[Marxism] Marshall Ganz, former UFW activist, was hired by al-Assad
lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 5 08:58:33 MST 2012
Monitor Group rebuked on Syria
Cambridge firm defends its project to train youth
The work Monitor Group did with Asma al-Assad was naive in light of
Syria’s crackdown on protests, critics say.
By Farah Stockman
Globe Staff / July 3, 2011
WASHINGTON - Two years ago, the first lady of Syria, Asma Assad, hired a
Cambridge-based consulting firm to take on a sensitive job: help train
Syrian youth to become community activists.
But the project, which was aimed at reaching out to a generation that
has become disillusioned with the regime, collapsed in March amid an
antigovernment uprising and vicious government crackdown that human
rights activists say has killed more than 1,400 people, including many
teenagers, according to human rights groups.
Now Monitor Group is facing criticism from those who say the firm was
naive about the Syrian government’s desire for reform and that its
assistance indirectly improved the image of a brutal regime.
“How could any Western consulting firm take a look at the track record
of this regime and believe that it was on the reform trajectory?’’ asked
Andrew Tabler, a media adviser for Assad in 2004 who wrote a book about
But those involved in the project say it was a noble attempt to build
civil society in an authoritarian state that badly needs it.
“There is no question it was worth trying,’’ said Marshall Ganz, a
Harvard lecturer and famed community organizer who Monitor brought in to
help design the training for Syrian youth. “If it produced some real
benefit in terms of increasing the capacity of young people to organize
and make their claims on the future, it would have been a good thing.’’
The project, known as the Syrian Youth Agenda, was in some ways an
unlikely assignment for a global consulting company better known for
selling business advice.
But the Syrian work was part of Monitor’s burgeoning portfolio in a
niche industry: delivering customized solutions to foreign governments
for a wide range of problems, some of which are far afield from
Monitor counted among its clients some of the most repressive
governments in the world, including Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Libya. The
company’s work in Libya from 2006 to 2008, which included a stealth
project aimed at bolstering Libyan leader Moammar Khadafy’s image,
sparked condemnation this year after his attacks on civilians.
Monitor acknowledges that it erred in Libya and says it will refrain
from public relations work in the future, which it says is not a core
area of expertise. But spokesmen for the company say its projects in
Syria, which focused on youth and culture, are consistent with services
it will continue to offer. There is no evidence that its work in Syria
was geared toward influencing the country’s image.
But the company has braced for criticism since it pulled out of Syria in
March amid widespread attacks on civilians and negative news coverage
about its role in Libya.
“We believe that our work made a positive contribution and fervently
hope for a peaceful and prosperous future for the citizens of Syria,’’
Eamonn Kelly, senior partner for the firm, said in a statement.
Monitor and Ganz declined to say how much they were paid for the work.
Attempts to bring change to Syria are not new. When Bashar Assad became
president in 2000 after his father’s death, many hoped he would loosen
his family’s decades-old grip on power.
Assad, a bookish, British-trained eye doctor, spoke frequently about the
need to modernize his socialist state. The woman he married, a
London-born investment banker from a prominent Syrian family who wears
Chanel sunglasses and no head scarf, seemed to signal that he meant it.
At first, Assad released political prisoners, loosened press
restrictions, and replaced old Ba’ath party stalwarts with
Western-leaning technocrats. But over time, he cracked down on dissent,
imprisoned critics, and drove technocrats away.
Yet his wife continued talking about reform. She established a string of
nonprofit organizations - among the few that had permission to operate -
to work with the rural poor, children, and the arts.
One project called Massar gave Syrian children day-long learning
experiences focused on critical thinking and civic responsibility.
Teenagers were exposed to the United Nations’ universal declaration for
human rights and the concept of freedom of speech.
“We weren’t encouraging the kids to go to a place where they could put
themselves at risk, but we were encouraging them to explore the edges of
their envelope,’’ said Robin Cole-Hamilton, a consultant and former
manager at London’s Science Museum, who was recruited to set up Massar.
Asma Assad’s work earned her positive news coverage in America and a
profile in Vogue magazine. The Harvard Arab Alumni Association, which
held a conference with her in Damascus in March, praised her for
spearheading a new era of reform.
But Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher, said her work, while
positive, gave the false impression of progress.
“Her efforts were used to say, ‘Look at Syria now. They are allowing
independent civil society,’ ’’ he said. “But the truth is they were not
allowing independent [groups] to operate.’’
Nadim Shehadi, a Syria specialist at the British think tank Chatham
House, said the first lady’s nonprofits co-opted civil society, “soaking
up all the donor funding and distributing it to those loyal to the regime.’’
Efforts to reach Assad and her organization, Syria Trust for
Development, were unsuccessful.
In 2008, Assad hired Monitor to help her reorganize her nonprofits. She
trusted Monitor’s Syrian-American vice president, Emad Tinawi, so much
that she invited him to serve on her nonprofit board. She also put him
in charge of a massive effort to revamp Syria’s 34 museums and 5,000
heritage sites with funding from the European Union, aimed at generating
tourism, national pride, and overseas donations.
Then she asked for his help with another problem: A quarter of Syria’s
population is under 25, with few job prospects and little affection for
the regime. Assad decided to start a nationwide program to train them to
be “active citizens’’ able to help build Syria’s future.
Tinawi’s team researched youth empowerment programs and settled on the
teachings of Ganz, a community organizer who dropped out of Harvard in
1964 to join the civil rights movement. Ganz, who devised training that
galvanized youth during Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign,
teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School. A former student who became a
Monitor consultant invited him to Syria.
Eager to nurture civil society in an authoritarian state, Ganz traveled
three times to Damascus as an adviser to Assad, not a Monitor consultant.
“It was very strange because it was unclear just how much room there was
to do something,’’ Ganz recalled. “On the one hand, people would say,
‘We know we need to reform . . . and young people are going to create
the country’s future.’ And on the other hand, gee, it’s a national
security state in which there were sources of serious resistance to
Working with Arab colleagues, Ganz developed training to teach Syrians
how to hold community meetings to work toward a collective goal.
The training programs, beset with false starts and delays, were slated
to begin in Sweida in March. But they were canceled when protests
erupted in nearby Daraa, sparked by the arrest and torture of 15 youths
accused of writing antigovernment graffiti on a wall.
Since then, the protests - anchored by a youth movement that organized
without Assad’s help - have swelled to some 100,000 people. Now Syrian
security forces are accused of killing at least 30 youths, including a
13-year-old boy whose castrated corpse was shown in a video that went
viral on the Internet. Assad has been so silent that she is rumored to
have fled Syria with her three children.
“I can only assume this must be agonizing for her because what is
happening seems so completely at odds with everything she has been
striving for,’’ said Cole-Hamilton.
The daily news out of Syria has also shocked Ganz, who says the regime
should have done more sooner to engage youth.
“It was this promising little rivulet,’’ he said. “But when push came to
shove, it all went down the tubes disastrously, and I just think it’s
Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman at globe.com.
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