The NGO Problem: Modernised Colonisation in the Middle East

Shirin Neshat, Untitled, from Roja series, 2016. © Shirin Neshat

Despite the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region often presented as a monolithic entity, the countries that make up this region vary in their complex cultural, political and historical differences. However, while each country harbours their own unique cultural identity — almost all countries within the Middle East find themselves subject to the scrutiny of global debate regarding women’s rights resulting in substantial international aid and “NGO-isation”. Islah Jad defines NGO-isation as the professionalisation and institutionalisation of social movements by Non Government Organisations. In the MENA region, NGOs have primarily replaced the need for governments to deliver services to women regarding rights, health, education, legal and economic literacy. And yet, the effectiveness of these organisations has been questioned — and with it, issues of colonial feminism, depoliticisation of women’s issues and a dependency on the West arise.

Historical Context and ‘Civilised Society’

According to Western standards, three conditions must exist for a society to qualify as ‘civilised’: First, formal organisations must exist across the spectrum of social groups and classes. Second, values of tolerance and acceptance for the disenfranchised must exist. And last, limitations on the exercise of power by state authorities must be present in government structure. These standards inform the work undertaken by international NGOs in the Middle East.

NGOs are considered an essential mechanism in the pursuit of ‘civilised society’ by their ability to address human and civil rights issues. However, a distinction must be drawn between the two types of NGOs: Grass-root organisations and monolithic internationally-funded NGOs. Where grass-roots organisations work on-the-ground and directly within the communities in which they strive to improve; internationally-funded NGOs within the Middle East have approached human rights — and therefore, women’s rights issues — primarily within the international political and economic arena, resulting in a detachment from their constituents and the community.

According to the globalised agenda, the position of women’s rights signposts the progress of civilised society. This approach subsequently implies that women’s oppression results from Middle Eastern cultural values. However, when applied to the Middle East where women’s participation in the public sphere has historically been used to create a nationalist discourse of modernisation in response to Western political influences, this approach to women’s rights becomes a paradox fraught with issues of continued colonisation and depoliticisation.

Until the 1970s, women’s movements in Iran arose from both secular nationalism, which called for national independence, and Islamic modernisation, which opened up religious interpretation as a force for women’s rights. In this atmosphere, women’s organisations fought to advance women’s rights in both political and religious spheres. These organisations were supported by the upper-middle class before political change led to domestic stagnation and economic deterioration, resulting in an increase in women’s illiteracy, unemployment and political marginalisation. Naturally, this led to the opportunity for international and US-backed NGOs to enter the region under the guise of ‘good governance and democratisation.

However, the argument for embedding NGOs in the MENA region in pursuit of democratisation falls short in the case of post-2011 Egypt. When at the time, the goal of democracy would have undermined US interests as the only alternative party available was an Islamist government which harboured a strong dislike for American policy.

Where Western groups view NGO intervention as much needed support towards civil society, Middle Eastern groups view NGOs as a modernised tool of colonisation, a sandbox for the elites, a foundation for ‘colonial feminism’ and an attempt to undermine the local culture.

Despite the vastly historical and cultural differences between countries in the Middle East, the effects and views of NGOs operating as Western agents is a concern that appears to be unified across the MENA region. And although countries in this region rely heavily on international funding and NGOs to fill the gap in providing essential services, this reliance comes at the cost of being held subject to the global agenda and with it, Western standards of democracy and ‘civilised society’ in the Middle East. The effects of Western promotion of societal ideals operate as a reminder of colonial history and simultaneously depoliticises women’s rights in the MENA region, and undermines grass-roots organisations by creating a dependency on the West for economic support.

The West v East dichotomy

The increase of NGOs in the MENA region is commonly viewed as evidence of the political weakening of the state and a failure to provide essential services and entitlements to its citizens. But this perspective is viewed through a dichotomous lens of West versus East. Where Western groups view NGO intervention as much needed support towards civil society, Middle Eastern groups view NGOs as a modernised tool of colonisation, a sandbox for the elites, a foundation for ‘colonial feminism’ and an attempt to undermine the local culture. The problem with NGOs dictating the path to women’s equality is that it assumes that there is only one singular approach to achieving women’s rights. This approach requires adopting Western models of feminism.

Backed by extensive international funding and a global network, NGOs in the Middle East operate as a force of globalisation. However, globalisation itself is by no means a neutral power and in exercising this power, NGOs operate to perpetuate existing power imbalances which date back to earlier attempts of colonisation. The women’s movement in the MENA region is an example of where a political movement ­­ — because women’s issues are embedded in political and social powers — has been hijacked by a dominant force and used as a tool to build across economic and cultural divides to indoctrinate the Middle East into the Western vision of global civil society. It is this political power that leaders of the MENA region so aggressively push back by arguing that human rights, and therefore women’s rights, are attempts of forced Westernisation.

And yet, the template of a nation-state is an exclusively Western concept and is not questioned due to the many opportunities for abuse of power it provides to leaders of the Middle East. So while political leaders embrace the idea of nationalism, they simultaneously use the argument of Westernisation to condemn any organisation associated with women’s rights.

Depoliticization of women’s issues

However, despite this intentional oversight, the inherent structure of NGOs results in their efforts being substantially ineffective. Where NGOs are primarily focused on a top-down approach to developing awareness and minor shifts in social awareness within the restraints of conservative governments, grass-roots organisations and social movements, operate in the shadows but have the more significant potential to directly address current real-world issues experienced by women within the region. One example, is an unregistered advocacy group called Bidarzani (Wake Up), which works to challenge domestic violence in Iran and is actively targeted by Ian’s security forces.

A further downfall of the elitist and hierarchal approach used by NGOs is that they continue to remain aloof from the communities in which they seek to make change. In contrast, Islamist leaders sacrifice their time by working within their neighbourhoods and becoming an integral part of the communities they seek to influence, allowing them to build a stronger working relationship with their constituents. This results in bottom-up support for Islamist organisations that hold strong policies against Westernisation and women’s rights.

NGOs fail because they habitually attempt to provide services through a project-based model. And although this framework is the result of the government and political restraints, the deliverance of these projects, which are primarily focused on establishing a ‘civil society’ within a hostile atmosphere, fails to link middle-class women’s global interests with the real-world needs of women experiencing severe economic disadvantage. Therefore the issue is not the provision of aid but rather a question of how and who the aid is invested in.

The prevailing structure of NGOs is that they rely primarily on conferences, networks and workshops — often held in lavish hotels and capital cities — to organise initiatives that are delivered by highly-trained, specialised and educated international staff. These methods are primarily global tools and do not operate within the localised political stage of each respective region. In contrast, grass-roots women’s organisations often rely on face-to-face communication methods with their constituency, operate on women’s committees and feature women leaders that are a party of political branches of government — as can be seen in the first Palestinian intifada.

Without the bottom-up pressure placed on governments to deliver policies that progress women’s rights, NGOs disempower local women by ensuring that global organisations are the only viable option available to provide essential services.

And yet, despite these vast differences in operational styles, grass-roots organisations are undermined by the same political restraints placed on their monolithic NGO counterparts. Where NGOs and their staff are offered protections under formal registration and the economic and political support of a global community, grass-roots organisations led by local women are often under-resourced and operate in unsafe political environments, with members of these organisations facing continuous threats of violence or worst by governing authorities. This lack of protection and the volatile environments that local women activists live in result in little to no political advocacy in neo-patriarchal governments such as Egypt, Iran, Palestine and Iraq.

Without the bottom-up pressure placed on governments to deliver policies that progress women’s rights, NGOs disempower local women by ensuring that global organisations are the only viable option available to provide essential services. In essence, as long as NGOs exist within the MENA region — governments can argue that they support the development of women’s rights by allowing international NGOs to operate within their borders without actually supporting women’s political participation or fundamental rights.
Where NGOs can operate as a legitimised registered organisation, grass-roots organisations — and with this, localised women’s demands for rights — are delegitimised.

Dependency on NGOs and local disenfranchisement

As both a result of NGOs maintaining their position as the source of women’s rights matters in the Middle East and the nature of their project-based structure of deliverables, women’s advocacy matters have been repackaged from a rights-based movement requiring activism, to the deliverance of a ‘product’, with principles based on ‘value adding’ and measurable quotas. The issue of repackaging rights as products and services is that NGOs have not only depoliticised women’s equality issues, but they have created a shift that places the responsibility of providing women’s rights on NGOs and not on governments to provide rights for their citizens. The subsequent result is that governments that offer little to no regard for their female citizens benefit from the work provided by NGOs without footing any of the financial outlay or political responsibility that they would otherwise carry. Moreover, when international organisations fund local issues, they are held accountable on an international platform, with local constituencies being disenfranchised by having no authority in how services are delivered or to who they are delivered. Further, countries within the MENA region that benefit from NGO-isation are placed in a situation whereby they are dependent upon NGOs, not only for the deliverance of basic services, which are seen as a commodity, but also the economic benefits that come from the deliverance of NGO initiatives.

The ideal outcome would be for international NGOs to realise that true success in achieving women’s rights within the MENA region would be to make themselves redundant by either withdrawing from the MENA region and placing economic pressure on governments or by restructuring their advocacy work to focus less on the deliverance of projects and more on empowering local women to work towards mobilisation and political activism within their respective regions.Until structural changes are realised by the international NGO community, these organisations will continue to perpetuate colonial values in the region and, in doing so unwillingly contribute to the political challenges experienced by grass-root movements.

Conclusion

Despite NGO-isation within the Middle East being a multi-faceted issue, three central tenants intertwine to create the problems of disenfranchisement of localised and grass-root women’s rights movements within the MENA regions. The most dominant theme is that NGOs continue to perpetrate a form of colonisation within the Middle East, which is based both predominantly on their globalised agenda, their internalised hierarchal structure and their approach to delivering women’s rights as projects, resulting in the depoliticisation of women’s rights and a dependency by governments on NGOs to provide essential services, resulting in local women activist organisations being delegitimised and at risk of ongoing violence. In Essence, NGOs do very little to progress women’s rights in regards to human rights, if anything they undermine those who are best placed to make advances in the MENA region.

Abdullahi An-Nai’im, ‘Problems of Dependency: Human Rights Organizations in the Arab World’, (2000) 214 Middle East Report.

Islah Jad, ‘The NGO-isation of Arab Women’s Movements’, (2009) 35(4) IDS Bulletin.

Islah Jad, ‘NGOs: Between Buzzwords and Social Movements’, (2007) 17(4/5) Development in Practice.

Nicola Pratt, How the West Undermined Women’s Rights in the Arab World, (2016) Jadaliyaa < https://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/32910> Accessed 6 April 2022.

Peter Gubser, ‘The Impact of NGOs on State and Non-state Relations in the Middle East’, (2002) 9 (1) Middle East Policy.

Rebecca Barlow, ‘Registered NGOs and advocacy for women in Iran’, (2021) 42(7) Third World Quaterly 1478.

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Laura E Fox

Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student. A collection of academic essays.