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Maryam Abolfazli Headshot

Civil Society Development and Its Discontents

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"Are there any other groups similar to yours that also work with women and political participation in Yemen?" I asked.

"Well to be honest, every group here claims to be working on women, because that's what the donors want right now," Mahmoud -- the founder of a prominent women's organization in Yemen -- responded. He was telling us about his organization's activities during the National Dialogue process there.

My mind stopped on his comment. And I remembered a recent trip to Jordan and Lebanon where I caught up with some of the civil society groups that I'd met with during the summer. During one of those meetings at Younes Café in Sodeco, one of them told me they had disbanded their very well-funded and successful organization. I asked her why and she said, "We couldn't tell what impact we were having after awhile. We were getting all of this funding but we weren't really changing anything."

She explained that they had started out as a group of passionate and focused youth activists and turned into an organization with a hierarchy and an overhead and it had diverted them from their cause. "We met to talk about this worry we all were having about our organization's future and we made a few decisions. We decided to stop going for project funding. We changed the structure of the organization, got rid of the hierarchy, and the board. Now everyone has the same weight in the decision process, it's a horizontally affiliated group of volunteers now. Then we decided what issues we want to focus on and devised a strategy around that. Now we're asking donors to fund the strategy."

I asked her how she felt about the change. "It's scary. But we had to do it."

I was noticing the impact of this donor funding business in many of my meetings throughout the region. There was a sort of robotic way of spouting out words that were essential to getting funding. NGO directors would say phrases like "capacity building" and provide statistics on the number of people that come to their trainings. I didn't get a sense that they was sincere curiosity or concern for solving an issue in society. I wondered did they once care and did that passion get diluted through the hundreds of grant proposals they'd written?

Often the problem with donor funding is that it does not allow for enough innovation, creativity, service and result orientation, in the way the private sector might. Unlike business plans, many proposals are static and linear in the way they describe activities, rather than seeing themselves as offering a service to a specific client, they are often lists of activities, without a focus on what the service is, how it is different, and how it might just work to achieve that change. This nuance makes a huge difference.

Talking to friends who work for civil society organizations in the U.S., I tried to find the differences. It seems that an essential difference is accountability. When the funding is local, the accountability is more direct. A local donor, whether it be a citizen, foundation, or government, is usually more invested in the use and impact of their funds. And they usually know about it when a project or organization is not working well.

I know this paints an overly idealistic view of civil society in the U.S. Social justice and advocacy organizations in the U.S. are rife with problems, competition, bad management, and personalities that drive or kill the organization and their coalitions, despite this, a majority of them provide quality services to their communities and advocate on their behalf for important rights and benefits.

Looking at the way change did come in the MENA region, we see that it didn't come from well-funded organizations but rather passionate individuals and groups that couldn't tolerate the status-quo any longer. This begs the question where was this donor-funded civil society when you needed them?

In a variety of ways it's clear that traditional development models are over, that social entrepreneurship and income generation are more viable means for organizations to stay focused on their missions in the MENA region. Any way that an organization can be more selective in what international donor funds they use and how, is a way for that organization to stay more focused on achieving its long-term mission.

I remember when I was with some Tunisian friends who had started an association to keep the ideals of the revolution alive and ensure that democracy takes hold. They mentioned to me that they didn't want to work for their organization full-time as staff. At first I questioned this choice, wondering about their commitment. Now it seems it was the better option, since their incomes don't rely on the organization's funding stream, it will be their passion and drive that will keep them engaged and interested.

A few weeks ago, I stood in front of a room of development workers in Lebanon and asked them how they would report to a donor agency about an earthquake that hit a country they were working in. One young guy responded, "We should explain how the earthquake affected the trainings."

That's when it became clear how far we were from where we needed to be. I told him that I guess we all forget that civil society was not created to do donor funded trainings but to help communities, especially in times of need...like an earthquake.