From Kansas to Cairo


June 5, 2009

Share this story:
  • linkedin

Listening to President Obama's speech in Cairo yesterday, I was struck by how many themes resonated with what Mercy Corps is doing in the Middle East.

He talked about his desire to "create a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo." And that's what we're doing with the Global Citizen Corps, connecting dozens of young people in Gaza and Iraq and Lebanon and Syria with each other and with high schoolers throughout the Pacific Northwest using Internet forums and videoconferences.

Speaking about economic development, Obama talked about "education and innovation" being the "currency of the 21st century, and in too many Muslim communities, there remains underinvestment in these areas."

We too believe that Information and Communications Technology can be a powerful vehicle for supporting social and economic development. We've set up about 20 computer-literacy centers in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and Iraq, like the one in the poor southern suburbs of South Beirut, where people can obtain Microsoft-certified computer training and other courses.

He talked about the inportance of women's literacy. He said "a woman who is denied an education is denied equality," and that the U.S. will "partner with any Muslim-majority country to support expanded literacy for girls."

We began a women's literacy program in Iraq in 2005, using previously unemployed female teachers to provide three months of accelerated Arabic language, math and culture lessons in 57 literacy centers. Since then our women's education programs have brought literacy, mathematics, culture and rights lessons to more than 12,000 women.

And then of course he talked about the stalemate between Israel and Palestine, and how we must find a way forward. Our Israeli-Palestinian Negotiating Partners network brings together over 90 prominent Palestinians and Israelis to learn advanced negotiation skills and build the relationships that are critical to a successful peace process. And we're building bridges between leaders in both the Middle East and the U.S. as part of our Interfaith Cooperation Initiative.

So the path ahead resonates very much with our efforts in the region: conflict management, women's literacy, and using Internet technology to accelerate development, particularly for youth.

It was a historic speech, and it will be used as a reference point for many years to come — either as a background for unrealized rhetoric, or as the start of a new relationship. I fervently hope it's the latter.