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U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel: Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC)

The Middle East Regional Cooperation Program (MERC) was created in 1979 to promote cooperation between Israeli, Egyptian and American scientists. Since 1989, projects have expanded to include other Arab nations. The U.S. Agency for International Development allocates $7 million to fund the program and has provided 24 grants totaling $20 million since 1999.

The goals of MERC are to contribute to development and improvement of the quality of life in the Middle East Region through the application of research and technology; and to contribute to the peace process through the establishment of cooperative relationships that will last beyond the life of the project. MERC funds cooperative projects in the areas of agriculture, health, environment, economics, and engineering. Funds may be provided for grants of up to $3 million over five years, although proposals of more modest size are strongly encouraged. Awards are based on technical merit and the contribution to peace and development in the region (all full research proposals will also undergo external scientific peer review). In this regard, genuine Arab-Israeli cooperation and regional significance are key elements of all MERC projects.

Projects must include at least one Israeli and one Arab partner. To date, the program has also funded activities with participation from Jordan, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza, Lebanon, and Tunisia. Projects involving three or more regional partners are also allowed. Partners may come from academic, private sector, non-governmental, or governmental institutions. The major focus of the MERC Program is on fostering direct cooperation among Middle Eastern individuals and institutions.

The only non-regional partners allowed are U.S. institutions, although U.S. participation is not a requirement. If an American partner is included, their role in the project implementation should be limited to providing technical assistance and must be justified on the grounds of their specific technical qualifications in the subject area of the proposal.

Ideally, MERC projects should apply research and technology to regional problems rather than issues of strictly local or even global concern. Examples of the types of development impacts MERC aims to achieve include, but are not limited to: economic growth that increases incomes of the disadvantaged; improved environmental management; strengthened and harmonized national policies; increased food production; water conservation and efficient use; and reduction of the burden of disease through better treatments or health management strategies. Examples of projects include:

A) Research to develop techniques to increase food production using minimum water, and using low levels of saline water while producing quality fruits, vegetables and ornamentals.

B) Development of low cost and affordable technologies for the treatment and reuse of domestic wastewater for agriculture.

C) A project to increase food and industrial crop production in arid lands.

D) Development of agricultural techniques and technologies in Morocco (this was the first project outside Egypt).

E) Monitoring and modeling of saltwater intrusion.

F) Protection and management of wastewater reuse of a mountain aquifer.

G) AWater Data Banks Project to operate compatible water data collection and dissemination programs.

H) The creation of a binational marine park in the Gulf of Aqaba and a peace park at the Dead Sea.

One example of a MERC project that received nearly $3 million from 1993-1997 was a collaboration involving scientists at Virginia Tech and the National Research Centre of the Ministry of Agriculture in Cairo, Egypt, and the Weizman Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. These scientists sought ways to eliminate crop devastation by a parasitic weed known as Orobanche. Interdisciplinary studies focused on basic biological relationships between parasitic weeds and crop hosts. State of the art methodologies were utilized, including extensive biotechnology and genetic engineering research. MERC involved resting and evaluating classical and molecular monitoring techniques linked with damage estimation, integrated agronomic practices, and chemical and biological control techniques. The Department of Plant Pathology, Physiology, and Weed Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech played a major role in project implementation.

A second project involved researchers from Egypt's Plant Pathology Research Institute, Israel's Hebrew University, the Palestinian Authority's Bet Lehem University, Jordan's Al-Balqa' Applied University, Lebanon's American University of Beirut, Beirut, Tunisia's University of Tunisia, and Americans from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and National Germplasm Resources Laboratory. The general goal was to stablish standardized virus detection methods for the Middle East, particularly Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, and Tunisia. The specific goals were to:

1. Develop reliable, sensitive detection methods for the major viruses infecting selected propagative materials, i.e., potato, tomato, banana, grapes, and stone fruits.

2. Establish a collection of virus antisera and virus detection probes for distribution to private sector and to government institutions in addition to those involved in this project.

3. Establish a Plant Pathogen Detection Lab in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia.

4. Standardize methods among the virus testing labs by building confidence in the virus detection methods through training and exchange visits and meetings between scientists from the different collaborating countries.

5. Expand collaborative efforts between Arab countries and Israel.

6. Implement a fee-based structure for programs where appropriate.

Ultimately, the MERC Program strives to build sustained Arab-Israeli cooperation. Most of all, the program places a premium on projects based on true intellectual partnerships that can be sustained well beyond the lifetime of the grant.

Middle East Regional Cooperation (MERC) Program
U.S. Agency for International Development
Room 2.11-152 RRB
1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, D.C. 20523-2110 USA

Sources: USAID