The NGO Problem: Modernised Colonisation in the Middle East

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

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.



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Laura E Fox

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