Musings on the Middle East Program   (1976)  p. 1 of 2

          Perhaps it's the air, or the water; something about the Middle East leads one to question his origins and his purposes. It is the home of god-fearing religions -- compelling but uncomfortable sets of belief, inducing doubts of one's own worth and, typically, firm convictions of the worthlessness of those who worship otherwise. It breeds a restlessness and sense of foreboding, only superficially mitigated by the carefree Mediterranean for those who live by its shores.


Crusader castle, Syria

        Now, sitting in Vermont, where we seem to get Beirut's annual rainfall each week, trying to distill from the turbulent five past years some order or clarity of the experience, the passion drains from the argument. Why not be content with a good solid professional program in agriculture, population, education and economic planning and management?  That is what the receptive governments in the Middle East want and expect from the Foundation. That is what the New York office urges. That is what the Foundation's staff and experience offer the professional competence to do.    

       Why agonize over the beliefs and the values of another culture, the pervasive impact of modern technology on traditional institutions, the attitudes towards life and work instilled in early childhood? 

          Why, in short, did we become so involved in the culture of the region in the process of formulating the Foundation's Middle East program when it appeared that both Arabs and Officers would have been more comfortable if we had not?  This paper attempts to examine the powerful influence of culture on Middle Eastern development, and hence on our development assistance strategy. 


          Ever since the Point Four program proved so disappointing a sequel to the Marshall Plan, development agencies have sought to find out what, in addition to capital, is needed to stimulate societies to self-sustained growth. Obviously, people in less developed countries were unable to make as effective use of capital assistance as the Europeans because they had not been adequately trained and they lacked modern institutions. Foreign aid programs have consequently focused for the last two decades on building "human capital" and institutions. 

          Despite the general lament that insufficient resources are devoted to development assistance programs, I think it is fair to say treat the results from the amounts now spent are still disappointing. There are national success stories like Korea and Taiwan, which seem to suggest that if the foreign assistance is massive, remarkable growth can be achieved. Or perhaps, when Singapore and Hong Kong are added to the list of successes, the conclusion may be that if money is abundant and the population is Chinese, rapid development is possible. 

          But overall, the national and international development efforts since the Marshall Plan have failed to the extent that many now doubt their eventual success. Population growth and natural resource depletion may outrun the ability of societies to control their destinies. It is possible that a greater foreign aid effort by the developed and oil-rich countries would turn the tide, but we should at least consider the possibility that foreign aid strategy is mistakenly allocating the present effort. We may be devoting too much attention to training elites and not enough to changing the attitudes, values and abilities of the masses. 

The Western strategy of fostering modern institutions and training local people to operate them has been able to reach relatively few people. Often the chosen few have become alienated from their own societies by their advanced training. As a result, many intellectuals seek employment in advanced countries or find ways to insulate themselves and their families from the masses of their own people at home. Other familiar problems include the growth of inappropriate institutions, the use of inappropriate technology and a host of anomalies, inequities and absurdities readily observable in the developing world. 

The process of elite development has gone too far in most countries to be reversed, even if assistance agencies changed their objectives. Perhaps the creation of elites was a necessary part of decolonization. In any case, they do exist in most developing countries. The problem now is their tendency to isolate and entrench themselves and their families. For foreign assistance agencies, the problem becomes one of ensuring that the chief beneficiaries of their programs are the masses and not merely the elites. 

While this is familiar rhetoric in foreign assistance circles these days, the program implications of it are less clear. Having defined program objectives in terms of mass impact, or helping the poorest of the poor, it is not obvious how this is to be done without encountering a dilemma. Many programs with the objective of aiding the poor have inadvertently resulted in the creation of institutions that in effect foster and maintain new elites. Universities are conspicuous examples in most countries, as are hospitals and even agricultural research programs. (Probably the most revolutionary element of the Green Revolution was the focusing on farmer output as the measure of success rather than scholarly publication by the researchers.)         

It seems to me that the most effective way to avoid this dilemma is to begin by analyzing the services needed at the local level, and then design an institution or program to meet the need. Imported methodology or technology will generally be required, but it can be selected and adapted effectively only if the local problems are well understood and accurately diagnosed.       

This of course requires an understanding of the culture as well as knowledge of technological or methodological alternatives. This is one argument for greater cultural sensitivity on the part of development assistance agencies. An understanding of the culture is needed to ensure that assistance reaches the people and meets real needs. 

          The second reason, which emerges by implication from the discussion above, is that cultures themselves contain elements that inhibit modernization. Examples include the following:  

-- languages that lack technical terminology, retain archaic syntax, or lack nuance;

-- superstitions concerning causes of weather, crop performance, disease;

-- attitudes towards time, work, leisure;

-- patterns of interpersonal relations that inhibit mobility and contain rigid class boundaries, depressants of initiative;

-- values, such as measuring wealth by numbers of cattle, age veneration, kinship obligations, low achievement motivation. 

          These cultural variables determine the context for all development programs, but they are seldom explicitly recognized. One could argue that cultural variables contain the most serious and intractable obstacles to development. If that is the case, and I believe it is, why isn't more being done about it? 

          Obviously, no one believes development is the most important of life's values. Nor is it clear which attitudes, beliefs and values must change, or how they may change and remain consistent with the cultural heritage. There is no blueprint for cultural development, only models of other cultures that have developed, and they all have features that are unenviable. Every culture-group proudly bears distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from others. Some values and mores of traditional cultures are properly admired by sensitive people from developed countries. Indeed, if development can occur without the destruction of traditional hospitality, courtesy and self-sacrifice that typify some cultures, a more meaningful and pleasant style of life may emerge than we have yet achieved. 

          Still, there are some tasks that societies must somehow learn to master if they are to use modern technology to produce more. Russians, Japanese, French, Americans and others have painfully learned how to make and use modern technology without losing their cultural identities. They have not done so without damage to ancient values, of course, and all remain constantly engaged in the struggle to retain meaning in life while increasing its abundance.         

          Is there a role for foreign assistance agencies in the intimate and delicate process of cultural redefinition and modernization?  Clearly, the answers to cultural questions must come from the people of the culture. But foreigners can sometimes help to formulate the questions. They can also bring to bear the experience of others, the methodologies successful elsewhere. And they can work with local people on the adaptation of imported methods and technology to specific needs. 

          The level of abstraction in this paper may have exceeded the bounds of tolerance for a program discussion, but in the Middle East the abstractions can take on concrete meaning. A fascinating example is Kuwait, where the traditional Bedouin Arab-Islamic culture, ancient and proud, has acquired the fruits of modernization without the grinding process of gradually increasing the productivity of the people. Money doesn't grow on trees, but it gushes from the ground, which obviates even the intricacies of horticulture. The economic problem is solved for a few generations, without the necessity of modernizing the culture. 

          The results are curious, if only casually observed and little understood. A few remarkable Kuwaitis head modern institutions staffed almost entirely by foreigners. Most of the Kuwaiti population seems baffled by the new age, unable to find the motivation to take advantage of their extraordinary educational and occupational opportunities. The crude birth rate, unlike other countries where full modern health and social services are available, has risen to 51 per 1000, one of the highest in the world. 

          It would be interesting to conduct comparative research on Kuwait and Israel, where a highly modern cultural group undertook to develop a land not greatly blessed by minerals and agro-climate, however blessed it may otherwise be. In practice, such research could not escape the political and emotional currents of the region; but I think the mere contemplation of the juxtaposition is revealing of the vast role of culture in development. 

          (It should in no sense be demeaning of the Kuwaitis to say this. The Bedouin culture is an admirable one, enabling a hardy people to challenge a harsh natural regime with poetry in their breasts. Modern life offers benefits of physical comfort, but quite possibly these are accompanied by an initial moral decline. That is another subject, one worthy of sustained attention. Here it needs only to be noted that in propounding the cause of development, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to claim a higher moral position.)  

          The Bedouin culture of the peninsula is only one of the traditional cultures of the Middle East. The region also has a long peasant tradition and the world's earliest urban development. The complexity of the cultural pattern has challenged program managers since the Beirut office was opened. There follows a review of some of Don Kingsley's thinking and my own on the programmatic implications of Middle Eastern culture(s), and then an examination in these terms of selected elements of our program over the last few years. 


Cultural factors quickly intrude upon the thinking of those seeking to formulate development programs in the Middle East. The pervasive presence of Islam and the undefinable quality of Arabism are influences ever pressing on program design but never well understood. We are baffled most perhaps by the obvious similarity of Middle Eastern peoples to ourselves, and the less obvious, but still fundamental, differences between us.

          Arab, Turk and European interaction has been frequent, if not friendly, throughout history. Military and intellectual superiority seems to have pendulumed back and forth through time. For the past several hundred years, however, the gong seems to have been struck in the European sector; the gap between the cultures seems seldom to have been greater. But why?  Did the Reformation set us apart?  Did the industrial revolution open a gulf by advancing the Europeans and at the same time holding back the Arabs?  Are the rigors of a northern climate so much more conducive to effort than the warmth of the Mediterranean and the desert?  Is rainfed agriculture a spur to independence and freedom unmatchable in regimes dependent on irrigation?  Is the poetry and rhetoric of Arabic unsuited to the precision required in modern life?  Was the Ottoman Empire so stifling an institution that a century will be needed to erase its effects? 

          Questions such as these constantly assail the minds of those responsible for formulating program strategies while they are daily confronted with the patterned irrationality of so many aspects of life in the Middle East. 

          During Don Kingsley's first year in Beirut he wrote a staff discussion paper called An Approach to Foundation Programming in the Middle East (November 7, 1968). In it he discussed many aspects of the operational environment of the Foundation in the region. After dwelling briefly on Islam and Pan Arabism he has an interesting section headed "The Middle East as a State of Mind."  In it he considers such factors as the transcendental quality of words and symbols in Middle Eastern culture, the apparent Arab tendency to confuse objective facts with subjective thinking, the dearth of analytical thinking and of objective observation and evaluation, the rigid legal system and ideology of Islam, and the peculiar character of the Arabic language as a culture carrier. 

          Don concluded: 

          "The mind of the Middle East is literary rather than scientific, inspirational rather than operational, intuitive rather than deductive. If this is true -- and there is a host of distinguished witnesses to its validity -- it must profoundly affect strategy, the dynamics and the pace of the modernization process and the character of programs designed to facilitate it."  

Kingsley tentatively suggested three areas for program focus in addition to food production and population:   (1) intellectual and functional isolation;  (2) patterns and methods of thought; and  (3) political instability. These formulations reflected his analysis of the cultural climate in which he was working. 

He attributed intellectual and functional isolation historically to the sterility of the Ottoman Empire and more recently to the political antipathy that arose between the Arabs and the West as a consequence of the creation of Israel. He suggested that the Foundation should stimulate Middle Eastern/Western dialogues on professional and scientific levels and among leadership groups. 

          Don looked to the social sciences as useful tools for fostering general concepts of causality and probability in Arab thought processes. He also suggested that consideration be given to efforts to modernize the Arabic language. 

          Recognizing the limited impact the Foundation could hope to play in increasing political stability in the region he, nevertheless, thought that a small contribution could be made by encouraging the growth of associations of intellectuals, professors and other opinion-makers; by supporting research by local scholars on problems of political organization; and by encouraging the private business sector when one was found to exist. 

          In succeeding years our program objectives and strategies have naturally evolved from the Kingsley formulation, but up to the present time restatements of our plans and objectives have continued to grapple with the impact of the Arab-Islamic culture on the development process. We have continued to allocate substantial resources to increasing food production and limiting population growth, and we have added a concern for the environment; but our greatest challenges have remained in the cultural field.  

          Nearly every year an occasion arose to write a discussion paper in which our program was reformulated or at least articulated somewhat differently. The first exercise, in March 1972, was a paper prepared for a review by the Trustees of our work in the Middle East. The formulation of objectives in that paper was heavily dependent upon the Kingsley analysis. Perhaps the most significant change was the addition of an explicit objective concerning the cultural development of women. This modification reflected the role of women in inculcating cultural patterns and methods of thought in succeeding generations..

          In May 1973 a program discussion document that became known as the Curfew Paper dwelt at some length on historical and cultural factors influencing Middle Eastern development and suggested that our goal should be to assist Arab modernization with the minimum necessary departure from traditional values and beliefs. The paper contained a rather extensive discussion of the nature of the development process in which the relationship between culture and technology was examined. It suggested that development could be defined as the adaptation of a culture to a higher level of technology.  

          In the Curfew Paper our program efforts were regrouped into:  

-- those fostering individual development;

-- those enhancing the usefulness of modern scholarship;

-- those facilitating Arab interaction with the outside world.  

          In May 1974 a short reformulation again grouped program activities under three major themes as follows:  

-- The individual and modernization:  Activities designed to help prepare the child for modern life, including projects dealing with childrearing, psycholinguistics, science and mathematics teaching, and Arabic and English teaching.  

          -- Technology and social systems:  Activities designed to enhance the responsiveness of Middle Eastern institutions to the requirements of modern technology, including the following: agricultural economic, economic, social, legal, environmental, and sociolinguistic research; management; and population.  

-- Technological adaptation:  Activities designed to improve the relevance of modern technology to the Middle East, primarily through ALAD.  

In reflecting on why both Don Kingsley and I found it necessary to depart from the Foundation's standard program categories in articulating our conceptions of the Middle East program, it seems to me the major reason is that the standard categories are useful for budgeting, but at least in the Middle East, inadequate as program descriptors. In a sense they imply a uniformity of approach to work in these broad sectors that, if true, may not be wholly desirable.  

          Any set of categories implicitly reveals assumptions about the nature of the development process. The standard categories suggest to me that we believe our role to be to assist societies to acquire and use modern knowledge in growing more food, limiting population, training the young, and planning and managing their institutions. The implication seems to be that modern ways of performing these tasks will be similar everywhere. 

          Kingsley and I were searching for categories that would encompass somewhat different programs. Importing and adapting Western ways of performing certain functions continued to characterize most of the work of the Middle East office, but we also strove to find ways of working on underlying cultural phenomena which seem to inhibit Arab development. 

          My own ruminations led to quite different programmatic prescriptions from Don's. I grew doubtful of the ability of the non-economic social sciences to influence policy-makers, and to nurture concepts of causality and probability in the culture. 

          My colleagues and I were also skeptical of the benefits of increasing professional contacts with the West; we preferred to work on ways to encourage already Westernized scholars to apply their skills to Arab society.  

          Occasionally, we found an opportunity to support experimental projects that dealt more directly with cultural impediments to development. Kingsley had suggested work on the modernization of Arabic, and Richard Tucker expanded our perceptions of what that process might involve. Salah Al Tomah gingerly explored program opportunities in the field, and we proceeded to fund a project in Lebanon, which backfired badly when it was misinterpreted to the sheikhs of Al-Azhar. We are still in the field, convinced of the vital importance of improving Arabic teaching methods for the entire educational process, but we proceed slowly and warily. 

          Gradually, our thinking about how to deal with the cultural dimensions of development focused on the cultural environment in which the individual is prepared for modern life. This concept includes the formal education process, and the acquisition of the basic tools of language, science and mathematics, within it. But an important formative period occurs before formal schooling begins, and it is this span that increasingly drew my own attention. 

          Childrearing is not normally a high priority field in foreign aid, yet it is in the first five or six years of life that an individual's attitudes, values and beliefs are first formed. Later cognitive development is also greatly affected by the environment of the child in these critical years. All of these individual characteristics change later in life, but psychologists generally agree that change is less rapid and more difficult in later years. Many of the cultural traits that bedevil efforts to modernize management, education and government are introduced in these early years. The motivation for high fertility may also spring, in ways we don't understand, from attitudes and values acquired early. 

          Recognition of the commonplace fact that women, especially mothers, dominate the formative five years led to our program interest in women. The universal concern for advancing women's lot that seized the Foundation came later, reinforcing our sense of the importance of the neglected sex. 

          Cultural factors have thus had an important influence on two of the three categories that encompassed our programs in the 1974 paper. The third, the adaptation of agricultural technology to Middle Eastern agro-climatic conditions, was a large and important part of the total program, but less influenced by the cultural environment and hence not central to this paper. 

          We have seen how the other two categories, (A) institutional modernization and (B) individual modernization, could equally well be categorized as (A) standard Foundation programs that are deeply affected by the cultural environment and (B) programs that are conceived in direct response to the cultural environment.  

          The distinctions are not tidy, but they have had real value to me in conceptualizing and describing our work. In the following section, examples of work in these two categories are used to illustrate the difference.  


Category A.  

While Kingsley and I were restlessly trying to understand the impact of the history and culture of the Middle East on the development process and to engineer appropriate program responses, most of the resources of the Middle East program continued to be channeled into agricultural research, population, social sciences, management and education projects which would be familiar to any of our field offices. One could dwell upon the ways in which Middle Eastern culture affected the results of our efforts in each of these fields but I think the social sciences offer perhaps the most representative case.

          Our objectives in the social sciences are in essence very similar to those in most other fields. The following concise statement comes from a memo by Peter Hakim, dated March 17, 1976, on environmentally related agricultural research. In this paragraph he is speaking of the need for research on the long-run effects of different agricultural technologies and cultivation practices: 

          "Many of the consequences are known qualitatively; what is required are a better understanding of causal connections and greater precision in measurement, both of which would permit more accurate prediction of probable changes, and hence an increased ability to control or avoid them. Such knowledge and understanding should improve decisions regarding choice of technologies, and management practices.” 

Hakim's words admirably describe what we try to do in much of the Foundation’s development program. We are seeking to introduce modern methods of gathering and organizing more precise information so that governments can more clearly understand what is happening in their countries, why it is happening, and what the direct and indirect effects of various interventions are likely to be. This generalization seems to apply as well to agricultural research as to our work in the social sciences and the environment. 

This work involves the Foundation with local people on the modern end of the social spectrum. We are training people in modern disciplines or cooperating with people already functioning in the modern sphere. Although we are dealing with the already “modern" sector, we find much to be done. Researchers and policy-makers are generally out-of-date in terms of developments in their disciplines. Institutional linkages often are missing, so that people trained to develop knowledge are not in regular communication with those who make policy, and both may be out of touch with the people the policies and practices are meant to affect. The tasks of development assistance are thus never ending, because new improvements are made in knowledge generation and use in advanced countries at least as rapidly as previous methods are incorporated by the developing countries. 

          In Southeast Asia the Foundation has apparently succeeded in stimulating social science research through a regional awards program. Closer to home, the Iranian and Israeli social scientists appear to have respected and established roles in their societies. At the Social Research Institute at the University of Tehran, the director complains because so many of his researchers are working at government request, leading to over-emphasis on applied research. Government departments have learned that new budgetary proposals have a greater chance of acceptance if they are supported by research results. 

          In the Middle East office, after numerous staff discussions ranging over two or three years, we concluded that while the Middle East has a relatively large number of people trained in the social sciences, many are poorly trained and few are functioning very productively except as teachers or social workers. There appears to be a lack of definition to the work of these social scientists. Their professional orientation often remains aligned with the graduate schools where they were trained. Their own society seems not to understand them or know how to use them, so the best of them write and publish professionally in foreign languages for foreign journals. Strangely, this is perhaps more greatly rewarded by Arab universities than publication locally in Arabic. 

Our diagnosis was that the most serious problem facing the Arab social science community was in defining and establishing the appropriate relationship between their professions and the culture in which they live. When, or if, social science research becomes valued, it will be rewarded and the enterprise will flourish. 

We decided that our funds could best be spent employing well-qualified Western social scientists who, supported by DAP funds for research awards, would work closely with Arab social scientists in designing and conducting meaningful research. In addition, interest in forming a regional organization of social scientists was to be carefully nurtured.

The design of suitable research projects requires a high order of cultural sensitivity and a creative application of research methodology. This combination must usually be sought through the collaboration of a staff member or consultant and local researchers. Several promising efforts now underway serve to illustrate the strategy: 

-- Salacuse and Sudanese researchers from the IAAS and the Faculty of Law collaborating on research on customary law;

-- Jernudd and IAAS conducting a sociolinguistic survey;

-- Gotsch assisting agricultural economists in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Sudan to design research projects on irrigated farming systems;

-- Hazleton, Saylor, Gueli, Benedict, and Hill helping to design and guide projects by Arab researchers.  

          Professional identity is also fostered by increasing communications among Middle Eastern social scientists. A regional association (OPSSME) was formed following the Foundation-financed Alexandria conference in 1974. Leila Hamamsy has been the key figure in OPSSME, but Benedict's low-key support and guidance has been valuable in launching the organization's program of workshops and newsletters. 

Although it would be premature to evaluate the results of this strategy I think the research efforts underway are likely to be fairly effective in terms of their immediate objectives. Our staff and their Arab colleagues are imaginatively demonstrating how social science methodology can, as Hakim suggests, produce a better understanding of causal connections of development phenomena and an increased ability to control or avoid predictable changes. The research is effectively orienting the social scientists involved to the potential contributions of their disciplines to Middle Eastern society. The numbers of researchers are not great, however, and they are found mainly in the more advanced countries, particularly Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. 

For the researchers' increased knowledge and understanding to be reflected in improved policy decisions, decision-makers must become actively aware of and concerned about the results. We have been less successful in creating governmental demand for research results. Decision-makers tend to rely more heavily on past experience than on scholarly analysis and in this they are generally quite correct. The data base is too small, the researchers too naive or biased and the educational background of officials too limited to permit heavy reliance on the social sciences at the present time.  

          It is only when policy-makers face a severe discontinuity in experience or when traditional methods are leading to an obviously deteriorating situation that they are likely to reach out in desperation for the guidance of social scientists. Examples of these conditions include:  

-- The construction of a dam, which opens new productive possibilities but creates severe social dislocations in the process;  

-- the implementation of a land reform, which changes power relationships in often unforeseen ways;  

-- the deterioration of the savannah from overpopulation and overgrazing.  

          I would conclude from this that our work in the social sciences can be most effective in circumstances where it is possible to predict the necessity for rapid social change. This means we must be very careful to diagnose appropriate situations for the application of our limited funds in the social sciences field. 

One important aspect of the diagnosis should be the stage of development of the country. An emphasis on the social sciences is, I suspect, more appropriate to Latin America than to Africa or the Middle East. Good social scientists can be found, or trained, in any region, but their contributions to society are likely to be greater where the society is more advanced, and thus more able to appreciate and use their work.  

There may be an analogy to be found in other areas of our work. Improved methods of management may be more readily accepted when they accompany an introduction of radically different technology; environmental research should be predicated on perceptible imminent catastrophes or radical changes in methods of water control; and educational research should focus on aspects of the system which are obviously failing. 

This conclusion may seem too obvious a point, but I believe we and others have in the past been prone to yield to a fascination with modern methodologies without adequate concern for the circumstances in which their use is most obviously merited. (Continued)  

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