21 - 28 January 1999
Issue No. 413
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Focus Economy Opinion Culture Features Living Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Human rightsBy Hussein Abdel-Razeq *
and the numbers game
Foreign funding is the hot topic in the national, party and "private" press, among columnists and documentary writers, and on Egyptian television, where two programmes in a single week, Face to Face and Editor-in-Chief, dedicated themselves to the question. The sudden display of interest was sparked by a private newspaper owned by an Egyptian journalist, one of the five establishments in Egypt that have obtained a permit to establish a joint stock company for the publication of a newspaper. This newspaper accused the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) of having received a cheque from the British Embassy to publish a report on torture in the Upper Egyptian village of Al-Koshh.
This was the second time the question of foreign funding was raised in 1998. The first occurred when the government was preparing the new draft law on non-governmental organisations, intended to replace Law 32 of 1964, and which threatened to render NGOs totally subsidiary to government bodies, thereby voiding them of their independent character. NGOs, particularly human rights and women's organisations, which had established themselves as civil companies due to the registration difficulties under the current law, objected to the proposed bill on the grounds that it provided for continued government intervention in their affairs. In response, the government and the official press waged a campaign against human rights and women's organisations, equating the acceptance of foreign funding with lack of patriotism, and accusing these organisations of acting as foreign agents and falsifying reports.
The issue surfaced again last September when the same privately owned newspaper attacked the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, stating that the Centre had been paid to conduct a public opinion survey. The campaign against human rights and women's organisations started up again, complete with accusations that such associations were working on behalf of "colonial forces" seeking to penetrate Egyptian society.
It seems odd that individuals and organisations could be "accused" of accepting foreign funds, given that the government itself is constantly appealing for foreign capital investment. Government policies and projects for economic development, public services, research, education and security rely heavily on funding from foreign governments, financial institutions, donor organisations and NGOs. Regretfully, however, such double standards have become commonplace in many aspects of life. And in applying such standards, the perpetrators of this campaign -- official or otherwise -- have used the most provocative and demagogic of methods. They found it sufficient to use sensationalist scare tactics, all in the name of "patriotism": "foreign infiltration", "colonial proxies", "Western violation of the rights of the Arabs in Palestine, Sudan and Iraq" and "Western hostility to Islamic culture and civilisation" were all roped in to quell any objective, reasoned treatment of an already contentious subject.
Yet if we are to arrive at any detached assessment of foreign financing and civil society organisations, we must not ignore certain facts. Firstly, there are 14,600 NGOs registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs in accordance with Law 32 of 1964. Of these, 350 have central bureaus with branches in the provinces. Millions of Egyptians benefit from the range of services these associations provide in health (hospitals, clinics and health care centres), education (schools and literacy programmes), social welfare, environmental protection, women's issues and human rights.
There are, however, only two human rights associations, one in Cairo and the other in Alexandria, and their activity is barely perceptible. At the same time, about 30 centres are registered as civil companies. Among these, 12 are engaged in human rights work, in its broadest sense. The most important are the Centre for Legal Studies and Information (founded in 1991); the Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid (1994), which provides legal advice and assistance to workers, women and juveniles, and on issues related to opinion and the press; the Cairo Centre for Human Rights (1994), which conducts studies and research into human rights issues; the Group for Democratic Development (1996); the Land Centre for Human Rights (1996), set up to defend the rights of Egyptian farmers following the implementation of the law regulating landowner-tenant relations; and the Nadim Centre for the Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture. Finally, of course, there is the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), established in 1985 as a branch of the Arab Organisation for Human Rights. The EOHR applied for registration as a non-governmental community association, but the application was turned down by the Ministry of Social Affairs and its juridical status is still before the administrative causes court. The EOHR is the only human rights organisation in Egypt that monitors human rights abuses.
The Egyptian government and its various institutions are the recipient of more than 80 per cent of all foreign government and private financing, primarily in the form of grants from USAID, the EU, the Ford Foundation and the German government. Since 1979, USAID has furnished the Egyptian government with an annual civilian grant averaging $815 million per year. The money, totaling over $8 billion per decade, is allocated to the government and private sector in order to "subsidise the government's economic development programmes in export development, small enterprise enhancement, capital markets (the stock exchange), primary education, health, environment, water purification and waste water treatment, and communications..."
In a recent statement, the minister of health, Dr Ismail Sallam, revealed that Egypt has received LE500 million from the EU to reform the national health programme. The World Bank and other international donors have contributed a billion Egyptian pounds. Danida has allocated a grant of 200 million Danish marks (LE110 million) per year to water treatment, health, environment, alternative energy sources, women and human rights. Less than four per cent of this money is allocated to NGOs; of this fraction, the share of human rights centres comes to less than LE1.5 million. From the Ford Foundation, Egypt received $1,208,700 in 1997, of which $517,600 was allocated to the government, $301,000 to educational and research institutes, and $395,000 to NGOs working in development and women's rights issues.
In the framework of the European-Middle Eastern partnership, the EU has offered the Egyptian government ECU628.70 million, as well as an additional ECU118 million outside the protocols. In 1998, a Dutch organisation gave Egyptian NGOs 1.640 million Dutch guilders ($820,000), of which NGOs working in human rights received less than a third. Finally, Egyptian human rights associations received $97,000 in 1997 from the Swedish Institute for Human Rights NGOs.
In short, Egyptian human rights organisations receive only a minuscule percentage of the foreign funding available to the Egyptian government and NGOs. According to a recent study by lawyer Mona Zulfaqar, the foreign aid, funding and grants together account for less than six per cent of the annual income of NGOs. Furthermore, when human rights organisations and research centres seek outside funding, they do so because they have no other choice. Indeed, without such funding they would cease to exist. The government gives NGOs practically nothing, and human rights organisations nothing at all. The Research Centre for Developing Countries at Cairo University engages in vital research for the government, but, as its head, Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, has noted, it is included on neither government, university nor faculty budgets. Without foreign financing, it would cease to function entirely.
Only 33 per cent of Egyptian NGOs in the country receive government assistance (no human rights centres or associations are among them). Less than 12 per cent of these associations' income derives from government assistance, while fund-raising activities bring in less that four per cent. Nor do human rights organisations and research centres receive much by way of local, private donations. Most donations are charitable, and are made in the form of zakah (alms) for Muslims and ushur (tithes) for Christians.
The concepts of a human rights culture, democracy, the right to legal assistance and the eradication of torture do not exist in the dominant paradigm. In addition, Egyptian capitalism today is not what it was in the first half of this century. Today's capitalism is morally depraved. It shows no true interest in cultural and research activities; it is inimical to democracy, political liberalism and human rights advocacy; it supports the emergency law and vindicates torture, apart from a few exceptions which do not negate the rule. It is also eager to win the government's approval and is wary of lending support to human rights organisations for fear of retribution.
We return, then, to the central question: does foreign funding mean that human rights centres must act as tools of foreign cultural penetration and Western colonialist projects? Here I exclude those theories that hold that Western civilisation is a crusading culture bent on the extinction of the Arab and Islamic identity. Perhaps we can try to see beyond the idea that the West is a single, monolithic entity, void of truly democratic and humanitarian forces that sincerely wish to eradicate human rights abuses everywhere; we can choose not to believe that human rights are nothing but an international plot commandeered by American imperialism in order to tamper in our domestic affairs. I accept the notion that Western societies are not homogenous, I believe that, within the imperialist countries, there are truly democratic forces -- those who fought alongside the Algerians, Palestinians, Iraqis and Vietnamese and have sincerely dedicated themselves to the promotion of human rights. I also believe that the appeal for the protection of human rights and public liberties is a powerful international cause that has its champions in all societies.
If we agree on these points, then we can posit that foreign funding may indeed constitute a positive contribution to the human rights movement -- all the more so in view of the fact that the very diversity of donors militates against the imposition of unacceptable conditions upon the recipients. In fact, many organisations offer assistance unconditionally.
As for human rights organisations and research centres, they must adhere to certain principles. First, they must reject funding from any source -- local or foreign -- that seeks to impose a specific research agenda, activities or priorities that run counter to the recipient's original aims and principles, or that impose any restrictions.
Second, they must maintain thorough transparency as regards their financing and expenditures. If they are fully accountable to their boards of directors and to the general public, they will obviate accusations of corruption, misappropriation of funds or outside infiltration.
Third, they must at all costs avoid funding from organisations that are even remotely clouded by suspicion in order to safeguard the integrity of their role as civil society institutions.
Ultimately, however, human rights organisations and research centres must be judged by their deeds, and the extent to which Egyptian society needs their services. In this respect, I can state confidently that most, if not all, of the activities of the human rights organisations and research centres serve the interests of the nation and its people.
*The writer is a journalist, political writer and a leading member of the left-wing Tagammu Party.