Aug 30, 2006

Iran's soft power

As Lebanon moves to rebuild following the war, Iran will strengthen its base by rebuilding communities.
Where the West would have elaborate procedures to ensure that its aid money was being properly spent, the Iranians will resort to much blunter but likely more effective, and certainly faster tactics. While the West speaks of "effects-based operations" in post-conflict societies, in reality it conducts value-based operations - focusing on the delivery of assistance in a manner that adheres to Western liberal governance norms and standards of transparency and accountability.

The term "soft power," as opposed to military "hard power," is American, created by those who wanted the US to better exploit its advantages of economic and cultural power in winning the global contest for hearts and minds. But while the phrase may be American it is others, notably the Iranians, who are showing mastery at putting it into practice, and not just in places like Lebanon.

NEITHER ARE the Iranians alone in using soft power to win over communities. Elsewhere in the Muslim world, the Muslim Brotherhood has been doing it for years in Egypt. Where communities lack medical care, for example, the Brotherhood uses doctors to offer a number of free consultations as a condition of their membership.

These opportunities are doled out within disadvantaged communities, strengthening lines of patronage and support for the Brotherhood's aims. It uses the lack of delivery of the government to its own advantage. Exploiting the government's failings and meeting, if only in part, social needs explains why the Brotherhood is such a feared and powerful political force in Egypt today.

By comparison, aid delivery in a country like Afghanistan is a tortuous affair. Bureaucratic procedures and the delivery of security ensures that the ratio of expenditure (on security forces, consultants, administration and other forms of bureaucracy) versus aid delivered is both very much lower, and also very much slower.

Because the West delivers according to its own rules, local actors are seldom able to use the money to their own advantage and in the manner in which their system operates and understands, as patronage and for political power as much as the goal of socioeconomic development.
This is also the explanation given for the popularity of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

How can western nations compete when we're hampered by rules governing accountability that the Iranians just don't care about?

Here in the US, the federal government has already set aside more than $1 billion in aid to Katrina victims, yet many are still waiting to receive funds because the localities that dole them out are still vetting claims. And when we made money readily available fast--debit cards anyone?--there was an understandable public outcry when that money was spent on strip clubs or booze.

Iran doesn't have that problem. No one in Iran is standing up in Parliament asking where the money for the burqa factory in Tyre disappeared to. It's expected that local chiefs will skim some of the money they receive before dispensing largesse to the public at large. Yassir Arafat made sure aid for Palestinians received from the EU and elsewhere went through him, so he could be the one carrying the suitcase of cash and be seen as the benefactor.

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