Policy LineUnderstanding Civil Society [Archives:2005/858/Opinion]

July 11 2005

By Fatima Fouad
[email protected]

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the Middle East are confused entities struggling to find funding rather than a mission. Albeit the written objectives and the participation component are well documented, finding CSOs that can promote a voice of change or a democratic culture within the structure of their organizations is rather challenging.

Major international agencies look at ways to empower civil society and strengthen their voices. In a country like Yemen where donors shy away from direct budget support with the government, they look at CSOs as their main channel for funding. However, they fail to understand the mechanisms and operational values of these organizations. They are often intimidated by Islamic charities, worried regarding politically motivated organizations and can rarely find CSOs that stress on issues like voice and accountability.

The lack of understanding of the political systems in the Middle East in general, and Yemen in particular, has failed to define the nature of the civil society organizations and their representational mechanisms. Being a CSO is not necessarily any qualification for involvement in good development work or wider representation of the people. Each organizations values, practices and principles need to be carefully examined.

In an Islamic country like Yemen, most of the CSOs roles are limited to delivering charitable assistance based on *Zakat*, some take the role of service delivery on their shoulders and the rest of these organizations have political or tribal interests. Diverse roles are spread and few strategic inputs delivered. Harmonized efforts between the various CSOs are too challenging to introduce as well. The different nature of the CSOs in Yemen did not help the donors achieve their long term objectives easily. It often lead to disappointing partnerships that had no influence on the lives of the poor.

Most of the CSOs in Yemen have been closely associated with individuals, the investment in the institutional capacity of the organization has always been weak. People recognize the CSOs as an intellectual achievement of the chairman, it is often a way to make business for yourself and your little environment. It is also seen as a property of the chairman and possesses a high probability of becoming as authoritarian as the Arab regimes.

There are further complications in the structure of the CSOs that contributed to weakening its overall role. The fluctuating attention to CSOs according to the various principles of donor institutions was also not helpful. The criteria which was set in terms of selecting the counterparts from these non profit organizations was ambiguous. Donors where often comfortable in dealing with with CSOs whose leaders speak fluent English and have presence among a foreign crowed. Although these elements seem to be superficial, they played a vital role in favoring some CSO's on others.

The strategies of the donors in supporting CSOs were not clear, however, the importance of developing the CSOs roles prevails. Building capacity of civil society for the sake of sustainability has become the focus of the international Donors. The bulk of this concept was concentrated on the CSO's ability in formulating well written proposals and their ability to better manage and organize themselves. This has overlooked the importance of helping them develop a spirit of volunteering based on the realities of their context. There isn't enough attention paid to further developing the role of the CSOs to extend to the citizens and increase further transparency and participation.

The problems and challenges of engaging with CSOs are universal and Yemen seems to be no different than any other country in that respect. However, the real challenge resides in the nature of the Republic of Yemen and the weakness of people's role in contributing to building their state. Yemen remains heavily tribal with fragmented diverse interests; the country is split between tribal up north, tribal in the south, coastal areas with a weak tribal presence and state affiliation and a southern part of Yemen that suffered from communism. In a recent unified state in the 1990, Civil Society participation has not been used as a strategic tool to building the role of the society, it has simply lacked potential and influence.

Identifying the full potential of these CSOs and helping them develop their role has been left unexplored. CSOs need to further focus in representing the people and finding a voice in policy dialogue if their role is to continue. Civil society organizations need to think broadly about the mission they need to accomplish rather than the projects they have to implement. Donors will also have to recognize the differences in CSOs between the Middle East and the west, but they need to learn to accept it and find ways to deal with it.