Almost all developed countries have their own schemes worldwide to share their economic might with the developing and least developed countries. Such schemes are popularly called ‘Funding’. It is regarded as a benign gesture and part of global cooperation. The United States as the world’s largest economy also has funding worldwide. As part of its public diplomacy project, the US funds scholarships, community development projects, advocacy projects, and rights movements. Since the end of the Second World War, US funds flourished worldwide. The method and process have also evolved a lot. But it seems this funding is quite often not as benign as we take them. Often, they are vehicles to maximize US national interests and have hideous underlying objectives attached to them. The latest funding patterns in Bangladesh also suggest the same.
There is no such thing as ‘No Strings Attached‘
Generally, foreign funding comes under the label of cooperation, humanitarian assistance, aid, and goodwill gesture. All funding has its underlying objectives and interests. In International Relations, funding is perceived as a smart tool for increasing soft power. As Soft Power became vital after the end of the Cold War, different tools emerged to increase a country’s soft power over another. And funding is one of the best in this regard.
In the era of globalization, funding has emerged as an efficient tool for the US to globalize liberal values and Western norms. Such globalization of its preferred norms and values helps it to strengthen its global hegemony and maintain the status quo in the international order.
But in the internal context of the recipient state, it serves an even bigger purpose. Funding is an efficient tool for donor states in yielding coercive power over domestic affairs. It can be a good vehicle to quietly organize and topple the government, fuel dissent among the citizen, and create cultural hegemony.
Politics of the US Funding: From Cold War to Globalized World
Funding comes in various forms ranging from scholarships and innovation funds to donations. During the Cold War, the US used to fund dissidence forces on foreign soil. Funding also helped the US to topple or coerce governments worldwide. CIA agent Kermit Roosevelt’s memoir revealed how only $75000 helped the US to stage the coup in Iran in 1953 to topple the Mossadegh government. Kermit, the son of US president Theodore Roosevelt used the money to arrange dinner parties, arranging meetings, contacts within the government, and manipulative demonstrations.
Even after the Cold War, the US continued to do so. After 9/11, the US successfully vilified Islam through War on Terror funding. The already-grown Islamophobia in Western societies is the product of such funding. Beyond the West, US advocacy projects and support for LGBTQ communities are also challenging distinctive cultural roots, especially in the Arab world and Islamic society. Such conflicts of culture are allowing the US to create a cultural hegemony over these societies.
Perhaps, the Gulen Movement and its ties with Alliance for Shared Values also suggest that the US nature of funding to topple governments has not changed yet. In 2016, Fethullah Gulen’s loyalists staged a failed coup to topple Erdogan’s government. The coup was the brainchild of the Gulen Movement which had ties with the Alliance for Shared Values — a New York-based non-profit umbrella organization. Gulen himself also resides in the US since 1998. Immediately after the failed coup, Erdogan Government wanted to extradite Gulen for his crime but the Western countries reacted citing Human Rights and Freedom of Speech issues.
Therefore, in an ideal world funding is part of global cooperation but in reality, they are often weaponized to maximize interest.
Fund Politics and Bangladesh
Bangladesh always has good terms with the US and is one of the largest recipients of US formal and private aid. But as the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific Region has become heated, has brought many interests that Bangladesh is not ready to provide yet.
It seems much of the US funding is working regarding Bangladesh to create coercive power. For instance, Netra News is working to fuel dissent among the common citizen. Even though Netra News claims to be a journalistic organization, its method of operation is still questionable. The people at the helm of it are also heavily controversial and operate mostly from outside the country. Netra News is funded by National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a prominent US public diplomacy initiative.
Over the year, the methods of funding have also transformed. In the era of Social media, US funding is aimed at influencers who have the power to influence the mass. Under Fulbright, US Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund (AEIF) is also working to patronize influencers. This year, two projects have been granted under AEIF. The first one is titled, “Confronting Misinformation in Bangladesh”. Under this project, journalists and influencers will be brought together and they will work to confront misinformation regarding the next election. At first glance, the aim of the project may seem of high moral. But there is no guarantee that with the immense power of public communication, the project would not influence the mass based on foreign interest.
The second project titled “A for Access” is also alarming. The project will work to mainstream the LGBTQA community in the country. LGBTQA is a taboo issue in Bangladeshi society and is inconsistent with Islamic culture. Mass people do not also support mainstreaming this community. As a result, such a project is an attempt to create a Western hegemony over the culture.
However, the influencer culture in Bangladesh is also not widely accepted in all strata of society. Many influencers only represent a certain way of life which is not acceptable to the mass. Take, for instance, Salman Muqtadir. Salman’s extravagant lifestyle and content sense has made controversy a recurring event for him. He also got himself in a fresh controversy recently and there is a claim on social media that he was also seen with underaged girls. As a result, the influencer culture and the US interest in them may not also serve the democratic interest of commoners.
Some other US-funded projects and NGOs are also accused of serving US interests only. For instance, Democracy International — a USAID NGO is accused of the least activity unless there is a US interest. The NGO is also said to have financial irregularities but has protection due to USAID.
Funding and finance are soft power tools for donor states. Surely, it brings benefits for the recipient also. But the detrimental politics regarding it creates skepticism. Especially for the US, considering its long history of manipulation, sabotage, and coercion. Therefore, funding should be approved after detailed scrutiny verifying the original intent. However, not all fund has malicious intent. But it is up to the US to prove it. Hence, the US should also be more generous and straightforward with its funding to avoid unnecessary skepticism.
[Photo by US Coast Guard, Public Domain]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Shafiqul Elahi is a retired government official of Bangladesh. He is pursuing his career in academia after his retirement. He is also currently writing his first book on Institutional Development and Bangladesh.