Lessons from German NGO Experience [Archives:1998/26/Law & Diplomacy]

June 29 1998

Ahmed Al-Hajj,
In an unfamiliar and unexpected way, many new terms and phrases have entered the political lingo in Yemen since the early 1990s. At that time, talks about civil society institutions did not proceed beyond a token mention in the press. This indicated the poor basis and dried up sources on which such institutions had to rely on. It also indicated the lack of a real understanding of the experiences of other countries.
Many political parties and organizations had a rather hazy idea about NGOs and other civil society institutions. This lack of clarity, or confusion, can be attributed to the fragility of the experience and the weakness or even absence of the tradition of working with civil NGOs. Not much importance was given to this issue, despite the fact that it deserves all due attention by the powers that aspire to build a modern civil society.
A modern civil society is the basis of a feasible development process and comprehensive reform. By virtue of their active and important role, NGOs represent the corner stone of a modern democratic system. However, the reactionary forces that ruled the country or were controlling the political parties tried to impede or even remove the civil society institutions from the overall political and social scene.
Serious efforts are now being made to activate these institutions within a proper legal framework that is liable to expand their popular base, leading eventually to advancing the economic, social and cultural frontiers.
An appreciable number of intellectuals, enlightened politicians, lawyers, and some of the independent and partisan presses are having an increasing and more active role to form a modern civil society in Yemen. They are trying as best as they can to further the cause of NGOs and enlarge their role in this country.
The First National Conference on NGOs, held during 16-18 in Sanaa, is an outstanding example of the new spirit of responsibility and team work currently pervading Yemeni society in general and the country’s intellectual elite in particular. This initiative comes within a general international atmosphere of willingness to extend aid and assistance to help advance the process of democratization and modern-society building in developing countries such as Yemen.
Other Experiences
The Conrad Adenauer Foundation invited several Arab journalists to attend the seminar on ‘The West in Arab and Islamic Media.’ The guests also had the opportunity to get acquainted with Germany’s unique NGO experience. The 10-day visit program included meetings with economic and foreign policy experts as well as NGO activists.
The following observations, concerning Germany’s NGO experience were made by me and my colleague, Hamoud Monasser:
1- It is an experience worthy of close study and scrutiny, especially for Yemen which is still at the beginning of the road towards establishing a civil and democratic society.
2- The NGO experience in Yemen goes back to the Weimar Republic in 1919.
3- The role of these institutions in Germany came to the fore after the 2nd World War. They played an active role in bringing Germany out of the destruction and carnage of the war.
4- In a record time, with the great help of civil society institutions, Germany was able to become the second largest economic power in the world. The activities of these organizations extended beyond Germany’s borders, forming – as one Arab diplomat observed – a strong tool for implementing German foreign policy.
5- German NGOs receive government support irrespective of what political party rules the country.
By upholding democratic values, German NGOs have been able to act as catalyst for peace not only inside Germany, but also in other troubled spots in the world. Since democracy depends on periodical general and local elections as well as larger public participation, the existence of NGOs provides one of the best means for people to take part in decision making.
* leading member of the Yemeni Institute for the Development of Democracy (YIDD), and Associated Press correspondent in Yemen.