Software // Information Management
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10/12/2009
12:36 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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State Department Awards Social Networking Grants

The State Department plans to award up to $5 million in grants to expand the use of social networking in the Middle East and North Africa to drive citizen engagement and civic participation. The pilot program is part of a long-term effort to help bring democracy to the region, with a preference toward using existing technologies and social media platforms.

The State Department plans to award up to $5 million in grants to expand the use of social networking in the Middle East and North Africa to drive citizen engagement and civic participation. The pilot program is part of a long-term effort to help bring democracy to the region, with a preference toward using existing technologies and social media platforms.The program, announced Sept. 25 and sponsored by the State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), will award grants of $500,000 to $2.5 million to five organizations. MEPI provides support to the Middle East and North Africa for women's empowerment, educational advancement, economic development, and political participation.

The solicitation references President Obama's speech he delivered in Cairo, Egypt, on June 4, in which he called for broader engagement between the United States and Muslim countries. State said in the solicitation that it is seeking pilot proposals "that will leverage innovative new technologies to connect people -- particularly youth -- in order to expand civic participation, increase new media capabilities for civil society, and enhance online educational opportunities in the Middle East and North Africa."

State said priority will be given to applications that leverage existing social media platforms to improve the ability of Middle Eastern citizens to engage with one another, exchange information in real time and provide an outlet for them to freely discuss political issues. It also states applicants should take into account "Internet access penetration, connections speeds, costs to users and other functional aspects of new media in the region, including censorship, cultural barriers, nuances of local dialect or language, and infrastructure shortcomings when designing projects."

The project is an example of the United States working much less confrontationally than in the past, and with a focus on long-term goals rather than immediate change, Henry Farrell, an associate professor of international affairs at the The George Washington University, told Nextgov, It's also an example of government officials, having seen the success of Facebook and other social media for the Obama campaign, eager to try out those tools for international relations.

However, the program is risky--foreign governments could see it as confrontational, Farrell said.

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark likes the project. It's designed to give people "a voice, from the bottom up, about how their countries should be governed." And it's a reminder of "the restoration of American ideals by the American government. We're serious about the practice of democracy, again."

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