Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Ghanem Bibi is co-founder and coordinator of the Arab Resource Collective based in Nicosia. ARC generates Arabic-language resources for use in community health and childhood development projects, and serves as a networking resource for Arab NGOs. Julie Peteet spoke with him in August 1994, shortly after an Arab NGO preparatory meeting in Lebanon for the March 1995 UN Social Summit in Copenhagen. Joe Stork spoke with him further in early November 1994.

What was the range of organizations attending the regional preparatory meeting?

There were Arab NGOs and donor agencies. The conference was supposed to prepare for the social summit, but it developed in two directions, more or less unintentionally. One agenda related to NGO work and NGO culture. The other tried to focus on preparation for the summit. The first was more interesting and relevant.

What are the issues?

Civil society’s relation to government, problems of development, the role of NGOs, democracy, women and marginalized groups, world order relations between North and South. You could see a difference between organizations committed to social change and those that were strictly service-oriented. NGO relations with governments are varied and complicated in the Arab world because of the whole question of accountability. Generally speaking, NGOs talk from a position of “let government give us this, let government give us that. Government should make space for us.” It somehow reflects a lack of conviction that one can change those governments. People are trying to get some elbow room in societies where governments give this room reluctantly.

Are there other obstacles to NGO work besides the state?

There is a lot to be said for those Arab NGOs working on relief and survival issues, human rights, health and so forth. Lebanese and Palestinian NGOs have been crucial in alleviating hardships of civil war and military occupation, in nurturing a sense of community solidarity and hope. But obstacles do exist. How many Arab NGOs transcend boundaries of political parties and sects? Or develop a holistic strategy that understands how their work affects and is affected by society? Other issues involve openness to community participation, and sharing knowledge and resources. The list is long. Some NGOs are tackling this or that challenge, but others are overwhelmed by, or satisfied with, things as they are.

Is the NGO culture a democratic one?

No, in the sense that most NGOs are not open organizations, with clear-cut accountability, transparency and so forth. But they are more democratic than traditional and charitable NGOs. And more than state structures, yes, except that the dimension of accountability is much clearer in state structures.

What unites NGOs in the Arab world?

It’s become a fashion to create NGOs. Service NGOs are a very old tradition in Arab society. Waqfs [religious endowments], for instance. And the systems of kafala and takafful [sponsorship or guardianship], where the group takes care of the more marginal and more deprived members. In Lebanon, one group of NGOs comprises secular organizations, plus some organizations more or less religiously based but whose work is essentially non-sectarian. There is another group which reflects the interests and priorities of the state. The main dividing line lies there. The problems are, first, how to link up and, second, where to draw the line between the traditional forms of support within communities and new forms that are needed, where NGOs are open, member-based organizations, based on participation, rotation of responsibility, accountability, transparency, internal dialogue over strategies and direction, and so forth.

How do you see the future of the NGOs in the Arab world?

NGOs are here to stay because, first, they constitute a necessity and, second, there is outside pressure to allow more room for NGOs. The pressure is coming from more than one source, but mainly from the North, where NGOs are seen as another form of privatization of society. There is some convergence there with what local NGOs want. Then you have this phenomenon of governments creating NGOs themselves — NGOs they can control.

I don’t know how much Arab NGOs are going to be able to develop. I think this will be different from one place to another. Palestinian NGOs were setting the pace for some years, but now they are worried about what might come next as the Palestinian situation “normalizes” and the new authority tries to compete with NGOs rather than build on what they’ve achieved.

The third reason why NGOs will remain with us is that political life in the Arab world is quite frustrated. NGOs are a way for people to get involved, whether it’s in human rights, women’s or children’s rights or health. It also relates to the difficulty middle classes have in surviving. That could be another push for NGOs to develop even more.

As an organization made up of people engaged with a variety of NGOs, we come to the NGO culture from a pragmatic need. It’s remarkable to see this explosive growth of the NGO phenomenon, but there has not been enough reflection over why they are necessary, what forms are needed, and who’s doing what.

The West is encouraging this NGO phenomenon. One reason is to alleviate the hardships of social transformations. Or rather, to facilitate certain transformations — privatization, structural adjustment. Donor NGOs represent, in many cases, very significant financial resources — private and governmental.

So how non-governmental are NGOs?

NGOs are important, but we should not exaggerate their roles. We are talking about societies that are being “crash-tested,” much like a car, to see how much punishment they can take. Governments would like NGOs to take up some survival tasks and costs. The transitional aspect of our societies means that NGOs are a transitional structure or mechanism. Open, participatory NGOs are not numerous, and they are not the influential ones. Most NGOs are small, shaped by the priorities and enthusiasms of a group or a few individuals.

Governments want the benefits NGOs can provide, but they find it difficult to give them — by law and in reality — the kind of space they need to function. If you provide services, there is power connected to that, even if you don’t want it.

Do you find that the people most active in non-traditional NGOs are the people who had been active in oppositional party politics?

Yes, I think many are. They find that NGOs give them the possibility to be active in their communities, something they miss with the demise of political parties. NGOs also allow people to look deeper into the problems of society, something most political parties failed to do in their focus on state power. The progressive parties, for instance, had rather conservative policies when it came to education. NGO work helps us probe the grassroots sources of underdevelopment and dependency. Out of this has come a set of lessons about communities, individuals and empowerment. This is what has happened with regard to women and gender, and it is happening now, for example, with regard to issues around the rights, care and education of children.

Do you see NGOs as facilitating the incubation of a new kind of politics in the region?

By providing what states had been expected to provide, some NGOs represent a mode of protest, a declaration of dissatisfaction. NGOs can also provide alternative models. This aspect is now being discovered, but not widely enough and not in a sustained way.

NGOs represent a rationalization of the system. For us, NGOs offer flexible new ways to link up with others, and to probe the needs of communities, issues of empowerment and sustainability — not just in a narrow economic sense. In this sense we might be looking at a long-term source of important ideas and ways of working.

How to cite this article:

Joe Stork, Julie Peteet "The NGO Phenomenon in the Arab World," Middle East Report 193 (March/April 1995).
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