Despite Unrest, Window Remains Open for Associations in Middle East
As conflict rages on in the Middle East and North Africa and as governments continue to try to reestablish themselves, American associations have an opportunity to help shape the future of the region.
With graphic images of civil strife and reports of a mounting death toll dominating news coverage of the protests against the military-installed interim government in Egypt, it may be difficult for associations to see what Rick O’Sullivan sees in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Which is to say: a land of opportunity.
Progress in the region, obviously, has been slow, but to O’Sullivan, principal of Change Management Solutions, that just means the window for American associations to spread their influence there remains wide open.
“Right now, when these new governments are trying to get themselves up and running and are being formed, is the best time to go in,” said O’Sullivan, who first described his vision for associations in the Middle East in a 2012 Associations Now article a year after the Arab Spring. “You can’t make the mistake of waiting until the dust has settled before going in. By that time a standards agency may be established, and then you’re going to have turf battles that you have to fight, or another model may be well implemented.”
The model that associations in developing countries like those in the MENA region are used to is a version in which associations are much more closely tied to the government, O’Sullivan said. Organizations receive government funding and undertake government functions, which he said can create distrust and stifle innovation.
“But if you look at what associations in the U.S. do, they bring transparency and efficiency to the market,” O’Sullivan said. “Americans have found out how to decentralize functions out of the government completely, and this is what needs to happen over there. Too many functions have remained within government hands, and that’s the message that needs to get out.”
To do that, O’Sullivan said, the American association sector needs to promote the idea that associations work together with the for-profit sector and government to make the business environment more efficient and fair.
“It works like a three-legged stool,” he said. “There are things you leave to the market, there are things you manage through associations, and there are things you leave to the government. And the government is the regulator of last resort.”
Part of the problem that O’Sullivan sees with bringing the self-regulation model abroad is that developing countries don’t have the confidence that it will work in there.
“What I point out is that [the U.S. was] doing this when our country first started out, when we had a weak and heavily indebted centralized government that was financially in peril,” he said. “We couldn’t even use our own currency and were corrupt as all hell. Associations emerged to undertake a lot of the functions of social and economic objectives.”
To succeed in regions beset by conflict, like Egypt, associations have to find the balance between running toward the front lines and throwing in the towel, O’Sullivan said.
“You can’t go running against the barricades, but you also can’t cave to the government,” he said. “Groups that can make a difference are the ones that can approach government and say, ‘This is your problem. My association and my members can solve that for you. You just need to stand back and let us do our job.’ Make it about how you can alleviate them of their responsibilities, and you’ll be wildly successful.”