On a drab Beirut side street is a modest restaurant famed for its delicious cuisine. A favorite haunt of top PLO officials, journalists and various political hangers-on in years past, the restaurant still enjoys a thriving business, serving local residents, shopkeepers and a large and growing entourage of professionals working on projects under the auspices of a wide variety of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The restaurant’s owner, accepting a compliment, beams proudly and says, “Formerly serving the PLO, now serving the NGO!” My friends and I laughed at the time, but in preparing this issue of Middle East Report, this humorous observation took on more serious shades of meaning.
In much of the Middle East, NGOs have been to the 1990s what resistance groups and popular unions of students, workers and professionals were to the 1970s: the defining social organizational form of the decade. Whereas groupings in the 1970s arose from and reflected broad-based movements, usually defined as progressive if not radical, and proclaiming unabashedly political (though frequently unrealistic) objectives, NGOs reflect the fragmentation and segmentation of a wide popular base and the depoliticization of popular discourse in the post-Cold War, post-Oslo Middle East. Although NGOs provide valuable services in realms as diverse as human rights, environmental education, rural development, women’s rights, literacy training and legal reform, they also tend to segment and disperse, rather than coalesce and amplify, political power.
The Lebanese writer, Fawwaz Trabulsi, a contributing editor to this magazine, recently observed that NGOs in Lebanon “have the opposite structural effect as political parties; NGOs are the result of the absence of parties, but they also hinder the emergence and formation of effective parties since they splinter popular demands into a multiplicity of interests, which are addressed by specialized professionals. This encourages a ‘top-down,’ personalized provision of services — a new kind of clientelism — that prevents the public from realizing that services provided by NGOs are not gifts, but rather, elementary human rights that are due to them as citizens of modern states.”
NGOs’ tendency to diffuse and weaken broad-based political demands could be one reason why Western governments are so eager to fund them. As Sheila Carapico notes in this issue, foreign funding and mentoring “enable NGOs to foster liberalization without generating social unrest.” From Arab states’ perspectives, NGOs are suspect competitors for power, if not covert agents of foreign intervention. Most regional NGOs’ reliance on foreign funding, whether from Western governments or private foundations, only increases state and even popular suspicions about their aims. If regional NGOs are to attain their noble goals of social and economic justice, strengthening the rule of law and guaranteeing human rights, they must mobilize popular support within their own societies by tailoring their projects and methodologies to the needs and concerns of their fellow citizens, not to the latest agenda of agencies abroad. In so doing, they may just generate new political movements.
Going to press, we learned that Sa’id Hajjarian, a close advisor to Iranian President Mohammed Khatami and a key architect of the Iranian reform movement, had been gravely wounded in an assassination attempt. Middle East Report was honored to publish an interview with Hajjarian in its fall 1999 issue. MERIP joins all those who have condemned this brutal and cowardly attack and wishes Hajjarian a full and speedy recovery.
This issue of Middle East Report marks my last as editor. It has been an honor and a privilege to edit this important and unique publication, which I have admired since college. I thank my co-workers and the MERIP board of directors for this wonderful and enriching opportunity, and look forward to assisting MERIP in new ways as it enters its thirtieth year of activism and education. I urge all of our valued readers and subscribers to do likewise. I also extend a warm welcome to the newly appointed editor, Chris Toensing.