|A DISCUSSION ABOUT AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST: AN INTERVIEW WITH EMMANUELLE DIEHL, OF SELA ADVISORY GROUP
MAY 15, 2008
Special for THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
© Amir Bey, 2007
Girls begin their first day of basketball practice in Beirut.
This photo was taken last year when Olga Ege went to carry training programs and assess the needs of NGOs in Kampala
Stine Lehmann-Larsen, a co-founder of SELA
THE NEW TIMES HOLLER! Interview with SELA Advisory Group’s EMMANUELLE DIEHL
Olga Ege, a co-founder of SELA
HOLLER!: Tell us about your organization, SELA Advisory Group; what does SELA stand for, what is your mission?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: SELA Advisory Group is originally three friends, two Danish women, Olga Ege, Stine Lehmann-Larsen and myself, a French-American, who shared the same interest in international development and conflict resolution. Through our professional experiences we realized that the key to a successful project was proper resources and the right expertise. As a result, we decided to put together a group of young experts, with innovative ideas and international and local experience. We as a group work from our headquarters in Denmark and operate with our ‘virtual offices’, who are our consultants, spread throughout Africa, the Middle East, Europe and the US.
SELA means connection in Arabic so SELA Advisory Group stands for connecting causes to effect people with one another, east to West.
Our mission is to provide high quality consulting services, which effectively and innovatively support our clients in creating social, political and economic sustainable solutions, and in fostering a culture of peace in Africa and the Middle East.
We have been in operation about 8 months and we carried out an evaluation for a development project promoting sport for all philosophy in Lebanon and in Egypt. The project offers kids from lower classes and minorities street basketball trainings. The project is implemented by a Danish organization called GAM3, whose website is www.gam3.dk. The Middle East project was a trial and they will implement the second phase starting in September 2008.
We also carried out their fundraising campaign; we worked for the chamber of commerce in Denmark, and for a NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) in Uganda and designed training workshops for a women center in Saudi Arabia.
HOLLER!: How are you funded?
EMANNUELLE DIEHL: We are a profit making consulting firm so our clients pay for the services we provide, whether our clients are non-profit organizations (such as grass-roots movements, non-governmental organizations), public institutions (such as embassies, or other public agency) or private corporations.
HOLLER!: Presently we are in a new phase of interactions between the many Islamic countries and the countries of the west, the US and the European Economic Community. We can look at the tragedies in Iraq, and the economic and social influences of the EEC as they now stand, but how do you see the impact of these encounters in the long term?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Well it is a difficult question to answer in a few lines, but I don’t believe we can take Iraq as an example of the increased interaction between Western countries (North America and the European Union –i.e. the European Economic Community became the European Union with the Maastricht treaty in 1997) and the Middle East. I think there are two main elements that are affecting these countries today: first, the economic exchanges and the increased amounts of multilateral and bilateral trade agreements between the E.U and Middle Eastern countries as well as with the US. Second, the on-going and rising political and diplomatic tensions that have affected the region over 60 years. The Middle East is highly strategic for its geographic position between the Far East and the West, for its energetic resources and its cheap and qualified labor. The world is interdependent and it is normal that countries are interacting more and more on all levels as economic development, social progress and international diplomacy are based on dialogue and exchange. So I do not see the increase of these exchanges as having affected the social or economic development of these countries. What is negatively impacting these countries are the conflict of interests and the dual political standards that are enacted to comply with the US’s or the EU’s political and economic agendas.
In the case of Iraq, the impact of the US invasion and the on-going war is dramatic and we can see the impact on the peoples’ lives, the economy, and the education, the national and regional political stability that will take years to come back to a normal level. The invasion has exacerbated certain religious and ethnic divides between the Shias and the Sunnis and the Kurds in the north of Iraq, who are now at war with Turkey. So indeed, the invasion had detrimental and damaging effects.
HOLLER!: You were in Jordan when the US attacked Iraq in 2003; how would you describe the feelings of people in countries surrounding Iraq such as Jordan and Syria, two countries that have different relations with the US, regarding the Bush Administration’s actions there?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Well these two countries are very different in their relations with the US due to their respective relations with Israel. Jordan is at peace with Israel whereas Syria is not. Jordan is an ally of the US in the region and was a base for many international organizations and the US military for their employees to deploy in Iraq. From an economic point of view, Jordan gained a lot. However, the lower classes were not necessarily benefiting from that surplus and were not always in favor of the US. I have to clarify that Jordan did no support the invasion, but once the US were there, they opened their doors.
Syria and Israel have been enemies for 60 years, since Israel was created in 1948. Moreover, Syria does not support the US’s foreign policy in the Middle East in general. So as a population, they were against the invasion. However, it is important to note that not every Arab hates the US; what they disagree with is the US foreign policies! And that is crucial for people to understand. Not every Arab person is alike, like not every American is!
HOLLER!: I think I’m being objective and making an understatement when I say that the Bush Administration blundered tragically in Iraq. As you see it, what is the US’s responsibility to the Iraqi people? What are the best solutions for the incoming president to undertake upon entering office?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Well this is a very touchy and difficult decision and if I had all the answers, I could tip the director of the M.E affairs in the US government ;-)… However, I personally believe that the US and the ‘alliance’ of countries that supported the war have a responsibility towards the Iraqi people. People will say well the US army has liberated the Iraqi from a horrible dictator, who has himself committed atrocities, violated international laws and terrorized his people. However, here comes the international debate over the humanitarian intervention and the obligation to protect a population when its government is not. So did the US have the duty to intervene or not? Well we are not going into a theoretical debate as the invasion happened and it is done. However, I believe there is now a duty towards these people to help them to rebuild a governmental structure, a justice system, a stable and safe environment, and an economic and social fabric. However, maintaining a full force on the grounds only fuels the resentment of the insurgents. So I believe that the best solutions are to establish a gradual retirement schedule of the forces and support the local government as well as the civil society with financial resources and technical assistance to reconstruct the country. Moreover, considering the religious composition of Iraq, the UN and the international community have to send peace-keeping forces and mediation bodies to first protect the people until security is regained and assist the population in rebuilding their sense of belonging to a nation rather than to a religious group as a means to prevent further conflicts. So the US president has a very difficult task ahead.
HOLLER!: Turkey has been in prolonged negotiations with the European Economic Community. It seems as if some member nations fear the inclusion of an Islamic country that has the population that Turkey has. Is that part of the problem as you see it?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Well yes and no. Turkey has been in negotiations for years as most countries that joined the EU have too. However, each country has to respect and meet certain economic and political standards to qualify. It is only recently that Turkey’s economy has developed. Moreover, the on-going conflict between Turkey and Cyprus is staining Turkey’s application; although Cyprus recently joined the EU. Turkey is a secular state but has a majority of Muslims. I don’t believe it is the determining factor in the process, but the fact that the most conservative Islamic party in Turkey has just recently gained the elections is not helping. Many EU countries have large Muslim communities and it is only a small fraction that is radical. There are so many factors to consider when a new country comes in: the economic gap between that new country and the EU members; the EU citizenship enabling every one to work and travel freely in all the EU states; trading and tariff regulations; the common agricultural pact that is difficult for countries like Turkey, whose economy are predominantly agricultural; the political and security pact and the political framework that affects each country. So the fact that Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country is part of the problem but not the determining factor. This is my objective opinion of the situation.
HOLLER!: In this period Turkish voters have elected a fundamentalist government. Considering the historically secular establishment has been intolerant of views other than those that they hold, is a fundamentalist government a healthy development in your opinion?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Fundamentalism of any kind, no matter what faith it leans towards to, it is not a sign of social progress as it relies on more traditional and classical customs and dogmas. So it is not necessarily a good thing in terms of social and economic progress. However, the elections were democratic and the fact that they were elected by a majority of the people shows that the government had lost the trust of its people. So they voted for the party in whom they felt connected to and who offered an alternative. Now from an external point of view, it is not necessarily a good thing that the conservative party gained power but this is the rules of democracy. Western countries are pushing the Middle East and other countries to become democratized and carry out legitimate elections. Well, when they push for that, they have to respect the vote of the population. The US and the EU were really criticizing the results of the elections in Palestine last year when the Hamas got elected. Well, once again, this is the risk that democracy entails.
If I compare it to the Egyptian scenario, the minority faction that has more influence in the country is the Muslim Brothers. Although they are not allowed to have a political party, they are well organized through NGOs [Non-Governmental Organization -ed.] and provide social services like hospitals, public constructions so they fill certain gaps that the government does not fill in the countryside. So people tend to vote for their members who present themselves as ‘independents’ and who offer an alternative to these people. People do not necessarily vote for their religious affiliations but because the Muslim Brothers are supporting them with social services. So again, as an external observer, it can be difficult to understand the people’s choices but we do not always grasp the motivations of people and their vote.
HOLLER!: What progress has been made in fighting AIDS and HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa? Is there what can be called “Models” in those countries that can be used on the continent?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: I believe that progress has been in made as more and more educational programs and health campaigns have been implemented in many countries throughout Africa. As with any development matter, continuous and lasting efforts are necessary to have a long term impact on the communities. Although, 20% of the population of certain Sub-Saharan countries is HIV positive, more and more people are aware of what AIDS is and how to reduce risks of being contaminated. Local and international efforts are playing a greater role in curtailing this plague. There have been educational and awareness campaigns that can be applied to many countries, however it is essential to take into considerations the customs, the taboos and the system of each community to reach the people the best ways possible.
HOLLER!: What is the scenario for AIDS and HIV in North African countries?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Well HIV in North African and Middle Eastern Countries is not as pervasive as through sub-Saharan Africa. However, there is little educational and awareness campaigns as sexual intercourse is a social and religious taboo. With the spread of liberal customs, and migrations of people from different countries, HIV is progressing here too. So action is needed.
HOLLER!: What would you consider to be the biggest health challenges to the countries that you work with in Africa?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Access to clean water is the biggest challenge and health problem affecting developing countries all around the world and in Africa. More people die of water borne diseases each year than any other ailments.
HOLLER!: Women have been raped and violently abused in Darfur; are there any non-governmental non-UN women’s groups or community groups that are providing protection of any kind to those victims?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Women have been used as tools and targets by opposing factions to destroy and affect communities at their core. Darfur is one example amongst others. In the Congo, violence on women and young girls happen on a daily basis. Women have been the victims of conflicts in Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia, Congo, Sudan etc...There are many local and international non governmental organizations that assist these women with medical assistance, reconstructive surgeries and psychological support. However, it is very difficult to guarantee their safety when they go back into their communities as conflicts continue and militias use women as their prime targets.
HOLLER!: Laws have been passed in Egypt that gave women more independence than at any other time since the country became Moslem. Have those laws been effectively implemented? How are grassroots women’s groups functioning in Egypt?
EMMANUELLE DIEHL: Indeed, well some laws that are linked to women’s rights for divorce, for nationality rights have been implemented. There is a family court that is now more effective but still remains slow to process each case. The first lady, Susanne Mubarak has done a lot for women’s rights through her foundation for women and peace. There are a lot of women’s groups and non governmental organizations that support women or advocate for women rights. Obviously there are many limitations and they are monitored at some level so things are slow to move forward but they are active. Now, my colleague Katja Gregers Brock is writing her master’s thesis on women participation in the Middle East and spent a few weeks in Cairo interviewing women working for different organizations. So when she is finished with her research, I would be able to provide you with a bit more insight on that topic.
SELA and Emmanuelle can be contacted at:
Emmanuelle Diehl~ firstname.lastname@example.org
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