Mobilising public service
In the post-revolution era much is expected of non-governmental organisations in Egypt, but despite some successes many barriers still exist, finds Sarah Eissa
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Reaching the underpriviliged has always been a priority for NGOs. However, raising political awareness is becoming another aim after the revolution
Over the past few months, more and more Egyptians have felt they have a role to play in society, and amidst the waves of mixed feelings before and after the 25 January Revolution one feeling has been constant: that of affection for the country. Development has become a prominent word, especially among young people. While cleaning the streets has been one way of showing affection for the country, many people are still developing their plans to help the country on its way forward.
Eman Mahmoud and Ahmed Abdel-Shakour, for example, the coordinators of the Ya' Campaign -- ya' is the last letter of the Arabic alphabet, which when added to certain words denotes property and signifies people's ownership of their country -- are among the many young people playing a role in raising political awareness.
Members of Alashanek ya Balady (For you, my Country) at Ain Shams University in Cairo (AYB-ASU), Mahmoud and Abdel-Shakour started working to raise people's awareness of how to choose their parliamentary candidates and their rights and duties. Since many people living in the country's shanty towns used to sell their votes under the former regime, Abdel-Shakour believes that one way forward is to educate these people better about their political rights.
Divided into different phases, their campaign has set out to talk to the people of Ezbet Abu Karn in the Masr Al-Qadima district of Cairo to know how they think and to find the right mode of communication with them, followed by the training of volunteers to encourage them to participate.
The last stage in the campaign has seen university professors give lectures to students on political rights and duties. A visit to a school in Ezbet Abu Karn resulted in raising the pupils' awareness and their participation on later visits and discussions with the area's residents. Overall, the campaign has four aims: to explain how the country is governed to the population; to teach people how to conduct a proper discussion; to let them know that the country is theirs; and to encourage them to participate in its development.
Abdel-Shakour adds that AYB-ASU now intends to hold a two-week conference aiming to help guide young people in being part of the country's development. Young people have helped to clean the country's streets, he said, and now it is important that they direct their energy to the right place. "It's not their role to clean the streets; they have a bigger role to play," he said.
Raghda Abdel-Nabi, deputy programme manager of the AYB association for sustainable development, explains that the AYB franchise works with student clubs in different universities in different governorates. According to Abdel-Nabi, these clubs work independently on the model set down by AYB. "There is only supervision to ensure that they are working with the same model and have no problems," she explains, adding that before the revolution, State Security was often suspicious about students carrying out such activities or research in certain areas, often questioning them as a result.
Abdel-Shakour gives details of other campaigns carried out by AYB-ASU, saying that each student activity is responsible for developing a specific area. "We have been working on Ezbet Abu Karn for seven years, trying to develop it through different projects." Awareness raising and illiteracy elimination are forms of empowerment that aim to teach residents skills and unite them in a project that will help them economically.
Another programme aims to help educate children, also collecting information about their needs, what they have done and what they still need to do. "If people's basic needs are not satisfied, they won't be able to think of anything else," Abdel-Shakour says. As a result, the programme works to support residents by providing them with micro loans, clothing, and other items and to encourage them into joining other programmes.
Abdel-Shakour, a member of the programme's advisory board, explained that university graduates are invited to join the board and to help make sure students are on the right track and that the strategic plan of the organisation is moving forward.
When it comes to new graduates, the organisation has also devised a programme to help train fresh graduates who are not qualified for the job market and to help them meet challenges from potential employers. Often, a new employee can feel depressed and does not want to make an effort and get out of their comfort zone or move to a distant location in search of work. In order to help find solutions to such common problems, the organisation has met with employers to negotiate, Abdel-Nabi saying that some companies have increased salaries as a result while others have reduced working hours.
The organisation privileges companies that deal correctly with the young people it sponsors, and, Abdel-Nabi says, after the revolution beneficiaries' attitudes changed and they became more optimistic and productive. "The revolution rehabilitated them psychologically to make an effort and work," she said, even if due to the on-going economic crises it has become harder to negotiate salaries because companies want to make cuts.
As a result, the organisation is concentrating more on its own micro projects, though Abdel-Nabi stresses that many companies still want to donate and show corporate social responsibility and collaborate with NGOs despite the economic crisis, some funds not being affected by the revolution.
Other NGOs working in the wake of the revolution aim to help people in other ways, with Feher Samak, executive director of the Wayana International Foundation for Integration and Awareness, saying that this NGO aims to help integrate people with disabilities into society through education, employment and an early intervention centre that works on raising parents' awareness of how to deal with a challenged child.
"We are trying to overcome the barrier that a challenged child must stay at home," Samak says, Wayana also aiming to support people injured in the revolution by helping to look after their needs and find employment for those whose injuries have affected their job prospects. Wayana has set up agreements with companies to help employ people with various forms of disability, Samak saying that at present the NGO sector employs more disabled people than the government.
"Such people make up 10 per cent of the society, and by law five per cent should be in the workforce, but that doesn't happen at the moment," Samak said.
In order to help integrate challenged students into non- challenged schools, the NGO helps them to enter the schools from primary level onwards. They also train teachers on how to deal with students with special needs. The organisation started the project in 15 different schools in different governorates, and it has signed an agreement with the Masr Al-Kheir organisation, which also helps to support the programme. It has an agreement with the Ministry of Education, which aims to help find schools with facilities for students with special needs.
For another organisation, Nahdet Al-Mahrousa (NM), research and development in science is their priority. Loay El-Shawarbi, chair of the board of NM, explains that the NGO carries out different development activities that help young innovators from Alexandria to Aswan. A main programme of NM is to act as an incubator for innovative social enterprises. "We try to provide young people with the facilities they need, such as technical facilities, financial support and legal cover." El-Shawarbi explains that most NM members are young professionals who want to do something extra for the community, but may not have enough time and therefore use the facilities provided by NM.
NM will typically support a social enterprise for a couple of years from start-up to independence. Through the organisation's incubator, each project is funded, depending on its subject, from a different source, including companies, individual aid, charity and government. The idea is to give early support for projects, which can then stand on their own two feet in the marketplace. El-Shawarbi stresses that support is limited to 30 per cent of a start-up's needs, and this is coordinated across different sectors. According to Jacqueline Kameel, managing director of NM, the aim is to find a solution to a problem that many NGOs complain of, which is that they are at donors' mercy.
El-Shawarbi notes that after the revolution donations to NM increased. "Many Egyptians living abroad, as well as many people here in Egypt, started knocking on our door offering to help with development efforts. Everyone wants to play a role is building the new Egypt." Kameel adds that in her view it is important to concentrate on medium and longer-term development as well as helping to solve current problems.
People became very enthusiastic about helping after the revolution, El-Shawarbi says, but such enthusiasm needs to be carefully channelled if it is to achieve results. Persistence is needed, Kameel says, since there can be a tendency for early enthusiasm to evaporate.
NM also hosts meetings to discuss subjects that interest members, such as environment and development. Before the revolution, there were limitations on these seminars, El-Shawarbi says, particularly when they touched on politics. Today, however, NM is able to organise two such seminars on a weekly basis, and among the subjects discussed have been experiences of democratisation in different countries, labour activism, and political movements and ideologies. Kameel and El-Shawarbi stress that the seminars aim to be objective and unbiased towards any particular ideology.
On the economic level, the Meshwar Organisation for Community Development aims to help needy families that have children to support. "If a child drops out of school, we do our best to find ways for him or her to return, since we believe that education is important," says Ghada Farouk, chair of Meshwar. The organisation provides needy children with school clothes, stationery and extra books.
To encourage children to learn, Meshwar is keen to honour high achievers, even if the still low level of education available often does not allow this. The organisation also honours mothers if they practice different activities, including working to provide income for their families, or if they attend education programmes and achieve enhanced literacy. Farouk explains that one problem the NGO faces is a shortage of suitably trained staff. "Employees can lack skills, and experienced ones are rare, but we try to overcome such problems through in-service training."
At AYB, Abdel-Nabi faces similar problems, explaining that the capacity of volunteers and employees working with the organisation often needs to be enhanced. "We don't always find skilled volunteers with enough time to contribute to us," she said, though the number of people wanting to help increased after the revolution. Yet, even so the organisation is not able to work at full capacity because the police are not yet fully back on the country's streets, and the group has faced problems in some areas as a result of criminal activities. One branch of the organisation was forced to close as a result of fights in the neighbourhood and the use of weapons.
Wayana depends on its staff more than it does on volunteers. According to Samak, the number of volunteers is still not big because Egyptian people still lack a culture of volunteering, though this is changing in the wake of the revolution. "The same spirit that encouraged young people to clean the streets has encouraged people to volunteer in the process of development," he says. Wayana intends to collect all offers to volunteer, and it will contact all potential volunteers as soon as it needs them. Samak says that he hopes that people will now be encouraged to participate more, especially with non-traditional organisations and with ones that serve special needs.
However, despite the many offers to volunteer finance remains a major problem for any NGO, with Meshwar's Farouk saying that "while we advertise to receive donations, the advertisements themselves are costly." Similarly, Samak says that fundraising can be a barrier for some NGOs, which are essentially non-profit organisations, even if they need regular fundraising skills in order to perform their services correctly. NGOs should also aim to develop activities that can make money to support other services. For example, the wealthy could pay for training courses so that the less fortunate could go free.
One fundraising model that is quite often used is for the NGO to sign an agreement to provide training services in return for financial support. This has been more important recently, Samak says, now that the economic crisis has reduced donations. While many NGOs seek finance from within the countries they operate in, accepting foreign funds has long been a problem for national NGOs. Ahmed Ali, financial and administrative chief of AYB, says that by law the organisation is obliged to seek approval from the Ministry of Social Solidarity for any foreign funds received, a process that can take up to three months instead of the advertised 40 days.
The ministry will seek the approval of state security, which will then contact the NGO. "If the foreign donor loses patience during this process, he will not sign a contract with the NGO in question," Ali said, and sometimes some funds are even refused by State Security.
Another problem can be setting up a suitable account to receive such financial contributions, Ali explaining that he had tried to do so one month ago to help those affected by the revolution engage in micro projects, but that he had still not received the necessary approval. "We are working with the same people, the same law, and the same routine. It is their right to know from where we are receiving funds, but it's not their right to make us lose them," he said.
El-Shawarbi also criticises defects in the current laws, saying that these were not applied properly before the revolution. "We don't know what will happen now," he said, though things may very well improve. The original law was designed to control civil society by controlling access to funds, making NGOs triple their efforts because of all the pressures on them.
In the view of NM's Kameel, she believes that in order to develop an NGO needs to specify its field of specialty because this determines with whom and where it should work and what kind of employees and volunteers it will need. "Many organisations now working in development believe they will make money from it, and these are the ones that work under the direction of the donor. At this stage, the government should listen more to civil society and the donor community and perceive them as a partners." Civil society organisations can advise government ministries as they work directly with people, making them more aware of issues and problems. Farouk says that the Social Solidarity Ministry should help train NGOs, provide them with financial facilities, and set up a database of organisations to prevent them overlapping with each other. The number of NGOs operating in the country should be reduced, because many provide the same services for the same people, she says. For Samak, civil society will inevitably have a more important role to play over the days to come as people impose their agenda rather than allow the agenda of the regime to be imposed on them.
Farouk points to another shortcoming in the law, which currently exempts NGOs from paying certain taxes while at the same time taxing them in other areas. "We need more facilities, as it is already hard to find funds."
In general, Farouk says that NGOs do not receive much guidance, and there is often a lack of training. "The ministry should pay more attention to NGOs. I am a citizen of the country, and yet I don't have a lot of knowledge about the procedure to create an NGO. Training should provide us with an idea of what we might face and the regulations we need to comply with," she said.
The general federation for NGOs in the Social Solidarity Ministry holds seminars for NGO staff, but these need to be more dynamic, Farouk said. After the revolution the ministry held meetings with many organisations, which seemed like a good step forward, she said. In general, despite the many barriers that still affect the work of Egypt's NGOs, together with the ever-present needs and workloads, the one thing that all those interviewed had in common was optimism and the conviction that the future is bright for development work in the civil society sector.