In the late fall of 1996, a key committee of the Arab League met to discuss a matter of utmost importance. One of the few committees that meet regularly — the Ministries of the Interior Committee — it convened in Tunis to strategize about one of the most dire national security concerns now facing Arab states. No, it was not Israel, organized crime, environmental devastation or internal unrest, but non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The committee identified human rights NGOs as posing especially pernicious dangers. The proceedings of this meeting were only discovered through an interview with Lebanese Minister of the Interior Michel al-Murr, which was published in al-Nahar newspaper on January 8, 1997. During the interview, al-Murr said that the ministers “were complaining of the human rights organizations in their countries [and] that the work of these organizations and their movements do not aim to protect human rights but to paralyze security operations and countries’ security policies.” [1] Although the actual plan for countering this threat remains a secret to this day, the interview highlighted a request that the convening Arab states bilaterally contact Western countries funding these NGOs in order to halt their support. Recent developments provide more clues as to the plan’s aims and scope.

Governments throughout the region have become more aggressive and are now employing a diverse toolkit of tactics to undermine and discredit NGOs’ efforts, particularly the work of human rights NGOs. The Tunisian government displayed considerable creativity when it decided to create its own NGOs (governmental NGOs or GNGOs), staffed by members of the general intelligence services (mukhabarat), to attend conferences and monitor what was being said about Tunisia (particularly by representatives of Tunisian NGOs). In 1996, two legitimate Tunisian human rights representatives were invited to give presentations at an international human rights conference on torture. A third organization, Jeunes Medecines sans Frontieres (Young Doctors without Borders), was invited later at the request of another NGO, whose members had met their representatives at a conference on torture in South Africa earlier that year. After the invitation was issued, the initial two Tunisian NGO representatives had their passports revoked while the Jeunes Medecines sans Frontieres requested to bring two additional representatives. Medecines sans Frontieres in France then sent the conference organizers a letter of protest about the inclusion of this group, which was “in no way affiliated” with them. After extensive inquiries from reliable sources, the conference organizers established that this “organization” was indeed a GNGO comprised of Tunisian intelligence agents.

Since 1996, “front” organizations for the Tunisian government have multiplied, but all have a recognizable tag: “sans frontieres” — Psychologists without Borders, Lawyers without Borders and so on. Even long-standing organizations now have staff members who report first to the intelligence services and then to the organization itself. In Palestine, the Palestine National Authority (PNA) dissolved the boards of NGOs created after 1995, chiefly those in Gaza, and mandated “elections” of new boards, whose members now include at least one general intelligence service officer. These “NGOs” are now part of a network created to counter a separate network of Palestinian NGOs formed not by local communities, but at the request of the World Bank to receive money from a special fund allocated for the “strengthening of civil society.”

Governments throughout the region have reviewed, modified or rewritten laws governing the establishment, registration and operation of NGOs. A prime focus of governmental attention is the relationship of local NGOs to international NGOs (INGOs), particularly in relation to foreign funding. Governments wish to reserve the option to approve or prohibit such formal partnerships between NGOs and INGOs. Local NGOs, especially those in Egypt, are now reconsidering these relationships and entertaining second thoughts about collaborating with INGOs or even relying on them when problems do arise, thus potentially cutting themselves off from needed support.

At the same time that governments are pressuring NGOs regarding foreign funding, NGOs are becoming more frustrated with the international funding community, especially Western governmental funding agencies such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the European Commission (EC). Local perception — which is also frequently fact — is that they come to the region with agendas rooted in specific foreign policy objectives seeking “partners” to unquestioningly carry out programs that seldom resonate with the political situation on the ground. And then there are those, like the EC, that make grants on paper, don’t deliver the funding until the eleventh hour, and yet still expect the program to be carried out on schedule, thus forcing NGOs to carry debts they cannot cover.

The Legal Dimension

In line with the interior ministries’ meeting in 1996, recent association laws passed by Egypt and similar legislation now under consideration in Palestine and Jordan highlight the issue of foreign funding. The new Egyptian law stipulates that the ministry of the interior must approve the receipt of all foreign funding earmarked for Egyptian NGOs. In the case of Palestine, the PNA is attempting to condition such acceptance on foreign funders agreeing to allow the PNA to receive and allocate monies from abroad. A few Western governmental funders have responded by allocating some of the money for NGOs through Orient House while also making direct grants to a smaller number of Palestinian NGOs. Other funders, particularly those who have offices in the region, know exactly what the likely effects of this will be and are maintaining their direct links with regional organizations possessing strong and established histories within local communities.

Although foreign funding of NGOs throughout the Middle East and North Africa is not a new phenomenon, the nature and amount of assistance has changed dramatically since the advent of the Oslo process in 1993. More money is now available, primarily from Western governments, for the purpose of “strengthening peace and coexistence” — i.e., normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab states. Since the 1998 Wye Agreement, US funding for NGOs has aimed primarily at combating “incitement” against the security of Israel. (The US is particularly interested in countering dehumanizing stereotyping of Israelis in Palestinian textbooks and media, but not vice versa.) While US monies were being channeled towards buttressing the “the peace process,” European governments’ funding of regional NGOs changed with the advent of the EC’s grant-making departments. Most EC member states used to fund NGOs directly and independently; now they only give through the instruments of the EC. The chief fund for NGOs in the Middle East and North Africa is the Mediterranean Democracy Department (MEDA DEMOC), which focuses primarily on democratization and peace-building.

Ironically, just as Middle Eastern governments are trying to frighten local NGOs away from accepting foreign money, international funders are now conditioning their support on the adoption of specific projects. This is particularly noticeable in the EC’s funding of Palestinian NGOs, where currently the most fundable project is the documentation of human rights violations committed by the PNA.

These developments will alter the nature of NGO funding and, indeed, the very nature of NGOs in the region. Those that accept or apply for foreign governmental funding face three difficult choices: to become GNGOs, to change their organizational mandates to suit funding opportunities, or to attempt to maintain their NGO status and program goals while facing closure or downsizing due to the decreasing availability of “unrestricted” funding.

The first option is to receive foreign funding only through a given country’s ministry of the interior. NGOs can either allow their funds to be monitored by the government or they can risk being subjected to vicious attacks on their credibility. Most NGOs throughout the region have not been transparent about the composition of their boards of directors or their organizational finances; they have often found it safer to keep such matters out of the public’s view. Consequently, the general population that NGOs serve has had very little information on which to make accurate assessments about the intentions and achievements of NGOs. In this setting, government-orchestrated disinformation campaigns are especially effective. This is readily apparent in Egypt, where the government alleges that NGOs, specifically human rights NGOs, receive funding from the CIA or Zionists in order to discredit and undermine Egypt’s national unity and political sovereignty. [2]

Legislation to monitor foreign funding of NGOs is now being considered in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. If passed, these laws will have negative implications for all NGOs, but none will be more negatively affected than human rights organizations. [3] If they can receive foreign funding only through the auspices of ministries of the interior, does this render them governmental NGOs? Can the government then dictate an organization’s mandate, board members, programs and publications? If NGOs are prohibited from receiving outside funding, then what other funding options exist? Public philanthropy is not a well-established tradition in the Arab world. The exception, of course, is zakat (almsgiving) to Islamic charities mandated by religious beliefs and precepts. It is highly unlikely that governments in the region (perhaps with the exception of Morocco), will allow human rights NGOs to receive grants directly from foreign funding institutions. After all, they have been labeled a “national security threat,” so most governments in the region would breath a sigh of relief if they were forced to close “voluntarily” due to insufficient funding.

The second option is to actively pursue foreign funding. This option poses problems separate from the aforementioned hindrances of the new NGO laws. The “new realities” of the peace process and the EC grant-giving mechanisms for the entire region have become more obvious in the last two to three years, as evidenced by funders’ “project objectives” for the region. In the past, NGOs freely received money from individual European governments and foundations. Often, these funders would simply give the money to the NGOs to spend as they saw fit, requiring little, if any, reporting or follow-up. Although this did not foster an environment of organizational transparency and accountability, NGOs could apply funds to whatever projects they wished to undertake. Now, with the advent of the EC’s funding mechanisms, reporting and accounting requirements are beyond the capacity of most local NGOs. The EC, confronting its own corruption scandal, has changed its guidelines further by only making grants over 400,000 ECU to NGOs with a bank guarantee for the same amount. This certainly lightens the workload of EC bureaucrats, but it represents an unattainable reality for virtually all NGOs in the region. It also means that most regional NGOs will be allotted the role of subcontractors to larger INGOs if they wish to access EC money. Other funders, particularly US funders, now go directly to NGOs and suggest that funds will be forthcoming if certain changes are made in projects or if the NGO undertakes the funder’s project.

In Palestine, the amount of money available to NGOs from foreign funding sources has increased exponentially since Oslo. Yet frustrations over the requirements of receiving grants have also increased, since most funding now comes with specific policy conditions attached. For example, a Palestinian human rights NGO, LAW, recently changed its mandate from reporting on Israeli violations of human rights to reporting, almost exclusively, on the PNA’s violations, since this was the express interest of several major funders. LAW has received several large grants as a result. Furthermore, established NGOs that have refused to alter their mandate or program methodology suffer from diminished funding while new NGOs continue to mushroom.

At the same time, local NGOs catering to the desires of the international community (whether INGOs or foreign funders) through the projects they undertake often do so with little thought of the societies in which they are working. Throughout the region, many NGOs have geared their educational outreach efforts toward the West by producing web sites (primarily in English and available only to the economically elite) and English-only publications. This helps them to receive INGOs’ recommendations for inclusion in the international community and the receipt of additional foreign funding, but can inspire cynicism from members of their own society.

As a result of this emerging dynamic, regional NGOs that design their projects according to the needs of their own society are unable to access significant funding. Those NGOs that tailor their mandates to the new funding policies of foreign funding sources, however, will also face difficulties should these funding policies change. The new organizations currently sprouting up in response to the dramatic influx of funding will also face similar problems in the future. Those NGOs, whether old or new, that do not consolidate a constituency and credibility within their societies cannot last for long.

The third option, which some of the older and better-established organizations have chosen, is to set their own agenda and to raise their money accordingly. They have decided that foreign funds are welcome if a donor wishes to support a program they have designed. If not, then they do not wish to take the money. In one instance, USAID, eager to implement a program on the rule of law in Palestine, approached several of the more credible NGOs to be “partners” with them on this project, yet were rejected by many. USAID was told that the project was neither possible nor appropriate at this political juncture, especially since many in Palestinian society feel that it is the US government that is undermining the rule of law in Palestine. USAID will likely continue to seek out partners, perhaps among the newer organizations that are looking merely for funding assistance.

Gradually, local NGOs are learning how to deal with international funders on an equal footing and how to take seriously the reporting and financial accountability demanded of them. This is definitely a positive step for NGOs in the region. Still, international funders must understand that it may take time and a process of learning for local NGOs to be able to meet these standards.

Who receives which funds from whom will remain an important issue in the Middle East and North Africa for the foreseeable future. Distribution of funds creates rumors throughout society, elicits misinformation from governments and engenders raw, often backstabbing, competition among local NGOs, which, in turn, sows mistrust among funders and international organizations as well. The political economy of NGO funding in the region at present has given rise to a milieu in which the operative motto is not community service, but rather, “take the money and run.” Such an environment can damage future prospects for civil society and social justice in the region. If, however, funders work with local NGOs as partners in designing programs that are relevant to local communities (and some are beginning to do just that), it could have a tremendously positive impact on social and political realities throughout the region. By encouraging cooperation and communication between funders and NGOs, both would have a better understanding of the problems, limitations, needs and opportunities before them. This would help combat some NGOs’ perceptions that foreign funders and INGOs have “hidden” agendas, and would thus enhance local NGOs’ confidence in the building of true partnerships. Furthermore, such cooperative relations may also support NGOs in making the structural and operational changes needed to increase their transparency and accountability within their own societies and to better position them to deal with changing legislation and governmental attacks.


[1] Al-Nahar, January 8, 1997.
[2] See, for example, Mohamed El-Sayed Said, “Phantom of the Foreigner Reigns over Debates Concerning Private Associations,” Sawasiyya 23-24 (1998), p. 6, published by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; “Foreign Support for Human Rights,” interviews with governmental and non-governmental representatives, Nushata’, 9-8 (March 1999), pp. 4-5, published by the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists.
[3] A recent, and blatant, example of this trend was the condemnation of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group (PHRMG) by a previously unknown organization, “The Committee to Fight Corruption,” on the grounds that PHRMG was working hand in glove with Israeli intelligence agencies to undermine important Palestinian national figures, and that PHRMG director Bassam Eid “has strong and warm relations with the Jews and the foreigners, especially after working with them in B’Tselem, a center for the Israeli Mossad.” Letters sent to PHRMG by this shadowy organization urged staff members to resign lest their names, too, be blackened before the public. (PHRMG press release, February 9, 2000.)

How to cite this article:

Julia Pitner "NGOs’ Dilemmas," Middle East Report 214 (Spring 2000).

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