Hivos International

Foreign funding

Hivos, AFA and FRIDE Launch Project Foreign Funding in the Arab World: Myth and Reality of a Political Tool

The issue of ‘foreign funding’ to local civil and political society, and the political agendas associated with it, remain a highly sensitive issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following the ‘Arab Spring’. By mid-2012, it has become clear that the ouster of aging dictators has not abolished either their regimes or their practices. Branding civil society activists and organisations who receive foreign funding as agents of the West aiming at regime change is a common tactic that contributes to perceptions of a presumed ‘conspiracy’ behind foreign funding.

Giving in Transition and Transitions in Giving

The many seasons of the Arab Spring have contributed to shaping, changing and coloring this publication. What started in late 2011 as a rapid scan of practices of local philanthropy in three Arab countries, then setting out on hopeful political transitions, became a protracted series of shifts in its own right. As events lurched ahead, forms of giving expanded, retrenched or paused depending on the trajectory of political developments and popular sentiment. Over many drafts, we came to realize that capturing important features of emerging philanthropy required us to encounter it afresh in a different territory, namely, a study of philanthropy in becoming and in revolution.

The dignity revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are ‘political Big Bangs’ that have shocked and awed almost everyone in the world, including the revolutionaries themselves. The Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia (CSWA) is certainly no exception. Until the fall of the Tunisian dictator Ben Ali on 14 January 2011, conventional wisdom – both in the region and beyond – held that Arab autocrats were ‘here to stay’ and that the region was doomed to governance by authoritarian regimes. Against this background, this Hivos CSWA Briefing Note argues that there is a strategic and urgent need for two paradigm shifts and paying attention to  six strategic principles when considering the role of Western donors in supporting social changes in MENA.

Despite the daunting challenges and possible setbacks ahead, Hivos believes the dignity revolutions are the start of the reconfiguration of state-society relations in favour of empowered citizens and actors who are determined to fight for and negotiate new social contracts aimed at achieving accountable, inclusive and responsive political and economic systems. Western donors cannot fail to grasp the historicity and strategic momentum of this grassroots movement towards democracy and accordingly accompany tough transitions initiated, led and ultimately determined by the people of the region.

At the height of the Gulf’s financial prowess and regional political clout, Europe faces the dilemma of how to engage with the ruling regimes without condoning their reactionary policies towards domestic reform. An undercurrent of dissatisfaction ferments in pockets of the Gulf’s population. Consistency with the stated European support for transitions elsewhere in the Arab world and real politik arguments demand a more nuanced EU approach to the Gulf States.

In Libya, political civil society is a novelty. Mostly banned under Muammar Gaddafi, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have mushroomed in post-2011 Libya thanks to newly acquired freedoms. The influx of foreign donors to the previously isolated country, providing technical and financial assistance, has contributed to building up the capacities of the Libyan NGO sector.

In the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution, controversies  over foreign funding to Egyptian civil society organisations (CSO) have  become even more politicised. This has resulted in the prosecution of a  number of international and Egyptian NGO workers. Because CSOs are a  critical part of the democratic transition, the Egyptian public needs to  engage in a transparent debate over the role of foreign funding.

Tunisia’s Islamist-led government is in a tight spot. Tunisian voters are frustrated with the slow pace of government delivery, and Ennahda’s organisational head-start over other political formations is gradually narrowing. With Nidaa Tounes, an electoral coalition of different opposition parties has emerged which for the first time bears the potential of challenging Islamist hegemony.

In this tense political context, the ways in which external forces might try to influence the course of events is the subject of heated debate. The present paper aims to assess the way foreign democracy assistance and other means of ‘foreign funding’ in Tunisia have developed after the 2011 revolution, focusing on the local perceptions of such assistance.

The issue of ‘foreign funding’ to local civil and political society, and the political agendas associated with it, remain a highly sensitive issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following the ‘Arab  Spring’. By mid-2012, it has become clear that the ouster of aging  dictators has not abolished either their regimes or their practices. Branding civil society activists and organisations who receive foreign funding as agents of the West aiming at regime change is a common tactic that contributes to perceptions of a presumed ‘conspiracy’ behind foreign funding. The recent campaign against local and international NGOs in Egypt illustrates how the notorious ‘foreign funding dilemma’ retains a sadly pressing relevance.

Literature on democratization rarely gives attention to the ‘big picture’. More often, scholars select one (or a few) key factors which are supposedly essential for democratization to take place or for a democracy to maintain its vibrancy.As a result, many blank spots within research on democratization remain existent.

This paper goes beyond such approaches. Democratization is a highly complex matter. A holistic framework is needed and, therefore, within this paper the concepts of democracy, democratization, and democracy promotion/assistance will be dealt with in relation to each other. The main goal is to reveal those factors that are most relevant considering prospects for democratization in general - that is, those factors that have a strong positive or negative influences on the realization of democratization.These factors are inserted into a model, which can be used as a toolbox in order to analyze prospects for democratization in specific cases.

This publication is part of the working paper series of the Knowledge Programme Civil Society in West Asia.

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