Friday, May 18, 2007

On Shaha Ali Riza

To Whom It May Concern,

Shaha Ali Riza has worked as an advocate for women's rights and democracy in the Middle East for most of her career, but it's her personal life -- her relationship with World Bank President Paul D. Wolfowitz -- that's put her in the public eye. As the scandal over the compensation Wolfowitz arranged for her deepens, one longtime colleague, leading Palestinian peace activist and philosopher Sari Nusseibeh, wrote this open letter on her behalf.

I am very happy to have the chance to put in a good word for Shaha Ali Riza, especially in the midst of what seems to be an unfair and vicious campaign against her.

I have known Shaha for the past 15 years, starting when she was still working for the National Endowment for Democracy. Shaha, who had heard of my work as an academic and peace activist, was interested in sounding me out on ideas for projects in the West Bank to promote democracy, empower youths and build civil society organizations. At the time, she did something that I later came to recognize as her professional trademark: digging beneath the surface, questioning and double-checking existing practices in the field. Her uppermost concern was ensuring that there was no malpractice -- no financing that was going to the wrong people or organizations. We kept up our contacts as I became involved in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and helped work with World Bank officials to draw up plans for Palestine's economic development.

Shaha later moved to the World Bank. Because of the mutual trust that had already developed between us, she soon tried to get bank officials who worked on the Middle East to get to know me. She felt that they had to listen to a "fresh" voice, to the voice of someone who was not part of the existing system. She sought out other such voices and encouraged the bank to hold brainstorming workshops in the presence of nonofficial analysts and grass-roots activists. While at the State Department, she tried to start a program to help Palestinian students study law at American universities in hopes that, upon their return home, they would help develop workable legal institutions in a future Palestinian state.

When widespread violence erupted in 2000, she stepped in again after I started a grass-roots peace effort with an Israeli activist, Ami Ayalon. Shaha introduced me to James D. Wolfensohn, then the World Bank's president, in hopes of soliciting his help. She repeated her efforts as soon as Paul D. Wolfowitz was appointed as his successor, introducing him to Middle Easterners like myself in whom she found a genuine commitment to the betterment of their societies.

These are only some of the landmarks in our relationship, but they reflect an ongoing devotion to providing the best advice to the institutions for which she worked.

Very often, Shaha's perceptions and conclusions were not congruent with those of her colleagues. She knew that she sometimes upset coworkers because of her unconventional methods (notably her strong contacts in the region) and conclusions. Often, she would choose to be absent from a workshop in which we would be speaking with her colleagues -- often meetings that were the result of her own planning -- just so that her colleagues could listen to our voices without feeling "threatened."

Throughout, her guiding principle was this: Let's get the least tainted and least prejudiced advice about how her organization can make the best use of its resources.

I don't believe that the World Bank or the State Department could find a person more devoted to their work in this part of the world than Shaha. Nor, I believe, could underprivileged people from this region hope for a more sympathetic ear in Washington.

Yours truly,

Sari Nusseibeh

President, al-Quds University, Jerusalem

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