When the Tunisian revolution broke out, Egypt was quite prepared for its own. The first groups who marched to Tahrir and other squares on January 25th were organized by CSOs through mobiles, Twitter and Facebook. It was a day where civil society and information technology played a critical role. -Dr. Hoda Badran, “Arab Civil Society Power Transactions Locally and Multilaterally”
NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), or as they are often referred to in Arab culture CSOs (Civil Society Organizations) have played a key role in the wave of democratization sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa. They have raised public awareness on key issues, and helped shape the dialogue of political reform. By occupying a place outside the traditional social structures, they have also helped to loosen the grip of al-‘asabiya (tribalism) on Arab social development.
NGOs have also taken a prominent role in humanitarian work throughout the Arab world, where most of them function as service providers. In many Arab countries, NGOs provided service delivery, networking, mobilization, and the creation of “support systems” of various kinds, ranging from day-care centers to income-generating projects.
This rise in influence of the NGO is a result of a direct need felt by Arab society. “There is a change in mindsets in the region,” said Dr. Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States in UNDP. “We are moving with greater confidence in a new direction now, and there is a strong awareness of the irreversibility of change—change driven by the Arab street, not change adopted from afar.”
The development of NGOs has not been without difficulties. The normal structure of NGO boards is not familiar to Arab culture, nor is the proper balance of those relationships. Adapting to this style of shared leadership has been a slow and difficult transition. “Many of us were hurt during this process,” observed Dr. Nabil Costa, director of the Lebanese Society of Economic and Social Development. “A lot of people lost their jobs.”
Recent Research by the Arab NGO Network reveals the serious nature of these problems of governance. “Responses suggest that the lack of good internal governance practices is a principal obstacle to greater CSO effectiveness in the region. Answers reflect a weak understanding of key components of internal governance, including such matters as a vision and mission statement, an organizational strategy, an organizational structure, and the appropriate divisions in governance and management structures,” reported ANND analysts. “Most respondents do not clearly articulate a vision statement. Of the CSOs, 36 percent leave the question blank, and only 17 percent provide a clear vision statement.”
Lack of cohesive governing structures is also a major issue. “Inconsistencies appear in replies related to hierarchical relations within the organization – that is, relations among the governing bodies, the executive level and staff, and representatives of constituencies. These inconsistencies may stem from an organization’s failure to have an effective organizational chart,” the analysts noted.
If NGOs are to be more effective in the molding of social development in the Arab world, they must overcome these leadership issues. “It's important to have a strong board behind the President,” advises Dr. Riad Kassis, a leadership consultant for NGOs. “You also need a President who knows his or her relationship with the board.”
Having internal cohesion and purpose will be essential in facing the many external challenges to NGOs and their work in society. The UNDP Arab Human Development Report (2009) observes “Arab CSOs play a significant role in spreading awareness of human rights issues by expanding the agenda and by demonstrating public concern for that agenda through their intervention. Their public image is however often tarred by Arab governments, which characterize them as agents of foreign powers dependent on foreign funding. They frequently encounter government-imposed restrictions, obstacles and harassment, and hence have limited membership. “
Despite these problems, both internal and external, Arab NGOs have proven to be foundational to the development and advancement of freedom in Arab societies. Insuring their continued maturity, and the development of proper governance, is essential to the development of democracy in the region. As a provider of Christian and Educational materials to the Arab world, Dar Manhal Al Hayat will continue to support the nurture and fostering of good governance.