small and medium enterprises and to NGOs.

It is quite clear from this survey of activities of private funding agencies in Egypt that they are guided by one agenda which focusses on issues of economic and political liberalisation, broadly conceived to include questions of empowerment of women, supporting NGOs and threats to this process that could emanate from the Islamist movement. Although the scope of activities of Ford Foundation is much larger, these issues figure prominently in its activities. The one million dollar endowment awarded to the Economic Forum of Arab Countries, Iran and Turkey is given to an organisation supported by the World Bank and which takes a strong stand in support of economic liberalisation in these countries. A major programme of the Ford Foundation offers funding to human rights organisations and another one supports empowerment of women. This article does not argue that such agenda is of no relevance to Egypt and Arab countries. However, by limiting funding mostly to these issues, national research centres which have no other source of funding find themselves persuaded to produce knowledge on these issues, or simply perish.

Another way of answering the same question is by examining areas of research in both foreign funded and nationally funded centres to find out whether there are any qualitative differences amongst them. The examination of programmes of social science research centres in Egypt suggests: (a) Foreign funded institutions are much more visible in terms of media coverage of their activities; (b) Their topics are quite diverse in nature and cover wide ranging areas within the domain of their activities; (c) Topics covered by nationally funded institutions are more locally--oriented and lack usually a solid theoretical foundation; (d) Most foreign funded research centres rarely rely on one source of funding, and this allows them a larger degree of freedom in the choice of their research agendas; (e) The centres which get largest funding are those which advocate Liberal orientation of economic and social policies, particularly the Economic Research Forum, and Al-Ahram's CPSS; (f) Certain topics are rarely considered by foreign funded centres, such as Arab and Africa economic cooperation, sound management of the public sector or alternatives to the Washington Consensus.

The writer is professor of political science and head of the Centre for Development Studies at Cairo University.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly Online: 19 - 24 February 2004 (Issue No. 678).