Foreign funds to the Civil Society: “The Trojan Horse” | Yasmine ElGharaibeh, Sami Hourani
Foreign funds to the Civil Society: “The Trojan Horse” Print
Yasmine ElGharaibeh   

As the controversy sparked in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates over the shutdown of non-governmental organizations for what has been perceived as “foreign meddling", similar worries were echoed in Jordan. Viewed as the “Trojan Horse” by many people, motives and agendas behind generous American and European funds to local non-governmental organizations are looked upon skeptically.

Since its establishment in 2008, Sami Hourani’s non-governmental organization, aiming to contribute to youth development by focusing on social reform and sociopolitical engagement, has been receiving grants from American and European sources.

However, like many other NGOs, the issue of funding is approached warily as the source of funding may have a negative effect on the organisation’s image. “We are always asked about the source of our funding”, Hourani explains.

Although he does not believe in conspiracy theories, Hourani does not deny that covert agendas that support political or economical gains for the donor may be pursued in the guise of foreign aid. Working on such “critical” topics, he affirms that the organization is “extremely cautious” when accepting foreign funds, and that it only accepts grants as long as they do not represent a threat to its core values.

Noticeably, these “agendas” have been slightly shifted after the Arab spring. Donors are now keen to direct aids towards programs that are believed to assist in maintaining the status quo. As instability engulfs the region, a “less turbulent” Jordan is desired. Consequently, these aids are shying away from critical political developmental programs that may lead to a feared change.

To avoid being perceived as a foreign project and being involved, in any way, in implementing hidden agendas, Hourani and his staff insist that no donor can sponsor more than one initiative. Moreover, foreign sponsorships are “balanced out” with local ones, which in most cases are no more than in-kind donations.

Recent research has revealed that Jordanian organizations prefer European funding over American funding, mainly because the latter is “less affiliated with the Israeli- Arab conflict”.

According to the Foreign Assistance Data website, total U.S. aid to Jordan through 2011 amounted to approximately $12.47 billion. These funds were directed to projects implemented in many sectors including military, environment, education and counter-terrorism. Jordan lands fourth on the USAID’s Top 20 Benefiting Countries (Obligated Program Funds) for 2011. The total U.S. economic assistance to Jordan over sixty years reached US$ 7.4 billion.
Given the option, however, the organization would opt to receive a local or Arab fund over a foreign one.

If given the option, most organizations would opt to receive a local or Arab fund rather than a foreign one. Unfortunately, the scarcity of options dictates a different reality. While the adoption of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies is on the rise among the private sector, the necessary laws are yet to encourage a profound engagement by the private sector in civil society activities. Non-governmental organizations, seeking grants from the private sector, are aware that grants are generally directed to activities that guarantee more visibility and serve the marketing objectives of the sponsoring company.

//“Categories requested (amount of money requested by the president for each project) for foreign assistance by USAID and Department of State for year end 2013"“Categories requested (amount of money requested by the president for each project) for foreign assistance by USAID and Department of State for year end 2013"

The crisis is perhaps exacerbated by the difficulty of raising funds through community outreach campaigns, a dilemma that the majority of non-governmental organizations still encounter. Reasons do not only include economic hardships and the lack of awareness regarding the importance of donations to sustain the work of these organizations, but also an unfortunate stigma, labelling NGOs as corrupt organizations.

Arguably, foreign donors have contributed to this state of perceived corruption. Hourani suggests that some foreign aids have in a way “spoiled” local NGOs by giving them lukewarm guidelines about how the funds should be spent. Others go as far as arguing that foreign donors do not necessarily mind corruption as long as their presumed agendas are transformed into action.

On the other end of the spectrum, NGOs are hesitant in approaching the government for grants, so as to avoid both being perceived as government-affiliated organizations and the possible interference of the government in their work.

// A caricature widely distributed on social media, representing the corruption in non-governmental organizations resulting minimal impact in the community. A caricature widely distributed on social media, representing the corruption in non-governmental organizations resulting minimal impact in the community.

Undoubtedly, civil society in the Arab world in general especially in Jordan, have not yet fulfilled their complimentary and crucial role in the “circle of democracy” by representing “active citizens” who are not politically engaged. Simplifying the issue and claiming that it is all attributed to the funding crisis can be inaccurate.
NGOs are yet to rid themselves of bureaucracy and enhance their field research before “jumping” to implement projects that have no positive outcomes. “I am not generalising, but many NGOs have become part of an elitist community, engaging the same people over and over again, neglecting underprivileged areas and carrying out their events in five-star hotels, thanks to generous grants” Hourani comments.

In light of this status, the answer as to what positive impact our civil society can have depends on the ability of these organizations and institutes to work under sound strategies and measurable objectives. The more an organization is aware of its objectives, the less likely it is to be carried away with those of any donor.

In the words of Hourani, “the problem is not that America has an agenda, neither is it that Europe has one too, the problem is that we, as a civil society, lack a clear agenda. Workers in this field should be highly educated people, conscious and aware of the impact their work has on the society, people who can read between the lines and connect the dots.”

Yasmine ElGharaibeh