Argument

Two Steps Forward…

Do Saudi Arabia's two Olympic female athletes -- the kingdom's first ever -- represent changing times in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques, or will the conservative religious backlash win out?

For years, human rights organizations hoping to use the Olympics as leverage to challenge Saudi Arabia's restrictive gender policies have looked to the case of apartheid South Africa. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), after all, expelled South Africa in 1970 for its policy of racial discrimination -- a ban that stayed in place for 21 years, until the fall of apartheid in 1991. If the IOC took action against South Africa to help end race-based apartheid there, shouldn't it bar Saudi Arabia from the 2012 London Olympics in protest of gender-based apartheid in the kingdom?

The Saudi government moved to pre-empt such consequences this month by announcing that it would allow two female Saudi athletes to compete for the first time ever in the Olympics. The two Olympians are Sarah Attar, a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen who will compete in the 800-meter race, and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who will compete in judo. The IOC invited the women to the Olympics under a clause that allows athletes to compete "when their participation is deemed important for reasons of equality," even if they do not meet minimum qualifying standards. But human rights organizations looking to use this small concession to sweep away Saudi Arabia's restrictions on women will find that their battle is just as long, and no less difficult, than the struggle against apartheid.

It's not just the Olympics -- Saudi Arabia is hostile to women's participation in athletics at all levels. The ministry that regulates all competitive sports, including the 153 official sports clubs, does not recognize any female teams. Women aren't even allowed inside these clubs or be spectators at stadiums. Female physical education is not permitted in public schools, so the only way a Saudi woman can practice any type of competitive sport is through expensive private schools or colleges, and health clubs. But these organizations are prohibited from publicizing their rare activities, and women's teams of any sort are discouraged from publicly stating their affiliation with any institution.

The only exception is the groundbreaking work by Lina Almaeena, who launched the first public women's basketball team in 2003 and subsequently co-founded the first women's sports organization, Jeddah United, in 2006. The organization grew from a six-woman team to include the involvement of more than 300 men and women from across the kingdom. With the assistance of volunteers from the expatriate community, it has managed to grow, despite long odds.

But Jeddah United's success has come at a price. Every time its activities receive media attention, the organization is met with a barrage of insults from conservative Saudis, who accuse it of corrupting the girls' morals. "The key is to have publicity later," Almaeena told an NBC reporter in 2008 when asked how the organization managed to stay in business. "It's also a matter of luck, but you're more likely to get lucky in Jeddah [a less conservative city than many in the kingdom] compared to other places."

These public firestorms are the reason that female students participating in athletics at private schools and universities are discouraged from publicly discussing their activities. The last major controversy occurred in late 2010, when six private Saudi schools arranged a girls' sports tournament; competitions included basketball, badminton, swimming, and athletics. Ultra-conservative groups got wind of the event, and they swiftly complained to the Education Ministry. The schools' principals were inundated with calls from religious clerics and Saudi officials voicing their disapproval. Soon after, the Education Ministry issued a ruling that competitive programs at girls' schools were prohibited, and the schools were forced to abandon the tournament.

Saudi conservatives have spilled a great deal of ink to justify the restrictions on female athletics. Sheikh Abdulrahman Al Shathri, an Islamic cleric and public notary, is the author of one such effort -- Girls' Sports and Scouting in Schools and Universities, a book published in 2010 and currently in its third edition. The book lays out all the reasons why physical education is bad for girls -- for example, Al Shathri warns that athletics "orient women toward a masculine physique, as their pelvis shrinks into the size of a male pelvis and their shoulders broaden."

Al Shathri leans heavily on past religious decrees to make his case against women in sports. His book includes the full texts of 24 fatwas by Saudi sheikhs prohibiting physical education and sports clubs for women, four of which were issued by the head of the Higher Islamic Council, the kingdom's highest religious authority. For good measure, Al Shathri also threw in two fatwas by Yemeni sheikhs that take the same position.

He's kind enough, though, to suggest some other options for women: His book advocates household chores such as vacuuming as an alternative to physical education. He backs up his stance with several international medical studies that show how keeping house also burns calories.

A recurring theme in Sheikh Al Shathri's writing and the collected fatwas is that physical activity for women is not Islamically prohibited per se, but that it leads to issues that are. According to the book, athletics will corrupt Saudi women by leading to lesbianism, disruption of the menstrual cycle, hymen tearing, loss of femininity, and Westernization -- as the participation of Saudi women in international competitions will require them to appear uncovered in front of men.

Though Saudi officials have said that the two female Olympians will be required to dress in such a way that "preserve[s] their dignity," the women's inclusion has provoked a predictable backlash from the kingdom's ultra-conservative religious establishment. Many expressed their outrage at the decision on social media sites: Sheikh Mohamad Alarefe, who boasts over 2 million Twitter followers, chastised Youth and Sports Minister Prince Nawaf for the decision, asking him if he would be so supportive if Attar or Shahrkhani were one of his sisters.

Although the two women are set to compete in the London Olympics, Saudi Arabia has so far kept the news hushed up at home. Except for a short interview with Attar and footage of her running wearing a hijab and long-sleeved tracksuit (her family requested that photos of her wearing more revealing clothing be removed from her biography on the website of Pepperdine University, where she is a junior), no other information has been released. News about Shahrkhani is scarce, and no photos of her have been published.

There's no getting around the fact that Saudi Arabia is allowing these two women to compete only to avoid being barred entirely from the Olympics, while simultaneously trying to erase any suggestion within the kingdom that this represents a breakthrough in gender equality. So far, after all, there is no indication that the government has budged in its restrictive policies toward women's participation in sports at the local level.

Although the Saudi government has its own motivations for the inclusion of Attar and Shahrkhani, the decision is still a step in the right direction. It could have reverberations that not even the religious establishment can control, showing a generation of Saudi women that athletics are not an exclusively male domain. And who knows? Years from now, perhaps, a female Saudi athlete -- standing on the podium to receive her gold medal -- will spare a thought for these two Olympian trailblazers.

MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Hired Gun Fight

Obama's aid chief takes on the development-industrial complex.

Rajiv Shah, President Barack Obama's U.S. Agency for International Development administrator, is waging a high-stakes battle to make U.S. foreign aid programs less dependent on American for-profit contractors. At the same time, he's aiming to roughly double the amount of assistance that flows directly to governments and local organizations in the developing world.

Shah's initiative reflects Obama's broader desire to clean up government contracting announced early in his term, as well as the thrust of a White House review of development policy and the State Department's first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Although Shah's plan hasn't gotten much public attention, it represents a seismic shift in how American foreign aid programs are conducted and will require both wrenching institutional change and a very tough political battle if it is to become a reality.

Given the degree to which USAID works with contractors, some of Shah's language has been delightfully undiplomatic. In a 2011 speech, he drew parallels between the agency's reliance on for-profit firms and Eisenhower's warnings about the emergence of a military-industrial complex. Saying that USAID was "no longer satisfied with writing big checks to big contractors and calling it development," Shah argued that development firms were more interested in keeping themselves in business than seeing countries graduate from the need for aid. "There is always another high-priced consultant that must take another flight to attend another conference or lead another training," he complained.

Shah's fiery rhetoric quickly set off alarm bells among USAID's many for-profit contractors, particularly since it came hot on the heels of the agency's December 2010 decision to suspend a huge non-profit, the Academy for Educational Development, or AED, from receiving new government contracts because of abuses in two of its Pakistan projects and what USAID argued was "serious corporate misconduct, mismanagement and a lack of internal controls." AED was one of USAID's larger partners, managing about $500 million annually in grants and contracts, and the suspension led AED to go belly up just month later in the spring of 2011. AED insiders complained bitterly that USAID overreacted; USAID insiders countered that AED would have survived had it not tried to downplay and conceal the problems when they were first discovered. Eventually, AED paid $5 million to the U.S. government in a Justice Department settlement for the Pakistan projects in question.


Top 10 USAID Contractors for FY 2011

 

Vendor

Obligated Program Funds

 

 

 

1

Chemonics International, Inc.

$735,599,989

2

Partnership for Supply Chain Management

$417,726,429

3

John Snow, Inc.

$387,360,155

4

Development Alternatives, Inc.

$308,665,874

5

The Louis Berger Group, Inc.

$264,436,926

6

ABT Associates Inc.

$244,620,469

7

Management Sciences for Health

$220,295,202

8

Research Triangle Institute

$218,319,556

9

ARD, Inc.

$196,989,122

10

Creative Associates International, Inc.

$196,851,005

A bit of history is important in explaining why the Obama administration remains convinced that too much foreign aid flows through firms around the Beltway. Much of the current struggle has its roots in a bitter battle between the Clinton administration and Senator Jesse Helms during the mid-1990s, during which Helms and his allies attempted to abolish USAID and fold its functions into the State Department. USAID managed to fend off Helms, but ended up weathering steep cuts to its operating expenses, which forced it to dramatically reduce staff size through layoffs and attrition. Even when funding for foreign aid rebounded after Sept. 11, USAID was a shell of its former self, having lost much of its staff and expertise in key development areas like agriculture. A 2003 Government Accountability Office report captured the dilemma: "Since 1992, the number of USAID U.S. direct hire staff declined by 37 percent, but the number of countries with USAID programs almost doubled, and, over the last two years, program funding increased by more than 50 percent." In short, USAID had gone from being a development agency to being a large, poorly organized contracting agency. Incredible pressure to push money out the door in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan only exacerbated these trends.

Because USAID remains laden with bureaucratic restrictions, it also tends to rely on large umbrella contracts that favor a handful of well-connected Beltway firms. The 10 largest USAID contractors received more than $3.19 billion in 2011, and more than 27 percent of the agency's overall funding was directed to American for-profit firms last year. To put this in perspective, if the for-profit contractor Chemonics were a country, it would have been the third-largest recipient of USAID funding in the world in 2011, behind only Afghanistan and Haiti.

 

Thus Shah's push, under the rather benign title of "procurement reform," to channel more funds directly to institutions in the developing world: governments, entrepreneurs, educational institutions, and NGOs. The theory behind relying more on local institutions is simple and compelling: If the goal of development is to build sustainable local capacity and ownership, why not have countries play a larger role in helping help themselves? Not only is this good development policy in countries where proper management controls are in place, it also has the potential to save American taxpayers a great deal of money.

U.S. contractors, looking at losing large amounts of revenue, were not about to take this lying down. The Professional Services Council (PSC), an umbrella group of government contracting firms, quickly hired lobbyists to push back against procurement reform and helped establish the Coalition of International Development Companies, an advocacy coalition of 50 contractors touting the role of "America's most effective, efficient and innovative international development companies" in advancing the national interest. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but increased lobbying funded by the PSC directly preceded a sharply worded letter from the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight, Rep. Darrell Issa, to USAID questioning the wisdom of procurement reform. The letter hammered home one of the key arguments that contractors had been using against channeling more money directly to developing-country institutions: the threat of waste and corruption by foreigners.

That argument might be a little more persuasive if American for-profit contractors had not had their own problems in this regard. In 2010, Louis Berger Associates agreed to pay $69 million in penalties after the Justice Department found that it was intentionally overcharging taxpayers for its activities in Afghanistan. A 2009 Washington Post story revealed that managers at Chemonics encouraged employees in Afghanistan to deliberately downplay or ignore failing programs so as not to disrupt the flow of the grants.

The risk of waste, fraud, or abuse is a constant specter in American aid programs, but it should also be acknowledged that spending hundreds of millions of dollars on overhead for American firms is also a real cost, and doesn't always contribute a great deal to lasting development. To its credit, USAID seems to be taking a rigorous approach to ensure that proper systems are in place in countries where it is pushing out more money through local channels, and it has been conducting audits of public financial systems in those cases where it wants to work directly through foreign governments.

USAID's response to Issa highlighted a recent example from Senegal in its defense. In Senegal, the agency shifted from using American for-profit contactors to build schools and instead carried out the work through a partnership with the Senegalese government. Money for the schools was not disbursed until after a completed school was certified to have met agreed safety and quality standards. The cost difference was striking: It cost $425,000 per school through American contractors, but only $200,000 when built by the Senegalese government.

Things now stand at an uneasy crossroads. Contractors don't like Shah's new approach, but are nervous about too aggressively biting the hand that feeds them. USAID has committed to working with local institutions, but its spending totals in 2011 actually saw the proportion directed to American for-profits go up, not down. The agency has a huge amount of work to do if it still hopes to reach its target of 30 percent of its aid being channeled directly to governments and local organizations in the developing world by 2015. And Shah's aggressive push for a new paradigm will likely wither on the vine if the White House flips come November. For-profit contractors have always had their strongest allies on the Republican side of the fence.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images