Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1137, 28 February - 6 March 2013

Ahram Weekly

Commentary: A step back for NGOs

The new NGO bill under consideration woefully fails to meet the challenges of the present, restricting rather than broadening society’s role in public life, writes Ayman Abdel-Wahab

Al-Ahram Weekly

The new NGO bill submitted by the minister of social affairs to the Shura Council stunned all concerned with — and involved in — community work. The source of shock does not only stem from the substance, which is still open to debate since the proposed law is still only a bill. It also derives from a comparison between this bill and all previous laws regulating community associations since the first such law in 1949, and from the fact that the bill’s drafters ignored numerous proposals that had been submitted to the ministry for discussion.
It is patently obvious that the government’s attitude towards society and the role of the citizen in society, in particular, is heavily swayed by the intensely polarised political climate that prevails at present. The bill betrays a deliberate bid to obfuscate the boundaries between NGOs and political movements, effectively lumping them both into a single basket, marking a sharp departure from all previous laws, which accorded NGOs a separate status and prohibited them from engaging in political activity.
The bill is ominous in other ways. It conveys a set of messages that have a direct bearing on the nature of the future relationship between government and civil society, the repercussions of which affect the agenda of civil society and that of the NGOs at its heart. Between the lines we read:
- The intent to perpetuate a governmental approach based on a strategy of incorporating the functional and organisational aspects of civil society work into the government’s supervisory and regulatory roles. NGOs, we read, are merely instruments for carrying out the government’s policies and visions at any particular phase. This philosophy, which guided the drafting of the bill, was apparent in the series of dialogues and discussion sessions that took place during the drafting process and in which government officials emphasised the notion of philanthropic activities as opposed to civil society work. In other words, NGOs were to be put to the service of perpetuating and bolstering the state.
- That the government is less interested in regulating the relationship between NGOs and society than it is in regulating the relationship between government and NGOs. Numerous provisions in the bill testify to the government’s determination to tighten its grip over independent community work: the policing powers accorded to social affairs ministry officials, the classification of NGO funds as public monies a percentage of which goes to the state, heavier penalties for infringements, and the creation of a “coordinating committee” with the power to approve or reject NGOs’ access to sources of foreign funding. Naturally, these provisions stirred considerable controversy. They are nothing less than authoritarian instruments of a scale unprecedented in any of Egypt’s previous laws regulating NGOs (laws 49 of 1949, 66 of 1951, 348 of 1956, 32 of 1964, 159 of 1999 and 84 of 2002), and threaten a new era of government intervention that will stymie the cumulative growth and progress of civil society.
- A lack of clarity or awareness on the demands of the current phase. The bill draws a distinction between charity and social care organisations, on the one hand, and human rights organisations and all other organisations involved in awareness raising on rights and the constitution and the law, on the other. The former, which it prioritises, are ranked as community service organisations, the latter as political parties. This differentiation conflicts with society’s current needs, which call for frameworks of closer cooperation and partnership between community organisations and NGOs in order to promote broader and more effective participation in developmental functions and activities. Also, at this crucial juncture it is important to rectify the imbalance in social work, in which field charity and caretaker services currently account for around 75 per cent of social programmes and activities. A major reason why it is necessary to correct the balance is in order to promote the civic value system, founded upon freedom, dignity, tolerance, peaceful coexistence and equality and other such principles that form the underpinnings of the edifice of human rights, so that these can more effectively complement the values promoted by charity work, such as compassion, mutual support and social solidarity.
- We read, fourthly, a failure to pursue the aims of the January revolution, especially with respect to the need to promote and entrench the values of transparency, accountability and social responsibility. The bill reveals that, in the mind set of its architects, the inclination to bureaucratic interventionism in community social work continues to prevail over the logic of furnishing a positive and constructive climate conducive to expanding the territory gained by civil society forces and organisations and to building a robust civil society capable of participating in strengthening society and developing its capacities, and simultaneously capable of monitoring government and upholding the system of civic values.
The foregoing messages underscore the need to examine adverse reactions to the bill and the preliminary results of the dialogue that is currently taking place between some NGOs and political forces in this context. It is to be hoped that the committee concerned with drafting the law and studying alternative drafts and proposals will take these reactions into account. Moreover, in so doing, it should embrace a spirit and philosophy that does not restrict the concept of the law and its ramifications to the outlook of a particular political party or trend, or to the demands of administrative apparatus, or to security anxieties (some of which may not be unfounded). As the committee approaches its task, it should bear in mind the vital need to link the Egyptian citizen to the causes of development and participation, which can only be achieved through regulatory frameworks that promote transparency, trust and responsibility. It should also take into consideration the fact that the role of civil society rests on the plurality and diversity that exists in society, and that its organisations are best able to manage this diversity in a peaceful manner. Conversely, the attempts that are currently in progress to recruit the domain of social work to the service of a particular faction — political Islam — can only harm civil society by forcing the civil community into conformity with the political community.
To avoid the pitfalls and dangers of political utilisation, lawmakers working on the new bill should set as their primary goal following through on the cumulative progress that has already been achieved for the role of civil society. I recommend foregrounding three focus areas:
Firstly, lawmakers should build on the positive points of Law 84 of 2002 while eliminating as much as possible its negative or restrictive aspects, with the aim of approaching the type of laws known as “civil society friendly”. The following are among the most salient features of such laws:
- They grant a legal character to a civil society organisation the moment it officially declares its existence.
- They do not specify areas of activity in keeping with the principle that freedom is the rule, restriction the exception. The principle also applies to the possibility of forming federations (among, for example, a number of NGOs operating in a single governorate).
- The judiciary is designated as the agency with the power to dissolve NGOs or resolve any disputes they may be involved in, and this is the agency that the Social Affairs Ministry would have to turn to in any issues concerning NGOs.
- They set limits to the personal benefits available to members of NGO boards of directors.
- They regulate and unify the oversight process and seek to raise the efficiency of oversight mechanisms.
- They focus on the economic role that NGOs can play by encouraging them to establish service and production projects using available resources in a cost effective way to furnish goods and services to the needy while acquiring sufficient profit in order to enable the organisations to sustain such activities at a high quality level and in an affordable manner.
At a second level, the new law should seek to support the role of NGOs in the process of development through public participation. The NGOs would thus be better poised to contribute to a kind of fusion process. Bolstered by a civil society-friendly law, they would be able to contribute to reshaping people’s perceptions on public participation, to bringing people on board activities and decision-making processes connected with development, and to serve as a link to broader public and government agencies. At the same time, it is necessary to counter the problems inherent in government inclinations to intervene in the economy with the purpose of reordering social relations as well as the potential contradictions and replications between government activities and voluntary work in social services that would arise through policies aiming at functionally incorporating NGOs into the organisational frameworks of the state. Such policies work counter to the open, democratic approach, which is inherently dynamic and multifaceted and requires considerable coordination between stakeholders in society through negotiations, role distribution, and financial and administrative containment, as well as efforts to broaden political participation.
Thirdly, lawmakers should seek to address, through the NGO bill, a range of major issues and problems that hamper independent community work, most notably: funding, capacity building, resource development, low levels of volunteering, limited organisational and institutional capacities and, increasingly, political utilisation on the part of the forces of political Islam.
What binds the three focus areas above is that they all relate the requirements needed to define the relationship between state and society in light of the aims of the 25 January Revolution, which is facing a crucial test. To realise these aims, society’s role in public life must be broadened through the process of democratic transformation, and the institutions of society must be democratised. We must also avail ourselves of the impetus generated by the revolution at the grassroots level by restructuring the organisations of civil society in a manner that enables them to reach out to the youth generation and the revolutionary youth forces and to accommodate them alongside other social organisations that serve and reflect the specific needs and properties of diverse groups in Egyptian society.

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