|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
21 - 27 June 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Reluctant grassrootsAmira Howeidy sifts through the acronyms in search of civil society
Marie Asaad doesn't hide her biases against USAID. "Civil society could have done much better without it," she states.
To make her point, she recounts an incident from the early days of USAID's involvement in Egypt in the 1970s. Asaad, a prominent non-governmental organisation (NGO) activist, was a researcher at the American University in Cairo's Social Research Centre, which at the time was engaged in a joint project with USAID. "One day we were going to an Egyptian village. As we prepared to move, I found that we had to be transported in big luxurious American cars. When I inquired why we were using this particular form of transportation, I was told that we had to go in these cars because these were among the conditions USAID had stipulated in funding the project. Nothing could have been more unsuitable in an Egyptian village."
USAID has given a staggering $410 million to Egyptian NGOs since 1976, according to USAID officials. Mission Director Willard Pearson is very satisfied with the results. "The assistance strengthened the capabilities of Egyptian NGOs. It met the needs of the poor because of the nature of the activities NGOs are basically involved in. It also enhanced local public participation."
But Asaad argues that if it wasn't for USAID, "we wouldn't have had so many mercenaries attaching themselves to development projects. Instead there would be volunteers, people with a mission, not people just out there to attend conferences or cater to public consumerism."
Such views may represent the extremes of the spectrum of opinions concerning USAID's civil society programmes in Egypt. Indeed, one observer suggested that objective and independent assessment "does not really exist, because you're either independent, so you won't be working with USAID, or you work with them, so you're not independent. In both cases, it's more or less a political choice." USAID has always had political connotations, principally because the US government's reasons for giving money to Egypt have always been acknowledged to be political -- having coincided with the start of Egypt's bid for peace with Israel. Hence such views as Asaad's. "As a person, I'm against female genital mutilation (FGM), but when USAID is involved, my interpretation is that they want to destroy the families in Egypt. After all, this is a pro-Israel government; how can it really want to help me?" she demands.
In the new, state-of-the-art USAID headquarters in Maadi, however, USAID officials sound fairly apolitical as they list the mission's activities since it began addressing civil society issues in 1976. Until 1982, USAID's focus was supporting American private voluntary organisations (PVOs) in their work with Egyptian NGOs, "because the [USAID] mission wasn't familiar" with the local scene. They worked in various sectors such as agriculture, bee-keeping, community development, fisheries, health, the environment and childcare.
The first programme involving NGOs was called Neighbourhood Urban Services (NUS). Carried out primarily in conjunction with the government, this programme included a component for assistance to Egyptian NGOs. Funded by a budget of $11.4 million, its activities continued until 1986 and focused on NGOs as "service providers" addressing the needs of the "low-income and poor population."
The second programme was Local Development 2 (LD2), which ran from 1986 to 1992, costing $16.3 million. "By then we were more familiar with the NGO sector and so we developed our assistance and focused on building the capacity of these organisations through a mix of training and technical assistance in the areas of needs assessment, project identification, mobilisation of communities, project management and monitoring and evaluation," officials explain. According to them, the $16.3-million programme funded 10,000 PVO projects.
The third programme, PVO Development, costing $27.5 million, was implemented from 1991 to 2000. Mission Director Pearson says USAID provided 94 grants worth $20 million. Pointing to the "cascade effect" of this activity, he explains that USAID worked with 14 US PVOs and 40 Egyptian NGOs. These in turn worked with an additional 500 NGOs. USAID also funded 71 training courses, workshops and conferences, "reaching 2,130 participants."
The fourth and most recent programme funded by USAID's civil society sector is the NGO Service Centre, established in 1998 and is scheduled to run until 2004. According to Pearson, the approach this time focuses on "supporting the infrastructure of civil society, which is basically a network amongst people, their interaction with the private sector and the government." More importantly, "we want to leave behind a resource centre capable of providing training, technical assistance and possibly to continue supporting the NGO sector," he explained.
In the words of Salma Wahba of the NGO Service Centre, this project seeks to help NGOs become advocacy groups, "to create public opinion" -- a role NGOs have always lacked.
For many, the NGO Service Centre is USAID's most significant contribution to civil society. "Unlike all previous USAID projects, which were basically dominated by [both the US and Egyptian] governments, this one enjoys some independence because it consists of independent NGOs as well," Mohamed El-Sayed Said, deputy director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a prominent human rights activist, told Al-Ahram Weekly. He does not feel, however, that USAID has made a substantial contribution to Egyptian civil society in the past quarter century. Commenting on the $410 million invested in this sector, Said quips: "If this money was distributed to the 15,000 NGOs registered, it would last them for the next 20 years."
But USAID civil society programme officials argue that the focus of their funding has been to build NGOs' management capacities, because that is their weakest point, not to "get NGOs dependent on grant funding that may, and will, run out." This policy, however, has only been limited to NGOs registered under law 32, and consequently excludes a significant sector of Egypt's civil society. "We have to stick to the bilateral agreement between Egypt and the US, which stipulates that we only fund registered NGOs that are social-sector oriented," aid officials added.
To Said, this means leaving out civil companies, syndicates, rights groups and the independent press, "which are also part of civil society." But according to Pearson, "there's a bit of a division of labour... [as] there is other assistance the [US] embassy gives to civil companies that actually comes out of our funding."
Still, it is common knowledge that civil society remains incapable of sustaining itself. Pearson attributes this to the situation faced by NGOs worldwide, not just in Egypt, although the "country's economic situation" does play a role. Still, this conclusion is at odds with the mobilisation capabilities of groups such as Al-Gam'iya Al-Islamiya Al-Shar'iya, an Islamic charity NGO that receives LE25 million annually in local donations.
Others believe that despite the massive number of NGOs and the millions allocated to this sector, civil society organisations have a long way to go before it can have an impact at the grassroots level. That the donors for these organisations are Western -- and therefore viewed with mistrust -- remains a factor worthy of consideration.
The question remains: how much is the government to blame? Are donors such as USAID sincere? Has the Egyptian government impeded their mission? Or both? "Is it really in either party's interest," wonders one human rights activist, "to have a strong civil society?"
Recommend this page
F o c u s: USAID in Egypt: 25 years
Trade-offs and concrete
No rubber stamp
The big facelift
Time for self-reliance?
Greenbacks for a greener Egypt
On the block
A mechanised pastoral
Small, but promising
The price to pay
Give and take
Time to go
Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed:
What have we done with US aid?
Eye on the future
Untangling the strings of aid
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time