NGOs and governance: a brief history *
Criticisms of the prescriptive and normative functions of governance
The analytical dimension of governance and how it affects the
perception of politics in the Arab world *
NGOs, associations and the "third sector": progress to date *
General overview of the associative sector in the Arab countries *
The main vocations of associations in the Arab countries: from
socio-charitable activity to politics *
The historical processes of the birth and evolution of Arab
associations: from one elite to another *
Associations and Arab political systems: between rejection and
A few characteristics of Arab associations *
Can one consider associations and NGOs in the Arab world to be true
actors of local and national development? What roles, functions and
significance do they have in the governance and development of countries
in the Arab world?
The two key notions here are "NGO" and "governance". What is their
history and why are they closely linked today? What does the term
governance really mean and under what major criticism has it come? How
should governance be considered – as a normative, prescriptive or
analytical framework? And which of these aspects is particularly relevant
to the discussions of the round table? What are the political, social and
economic implications of governance for Arab countries? NGOs represent one
of the major pillars of "good governance", along with the other actors of
civil society, government, and the market. Where does research on the
subject stand today? What are the most recent hypotheses and results that
have been produced concerning NGOs in general, and NGOs in the Arab world
in particular? What are the major issues being addressed by this
conference and which questions need to be answered?
and governance: a brief history
The issues we are dealing with here seem, at first glance, to be very
simple; in fact they are extremely complex. With too much media exposure
and too many connotations, the notions of "NGO" and "governance" have
neither been clearly defined nor attained real status. And they are of
relatively recent origin, even if their historical backgrounds differ.
Because of all this, "governance" and "NGO" often cannot be apprehended
calmly, free of emotional or ideological reaction. These notions and their
implications must therefore be clarified and understood in the political
and social context of Arab countries.
Today, "NGO" and "governance" may have different meanings and represent
distinct realities but they are nevertheless closely linked. This was not
always the case, for "NGO" as a notion existed well before "governance".
Over the past decade, however, NGOs have taken on worldwide strategic
importance, and this new impetus is due in part to the interest and
investment that the initiators of "good governance" have dedicated to
The social phenomenon that has given rise to the "NGO" is by no means
new, neither for European nor Arab countries. In France, modern
associations date from the 19th century, while in Arab
countries they appeared in the late 19th and early
20th centuries [Bardout J-C, Ben Néfissa S. (a)]. However, the
renewed popularity of this movement under the name "NGO" dates from the
1970s, referring essentially to organisations from the North that were
working in several countries in the South to support their social,
economic and cultural development. Over time, this phenomenon has
nonetheless gone through significant ideological and political changes.
During colonialism, there was the Christian associations’ mission to
civilise; then, by the 1970s, there was a mission (Christian or secular)
to help develop the Third World that was international in nature and
relied on development co-operation in partnership with local societies.
From 1985 onwards, this type of Third-World activism fell victim to the
influences of a neo-liberal, humanitarian ideology which, in the name of
the universality of human rights and technical competence, revived NGO
goals. The issue now no longer is helping countries in the South to
develop, or establishing justice between the North and South; rather, it
is managing and optimising the capacity to intervene in case of war,
internal conflict or famine (Hours B.)
The most recent change affecting NGOs is that they are now considered
to be full-fledged actors – on par with the State and the private sector –
in the development and regulation of societies. And, instead of being seen
as an organisation necessarily of the North helping countries in the
South, NGO now refers to organisations of the North or the South, and to
organisations in the South that were called into life by different actors
of the North (governments or NGOs), or by international or regional
If NGOs have recently gained in status and gone from representing mere
alternative or substitute solutions to being important actors in
development, this is largely due to the initiators of the notion of
"governance". While it is true that the expressions "governance" and "good
governance" originated some time ago, their wide usage dates from the late
1980s and early 1990s, at the same time that the notion of "globalisation"
The two expressions NGO and governance both have political
connotations: the first is negative (non-governmental) while the second is
positive. Those who "invented" governance are mainly experts from the
World Bank and the IMF (including William J.-C.). Trying to distance
themselves from the all-economic reputation that was theirs, and newly
conscious of the influence that politics have over the economic and social
spheres, and over development in developing countries, these experts found
that "governance" was a useful expression: it made it possible for them to
talk about politics even though they had no explicit mandate to do so.
Governance first and foremost provides a means to refer (implicitly, not
explicitly) to political issues by suggesting: "an effort to obtain the
necessary consensus or agreement for carrying out a programme in an arena
where many different interests are at play." (Alcantara C.H.)
This definition of governance may seem a bit bland, but it is precise
enough for those who coined the phrase. It essentially refers to political
and administrative measures accompanying policies for structural change
and severe budget cuts by government, especially in the social area.
Governance is also an attempt to create an environment conducive to the
development of the private sector. This can be considered to be the
"prescriptive" dimension of governance, but governance can also serve to
standardise and analyse. These different dimensions render it ambiguous
and complex. The first two are the most visible as they indicate what is
the right or better thing to do, and how to do it. This is what is called
"good governance". The third, the analytical dimension of governance,
constitutes a new way of perceiving politics that is very different from
the classical approach which was essentially centred on the State and on
mythical or ideological beliefs. This last dimension of governance is
mainly the domain of political scientists who consider that the study of
politics should not be limited to a political and legalistic analysis of
the State (Le Gales P).
Measures of good governance are considered to be: a competent,
decentralised government that is accountable for its acts; an efficient,
transparent and light civil service; a reliable judicial system; fighting
corruption; developing public freedoms and public debate; freedom of the
press and association; and respect for human rights.
This is in fact an attempt to establish the liberal model of a State
based on the rule of law. One of the main pillars of good governance is
strengthening civil society. The State is no longer considered to be the
sole - or even principal - agent of development. There is also the private
sector, and what English speakers call the third sector, which in France
corresponds to the non-profit sector, operating half-way between the
private and public sectors. This includes NGOs, non-profit associations,
co-operatives, mutual insurance companies, unions, community
organisations, foundations, clubs, etc. They are now called upon to
participate in the political effort of development, alongside government
and the corporate and business world.
Governance essentially encompasses all the reforms that aim to bring
about a new configuration of the State, the market and society. But
governance is not an end in itself. It makes possible – or should make
possible – the economic and social development of societies through a
partnership of government, private enterprise and the non-profit sector.
This recomposition of politics, promoted by the supporters of "good
governance", is relevant to countries both of the North and the South, and
has been given legitimacy by a number of factors linked to globalisation.
The economic and financial changes brought on by this phenomenon have also
produced political repercussions. By rendering the notion of a captive,
domestic market obsolete and putting pressure on national currencies, the
changes of globalisation are not only affecting the latitude States have
to act and the meaning of national solidarity, but they are also upsetting
the political model of the Nation-State, its prerogatives and, more
generally, the sovereignty of States.
For the inventors of "good governance", these transformations are by no
means necessarily negative. They see an opportunity to unite everyone
around a common set of values, with regulation provided by the market,
democracy and a weak State.
Presented in this way, the notion of "governance" seems very sleek
indeed and can only meet with everyone's approval. However, one should not
be satisfied with this first impression. The main criticisms that have
been voiced must be taken into consideration, especially with regard to
"governance" and developing countries.
Criticisms of the prescriptive and normative functions of governance
Several aspects of "normative governance" have been criticised. First
of all, the notion itself is ethnocentric and the political categories it
mobilises are weak. It is rooted in the specifically European idea of the
political good (Pagden A), and is based on the liberal political model
used in Western countries. A number of political scientists today are
examining how this model was constructed historically. They are intrigued
by the contradictions that exist between, on one hand, the liberal
discourse for a "weak State" and, on the other, political practices which
are "liberal", and yet have greatly increased the power of government over
individuals, society and the economy (Gauchet M.). Similarly, the
political and public sector traditions that are specific to Arab
countries, and developing countries in general, should be studied (Laroui
A, Badie B, Le Roy E). Governance conceals conflicts of interest,
contradictions and hegemony, and ignores the fact that politics are above
all a matter of culture and history. Governance relies on consensus, and
its primary concern is more with how to "manage" society efficiently than
with power (de Senarclens P).
Second, the relationships that exist between governance, globalisation,
democracy and development have been criticised. Some feel that the advent
of gobalisation, ushered in by the end of totalitarianism, and the advent
of democracy should not be taken for granted. It is easy for Marxists to
denounce the lack of transparency surrounding the dominating effects of
globalisation which for them represents a borderless capitalist society.
It is not surprising that this "global" era has given rise to local
concerns in contradiction with globalisation, and linked to new demands
and issues of identity, religion, and ethnic origin; there has also been a
new expression of common interests that are replacing national interests.
The fact that the major economic decisions are reached in certain
places and capitals has only made developing countries more dependent. It
is wrong to believe that the policies for structural change which have
weakened the legitimacy of national states will ultimately eliminate
political prerogatives. These have been transferred to experts whose
competence and independence in dealing with local pressures and
administrations are well known (de Alcantara C.W).
Finally, there is no proof that in "good governance" there is an
inherent link between democracy and development. Some countries have
managed their development despite their authoritarian political systems;
inversely, liberal democracies in the West have often been accompanied by
a phenomenon of exclusion (William J-C).
We are particularly interested in the criticisms concerning the
relationship of the State, civil society, and the market that has been
emphasised by the inventors of good governance. Have the assumptions
underlying governance been verified? Is it true that there is a crisis in
governing, and that the State now only appears to have power, while
international markets have become the real power brokers? Does
globalisation really exert pressure on the welfare State to the extent
that it must either adapt or perish? These questions are in line with the
arguments Bertrand Badie puts forth. They show that faced with these
challenges, the State has become defensive and is rebuilding its
domination in new ways . States may be experiencing a territorial crisis
but this has not done away with them. They have learned to live with
de-territorialisation, turning it to their own advantage (William J-C,
Merrien F-X, Badie B). Finally, is it true that the legitimacy of the
welfare State is in crisis and can one affirm that the measures of good
governance would be better more appropriate?
Economic theories on development have often failed to take into account
the "State factor" in all its complexity and the theory of governance is a
case in point. It rests on the myth that the State was the sole actor of
development and economic growth in the 1950s and then a puppet during the
1960s and 1970s because of its dependency on Western countries. Governance
places its faith in the modest liberal State. This theory has been
challenged by some newly industrialised countries – such as the Republic
of Korea – whose governments exercise a great deal of power. Is it not
possible that in some developing countries, the anti-government drive of
governance could have the negative effect of eroding government resources
which in turn would weaken the private sector by depriving it of public
support (Petiteville F)?
Finally, the apology of neoliberalism and of the open market that
underlies the notion of governance naively promotes non-governmental
actors and the benefits of the market. The latter principally aims to make
a profit and can very easily accommodate a hegemonic State, and the
capabilities of NGOs to exercise a regulatory and management function are
limited. NGOs tend to have only a partial, sectorial vision. Often they
are closely tied to government and subject to their own conflicts of power
and inequality. In addition, their activities are mostly palliative. A
weak State, which the notion of governance implies, can lead to very
serious social problems, especially in developing countries. The arrival
of NGOs, experts, transnational bureaucrats, local and regional networks
on the development scene has by no means resolved the fundamental issues
of political participation and oversight. In any case, the State is still
present and the conflicts inherent in politics will not be durably dealt
with by a governance that is essentially technocratic and administrative
(de Senarclens P, Leca J).
analytical dimension of governance and how it affects the perception of politics in the Arab
In the face of these harsh criticisms of governance, other authors have
adopted a more serene view. To them, the most significant message of
governance is that government today is undergoing important changes which
constitute a profound break with the past. Governance is based on the
following suppositions: with governance, a complex group of actors and
institutions (not necessarily governmental), and autonomous networks come
into play; limits and responsibilities are less defined; government
agencies and institutions involved in collective action are
interdependent; and it is possible to act without relying on the State
This is in line with observations made by some political scientists who
have their own particular interest in governance. For them, it represents
a new direction in political science that challenges the view of a
monolithic State running all of society through its legal output. The
State is in fact no more than a mass of institutions, actors, groups and
individuals who are interacting. This new approach shows that there is a
need to go beyond institutional analysis of public action and move towards
a sociology of action, interaction, conflicts and negotiation. In France,
for example, this has led to new research, in particular dedicated to
Politics must take into account both urban and rural environments. Also,
the phenomenon of interaction should not obscure the fact that the players
do not all carry the same weight. Decentralisation does not necessarily
mean more local democracy, or less bureaucracy in decision-making. In some
instances, as in Europe, it can even hide new forms of centralisation (Le
Gales P, Gaudin J-P).
This new approach to politics can be helpful in understanding
developing countries, for whom the political model of the Nation-State is
a relatively recent experience (Alliot M, Le Roy E). (2) This
observation is also relevant for Arab countries in that their historical
experiences in statehood are quite different from the Western model
(Laroui A). Contemporary Arab political systems are in fact not easily
apprehended with the analytical tools of political scientists – whether
they are Arab, French or from the English-speaking world.
The problems of analysis that political scientists face are exacerbated
by the many different demands placed on them to quickly respond to the
multitude of events and crises which have marked this geopolitical region:
the "Algerian drama", "Islamic fundamentalism", the "Israelo-Palestinian
conflict", "the Gulf war", the "Sudanese crisis", and the "Iraqi crisis",
Before going into the positive effects that governance may have on
political science in the Arab world, it is essential to note the issues
that "prescriptive" governance raises.
Like all developing countries, the Arab countries have been called upon
to reform their public sectors, to give more freedom to their civil
societies, liberate the "energies" of their private sector, and respect
human rights as well as fundamental public freedoms. One can see here how
"good governance" becomes a political issue for these countries because of
the characteristics of their political systems and government
bureaucracies. In European countries, where there is a long-standing
democratic tradition and political liberalism, good governance raises
mostly social or economic issues. However, in the countries of the South,
and especially in Arab countries, these issues are as much political as
they are socio-economic.
The political issues that "good governance" raises for Arab countries
concern principally the sensitive question of democratisation – in the
large sense – of these countries. But this question must also consider the
economic and political "dependency" that results from challenging the
sovereignty of the State over its national territories.
For developing and Arab countries, governance measures are being
introduced after decades of triumphant nationalist, socialist and
development ideologies that defended a vision of united political power
dominated by leaders, single parties, and military regimes. At the time,
economic growth was conditioned by "political development" which meant
building an interventionist Nation-State. Today, a move in quite the
opposite direction is recommended.
It is wrong to believe that political reform in Arab states was a
reform simply imposed by international financial organisations. As early
as the 1970s, several Arab countries started a process of political
liberalisation by introducing a multi-party system and some freedom of
expression and association. This change resulted from internal causes,
especially internal conflicts which, having no means for free and
institutional expression, erupted in violence. It is alo linked to the
demands made by certain social elites, including intellectuals,
politicians and union leaders (Flory M, Korany B, Montran R, Camau M,
Despite the democratic progress made in a number of countries (Tunisia,
Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria), Arab political and
administrative systems continue to suffer from serious deficiencies: weak
political participation; insufficient leadership turnover and when it does
occur, it is not by election or participation; single or quasi hegemonic
parties; non-reliable electoral system; concentration of power in the
hands of certain "groups" or "clans" that are difficult to identify (army,
police, family and "tribes", businessmen); "representative" assemblies
that have no clout; generally submissive judicial system; controlled and
even muzzled press; and, finally, centralised, inefficient; and excessive
bureaucracies that function with patronage (Salamé G, Baudel J-P).
As for the "civil societies" in Arab countries, they are fragile, under
surveillance, partially grafted on the State apparatus and generally the
domain of an intellectual and political elite based in capital cities.
For the countries that have chosen a market economy, the business and
private sectors – which are supposed to constitute one of the autonomous
pillars of governance – continue to maintain close links with the
administrative and political apparatus, even if the nature of this
relationship varies from country to country and should be analysed and
Measures of "good governance" are being tested by these countries, and
this should be analysed. The experience in Egypt already provides
interesting insights. The few reforms that have been made there have
paradoxically led to greater State influence over associations, and a more
centralised and authoritarian local administrative and political systems
[Ben Néfissa S (h,j)].
Researchers give many reasons to explain the "democratic deficit" in
Arab countries (3), and these
hypotheses open the way for interesting research. However, it appears that
they are generally in search of a "single principle" to explain
everything, and that this principle is seen to be of an economic,
cultural, demographic, anthropological – but not political – nature. This
seems to be an attempt to circumvent the difficulty of dealing with
politics in these countries by enlarging the issue to the extreme. These
digressions result in large part from a lack of work in political science
based on field studies and documented and structured around arguments
which show sufficient independence vis a vis the implications of British
and North American and French political science.
Generally speaking, French political science dedicated to the Arab
world remains captive of its polarisation on the Islamic question and of
its own nature: the inability to distance itself from classical philosophy
or theory of politics and law, and from its "mythical" vision of the
State. Political science in the English-speaking world, for its part,
remains attentive to field work and the importance of collecting data, but
does not seek to sufficiently understand the concepts it uses such as
"civil society", "modernisation", and, currently, "governance".
Practically no political science research is being done in Arab
countries. Some exists in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, which have
scientific communities and a certain amount of freedom of expression, and
a substantial amount of their work merits wider distribution. However,
this work tends to be lacking in self-criticism and is too influenced by
the ideology of its researchers.
Approaching politics in Arab countries by way of "governance" can lead
to a better understanding of the question of "democratisation" in these
countries as well as of the functioning of their political systems in
general. It is possible to cite several avenues of research in this area.
Going beyond the vision of a monolithic State which runs all of society
by its legal output allows for a better understanding of how political
institutions function. And by identifying and analysing the different
individual or collective actors who intervene in these institutions, it
becomes possible to do a finer analysis of what is called
"neo-patriomonialism", "patronage" and "nepotism". (Addi L, Marie A).
In order to analyse "politics" in contemporary Arab societies; it is
fundamental to take into account the non-governmental actors who
nonetheless contribute to the regulation and functioning of official
political institutions. "Regulatory" roles are played by local civic
leaders, associations, religious authorities, businessmen, charity
organisations, and families or family groups who have non-judicial means
for resolving conflicts [Eid S, Haenni P, Ben Néfissa S (f), Ben Néfissa
S, Eid S, Haenni P, Singerman D, Zghal M].
Doing an analysis in terms of interaction can also help specify the
nature of the relationship that exists between non-governmental and
governmental actors, or between the business world and the State
apparatus; between family groups or clans, and central and local
The governance approach can help to better seize how politics are
manifested in these countries in a different way than in Europe. Which are
the spaces or places of politics? What are the political practices and
discourse? How is citizenship expressed? In order to avoid
misunderstandings, the division of scientific disciplines – whether
political, legal, economic, religious – that was inherited from Western
scientific traditions needs to be reviewed. In this context, the so-called
"Islamic question" is a telling example. The expression of politics in a
religious mode is disconcerting for the Western political
establishment, and certain scientists are quick to either "negate a
sharing of the temporal and the spiritual" or point to "fanaticism and
extremism". The same can be said about the question of family, tribal or
"ethnic" groups that play a political role. Is it not true that these
groups experience conflicts of interest and social and economic
contradictions, and are made up of individuals in response to a given
situation? Finally, is it not true that those who believe holism
characterises these societies have been trapped by the discourse that
proclaims the importance of the Islamic Umma, the "Arab nation" or the
"clan spirit"? (Marie A)
In our view, a governance approach could be useful for discovering some
of the originality of politics (in the large sense) and its effect on
development. These are the general themes of the conference in Cairo
organised by the MOST Programme of UNESCO.
Can NGOs be considered to be true actors in the governance and
development of Arab countries? That is the main question addressed by the
But before addressing the implications of this question, let us review
the hypotheses and results that have most recently been put forward
regarding NGOs in general and Arab NGOs in particular.
associations and the "third sector": progress to date
Without a doubt, the "major" work done thus far on the question of NGOs
and associations comes from the English-speaking world, particularly from
the United States. In France, research on this question is still rare, and
it is not yet fully recognised, neither by sociologists, political
scientists nor economists. Research on NGOs is essentially conducted
within the framework of social economy, a relatively recent and still
marginal discipline in France which includes work done on associations,
foundations, cooperatives and mutual insurance companies (Archambault E).
In France, the lack of interest in this discipline is partially due to
a scientific tradition that has "suffered" from the centralised State that
characterises France and that has also left its mark on the social sphere
(Rosanvallon P). In French political science, a noticeable distinction is
made between "worthy" subjects which are linked to the State (for example,
political parties, elections, etc.) and which interest researchers, and
subjects that enjoy less esteem, such as associations and NGOs.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that two important studies have
appeared recently: the first is dedicated to the non-profit sector in
France (Archambault E), and the second to NGOs in the North and South, and
their rapport with development (Deler J-P, Fauré Y-A, Roca P-J). The
latter is particularly relevant: as Northern NGOs are intervening more and
more in Arab countries, it is vital to understand the nature of Northern
NGOs working in countries in the South and the changes they have undergone
over the past few years.
The most recent and pertinent work on NGOs produced in the
English-speaking countries was done by the Johns Hopkins programme on
international comparison of the non-profit sector which is conducted by
the International Society for Third-Sector Research. This programme has
held three international conferences and publishes the Revue
Voluntas. The initiative is interesting on several counts: it includes
all countries in the world, making a true international comparison
possible without treating developing or Arab countries separately, which
would have the effect of "stigmatising" them and singling them out
artificially. The programme is based on the premise that non-profit
organisations exist everywhere in the world and that they are active in
similar areas. Very little – if anything – is known about this sector
because it is not included in conventions for international accounting
standards; consequently international comparisons are virtually
impossible. In order to make up for this gap the programme was launched in
May 1990. It aims to "raise the veil on a world that has been ignored for
a long time and yet continues to make significant contributions to solving
human problems wherever they may be. Today, after a re-examination of the
role of the State in both industrialised and developing countries,
non-profit organisations have become vectors of sociability and
instruments of social change. They are also vital economic actors, and are
capable of responding to emerging social needs, dealing with serious
social issues and creating jobs in countries where public intervention has
demonstrated its limits..." (Salamon L, Helmut K, Anheir).
The work of this project is based on certain theoretical hypotheses and
on the following definition of the non-profit sector: these are private,
non-institutional organisations (distinct from the State, administrations
and local authorities); they are independent, with their own
decision-making bodies and an autonomous budget; and all projects that are
undertaken must be reinvested to serve the social purpose, and entail a
certain degree of voluntary participation by volunteers or donors.
Two other, non fundamental, criteria have been added to this
definition: these organisations should not be strictly religious, and
should not have a declared political aim.
In considering this definition, Alain Piveteau reflects on the
specificity of the "third sector" within the framework of the opposition
between the market and the State, as highlighted by economic theory. He
notes that the "non-distribution of profits" is central to the definition
of NGOs, and that their general features are considered to be "solidarity,
unselfishness, and confidence". The specificity of development NGOs is
that they are organisations of "mediation". Their main objective is the
philanthropic redistribution of essentially private resources to support
The importance given to the "organisational" or "institutional" aspect
of the non-profit sector is noteworthy. This aspect can become
problematical for developing countries and Arab countries in particular,
which have acquired some "informal" or "non-institutional" forms of social
solidarity. The definition may be pragmatic and useful for doing work on
international comparisons, but it fails to address several problems and
questions that have been raised by French research, notably during the
symposium on NGOs and development that was held in Bordeaux in 1997 (Deler
J-P, Fauré Y-A, Roca P-J). During this symposium, the issues under
discussion took into consideration the work of French sociologists who had
developed new approaches to social sciences (in particular Pierre
Bourdieu, Laurent Thévenot and Luc Boltanski).
How do development NGOs constitute a unique institutional category that
is different from development bureaucracies? Are the characteristics of
these organisations in line with the aims they proclaim? What is known of
the trajectory, origins, profiles and future of those who found, direct
and ainimate NGOs, of their motivations and strategies? How are their
forms of action specific (Fauré Y-A, de Sardan P-0)? Given that the "field
of development NGOs" has become increasingly professional, is it not true
that the directors and organisers of NGOs have now become "brokers", even
entrepreneurs, of development?
NGOs have both obvious and latent functions, and they are organised and
regulated places where different power plays, legitimacies, material and
symbolic interests and ideologies are acted out. NGOs are the
intermediaries between donors and people; consequently their "social
capital" should be studied, as well as their networks of connections up
and down the social ladder. NGOs are at the heart of multiple cultural
entanglements and also have their own specific histories that merit
examination (de Sardan P-O).
In addition to its definition of the non-profit sector, research of the
Johns Hopkins programme has produced certain theories concerning the
"third sector". These are either socio-political or economic in nature.
The socio-political theories refer to the failure of the welfare State and
advance the hypothesis that the bigger the welfare State, the smaller the
role of the non-profit sector. They also concern the legal and political
framework, with the hypothesis that systems of common law are more
favourable to the development of non-profit organisations than systems of
statute law. On a sociological level, the theory is that the growth of an
educated middle-class is vital for promoting an active "third sector".
The economic theories refer to the heterogeneous supply of collective
goods. Non-profit organisations often provide collective goods which
complement or compete with those provided by the State which tries to
satisfy the average voter. Consequently, the greater the heterogeneity of
society, the greater will be the needs for heterogeneous collective goods;
it is that type of society that interests the non-profit sector. The
latest economic theory is linked to asymmetrical information and the cost
of transactions. Non-profit organisations may constitute an effective
response when the market fails in cases of asymmetrical information
exchange between producers and consumers (Archambault E).
Researchers of the Johns Hopkins programme have recognised the
importance of the work published by the economist Edith Archambault on the
non-profit sector in France. The results of this study are significant for
several reasons. First of all, they reveal a discrepancy between the size
of this sector and its relative invisibility in the institutional
landscape. Over the past few years the author has observed a baby boom of
associations. In 1990, this sector had 800,000 full-time employees, and
from 1981 to 1990, employment there grew by 40%, while overall employment
stagnated. Jobs in the third sector account for 4.5% of total employment,
which is clearly higher than the average percentage for seven other
European countries. The author notes the limits of private versus public
These observations also apply to French NGOs active in development in
countries in the South. Because of the economic crisis, rise in
xenophobia, and lower profile of Southern countries in French politics and
thought, there have been fewer private donations for development NGOs, a
decline in activism and little renewal in the management of French NGOs
On a different level, the practices of NGOs in the North have also
undergone important changes. For example, Northern NGOs are supporting the
participation of local organisations from the South which they now
consider to be full-fledged actor; they are also taking into account the
"real" economy and the profit principle, and encouraging economic
activity; they are showing a new concern for cities (rather than for rural
areas, as was the case previously); they are expressing a new interest in
"the poor" as well as a desire to treat the root of the problem – by
promoting economic activity – rather than solely its symptoms, as they had
done before; and, finally, they are attentive to the distribution of basic
services (healthcare, education, water) and the development of
differentiated financial products.
In addition, less of a distinction is now made between NGOs that deal
with urgencies and those that deal with development. There is a greater
effort to promote rights, and an increased interest in the new work method
that aims to influence political and social choices through lobbying (Le
Bris E, Reveil M, Roca P-J).
Another change that has affected NGOs is their "professionalism", which
can be seen as supplementing - or substituting - their preoccupations with
"charity", "solidarity", "development" and urgency.
As for the mediation role of NGOs, researchers note that the classical
representation mechanisms are presently in crisis, and NGOs are
positioning and appointing themselves as mediators. Thus they tend to take
the place of political representation, play a social role and influence
the way we see the world. They have distinguished themselves from
associations in general, and forced the respect for a third sector that is
operating between the private and public sectors.
Other researchers feel that one should also be aware of the rapports of
domination and competition that exist in the development "field", which is
made up of actors who can be divided into essentially two camps, depending
on what kind of capital they possess: money (donors) or knowledge
(experts, research institutes and academics). One should not underestimate
the "ambiguous" relationship that exists between NGOs from the North and
the South, which is marked by patronage and competition, especially when
Southern NGOs want to emancipate themselves and go directly to donors,
bypassing Northern NGOs. However, while this situation may indeed be
unequal, the behaviour of the "dominated" should not be overlooked, as it
may include "ruse", manipulation and misappropriation (Pesche D, Chevau
J-P, Lavigne Delville P).
This is a broad outline of the latest hypotheses that researchers have
formulated on Northern NGOs operating in countries of the South. The
intervention of these organisations in Arab countries represents a
particular case because they are countries that have their own
"non-governmental organisations" and associations. Similarly, the Arab
world has its own international NGOs, notably international Islamic
organisations. The most important are the International Islamic Relief
Organisation founded in 1978 as a branch of the World Islamic League; the
Islamic Relief Agency, founded during the 1980s and based in Khartoum;
and, finally, Islamic Relief which is based in Great Britain (Bellion J).
Studies on associations in Arab countries are few. At the last
conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research
(4), only a
small number of papers were dedicated to Arab countries: Egypt, Palestine,
Jordan and Kuwait. It is significant that there were no studies on Arab
countries with a French scientific tradition, such as Tunisia, Algeria and
Morocco. Even though research has been done on NGOs in these countries, it
has no international visibility because of the domination of the English
language, and also because of the little attention that the
French-language scientific tradition has paid to this theme. In the Near
and Middle East, much research is being done in Arabic, but for obvious
reasons it has not gained international recognition; it is nevertheless
debated within Arabic scientific communities, namely in Egypt and Lebanon.
In this context we should cite the work done by The Arab Network for
NGOs (Shabaka), which is based in Cairo and publishes the journal
In the academic domain – pending confirmation – studies on NGOs in the
Arab world are very few in number. Even if there have been some Masters
theses, a country like Egypt has not produced one doctoral thesis
dedicated to NGOs. Most of the work is done by research centers and
experts whose aims are mainly short-term, selective and empirical.
Research on the issue of NGOs is at present being constituted/built up,
and this conference hopes to encourage researchers to become more
interested in it. One of the purposes of the round table in Cairo is
specifically to review and highlight the work that has been done so far on
NGOs in different Arab countries.
As NGOs are now considered to be playing a strategic role in
development, it is not surprising that there is a growing interest in
them. However, this cannot be the sole reason since, historically, Arab
countries have experimented with the modern model of associations since
the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Another
reason may be that once these countries had won independence, hegemonic –
if not authoritarian and repressive – politico-administrative systems were
imposed. This left practically no room for the autonomous activities of
associations. All the activities that had previously been conducted by
autonomous organisations were taken over by the government. As a result,
some countries have almost lost their tradition of autonomous
associations. But the role the "third sector" may now be playing in Arab
countries is too recent a phenomenon to have produced a substantial body
of academic work.
"Good governance" has become an important issue not only for politics,
but also for the economic and social arenas and, more generally, for
development. This implies supporting and introducing more efficient
measures of structural adjustment, and delegating to the private sector
and to "civil society" the missions which the State had previously carried
out, such as education, healthcare and, more generally, helping the
disadvantaged categories of society (the poor, women, the handicapped, and
abandoned children). Besides taking on these social tasks, NGOs are called
upon to play an overall, fundamental role in development. Today, NGOs are
already playing an active role in virtually all domains of development:
they foster employment, enterprise creation, professional training, and
the implementation of agricultural projects; support basic urban services
(transportation, water, sewage, sanitation, parks) and the fight against
pollution and corruption; they promote transparent and efficient
government and administrations, as well as "advocacy societies", which
defend the big social and humanitarian causes, such as human rights and
the rights of women.
Judging from the work that has been done so far on this issue, are
associations and NGOs in Arab countries today indeed able to live up to
the official discourse, and can they meet the social needs of development,
as well as the societal needs for "good governance" in these countries? (5)
At this point, it is possible give a general overview of associations
in Arab countries, and describe their principal characteristic features.
overview of the associative sector in the Arab
The situation of associative sectors naturally varies greatly from one
Arab country to another. In some countries there is no freedom of
association at all; in others, that freedom is closely supervised; in
others again there is appreciable room for manoeuvre. But it is fair to
say that, whatever their differences, contrasting situations and
exceptions, associations and NGOs in the Arab countries can hardly be
regarded as veritable collective forces capable of influencing the
development and future of their societies.
Arab associative sectors are chiefly involved in charitable work and
social work in general. While the importance of such action in a general
context of reduced state funding and dwindling revenues cannot be denied,
it has to be admitted that it is not on the whole carried out on the basis
of an active mobilisation involving such notions as solidarity and
citizenship. With a few exceptions, such action involves providing
disadvantaged sections of the population with help and services and
setting up community links. There do exist associations that try to
perform new social functions as partners with the authorities in choosing
and supervising the development of governance in those countries, but they
have only recently been set up, are fragile and have run into various
difficulties and obstacles. These characteristics together mean that
associations in the Arab countries follow an original pattern. Broadly
speaking, their distinctive features are their weak social impact, their
"elitist" nature, their small number of grassroots members, their
restricted scope for intervention in cities, their close involvement in
the political and administrative machinery and the relationship of
"patronage" relationship they have with their environment.
main vocations of associations in the Arab countries: from socio-charitable activity to
The main factor that prompts citizens of the Arab countries to form
associations is a desire to help needy and disadvantaged sections of
society. This has long been so. The earliest Arab associations, in the
modern sense of the word, date from the end of the 19th
century. They regarded charitable and social work, particularly in
education and health, as their core mission. That element has not
disappeared and continues today to mobilize associative energies and to
heighten public awareness. The methods used to carry out such social work
are varied. Some associations are non-specialized and offer a wide range
of services and assistance at district or regional level. These include
sending monthly remittances of money to needy families, building clinics
and hospitals, opening schools and organising remedial courses and
vocational training courses. Other associations care for special
categories of the population such as orphans, illegitimate children, old
people, the handicapped, and women. The findings of a CIVICUS study
carried out at the beginning of the nineties throughout the Arab world,
which have been confirmed by most other studies since then, show that the
percentage of charitable and social associations out of the total number
of associations in a given country range from 9.7% in Tunisia to 68% in
Kuwait, with most other countries varying from 30% to 50% [Kandil A
While it is true that there are charitable associations without any
specific characteristics as regards their identity, the charitable and
social work of Arab associations is closely bound up with links of a
religious, regional, community and even family or "tribal" nature. This is
a typical feature of Middle-Eastern countries where several religions
exist side by side. It is also found, to a lesser extent, in the Maghreb.
They are highly successful associations and remarkable for their genuine
social effectiveness. The social functions of Islamic and Christian
religious associations are obvious. When Islamic associations are run by
actors involved in Islamic political movements, those functions also have
a political dimension.
While social and charitable work goes hand in hand with religion, it
can also be combined successfully with regional and even family or tribal
links. This is the case in Sudan, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon. In Lebanon,
social associations that have connections with leading Lebanese families
follow a pattern similar to that of traditional charitable associations
insofar as they provide services to the population as a whole; this is not
true of the same phenomenon in other countries.
In Egypt it is a phenomenon more particularly connected with internal
migration to Cairo and Alexandria. In Cairo, regional leagues and
associations of people from a given area make up the largest single
category of associations, ahead even of Islamic associations. Their
distinctive characteristic is that they include people of similar
geographical origin, usually from the same village, who have settled in
the city. Their main aim is to help one another to make a success of their
very recent integration into a working-class urban context. Such regional
leagues provide assistance only to their own members and are not
outward-looking vis-à-vis their environment. In Egypt, they have played,
and continue to play, fundamental roles in the social equilibrium of
informal districts which in the 1970s and 1980s attracted people from all
over the country.
Associations which have a community referent do not necessarily pursue
activities of a traditional nature. Religious or regional associations
have fine-tuned their social activities and diversified them. They do not
"play it by ear" when providing such aid, but offer genuine social
services organized in a rational and modern manner. They are able not only
to assist the poorer sections of the population or the impoverished middle
classes, but to offer jobs to people with university degrees, notably
doctors and teachers. Health and education are their prime areas of
activity, both in countries at war or in a State of unrest, such as
Palestine, Lebanon or Sudan, and in other countries like Egypt or Jordan.
Over the past decade, new forms of associative vocations have appeared
alongside traditional associative vocations. They can be divided into two
categories. The first includes associations which, although adopting no
political stance, strive to act as partners with the government in the
implementation of development. Their spheres of activity are therefore
very wide. They range, among other things, from the defence of the
consumer and protection of the urban or rural environment to the creation
of small and medium-sized businesses and moves to save the architectural
and historical heritage.
This new form of associative expression departs, in its principles,
from the traditional perception of charitable or social associations in
that it strives not to assist or to aid but, on the contrary, to encourage
certain categories of society to focus on sectorial interests in the hope
of working together to find original solutions to certain problems. Such
associations try to establish themselves as partners of local and public
authorities by coming up with proposals, providing impetus and even having
an active role, rather than being merely a palliative to the State's
shortcomings. The overall "philosophy" of this new system of action is
based on a determination to construct an active citizenship and not to
leave its fate in the hands of civil servants. This new awareness was
triggered by the all too familiar failings of the public services sector:
incompetence, routine, failure to act, financial constraints, lack of
In Morocco, the main fields in which these new associations are active
are health, the integration of women into professional life, the promotion
of small and medium-sized businesses, and rural development. Two examples
are the Association to Fight Aids, which plays an important role in
heightening public awareness of an illness that remains difficult to talk
about in a Muslim country, and the Association of Female Solidarity, which
takes in abandoned women and unmarried mothers. In Tunisia, the
Association of Friends of the National Institute for the Protection of
Children tries to ease the predicament of abandoned children by suggesting
solutions to officials in that Institute in the hope of correcting some of
its functional failings, which can adversely affect the children's
In Egypt, two associations deserve to be mentioned: For Promotion of
Services in Zamalek and the Association for the Protection of the
Environment in Heliopolis. To make up for the shortcomings of local
council services, they initiated schemes targeted at local residents with
the aim of cleaning the streets, shifting mountains of garbage and
creating green spaces. Their action received the backing of a certain
proportion of residents, who were prepared to finance their projects. But
negotiations with the technical and administrative services were
unfortunately difficult, and certain elected representatives whose
prerogatives were threatened and whose duties were called into question
Paradoxically, it is in Algeria that the most original associative
vocations have emerged. There are, for example, associations of council
house applicants which have turned into public service watchdogs, and
which ask to take part in the definition of criteria for the attribution
of contracts, in the control of housing candidate lists and even in the
monitoring of work in progress and the checking of compliance with
specifications. There also exist associations of public service executives
whose aim is to defend the public sector, the notion of public services
and the political neutrality of the civil service, and which denounce what
are called "tumbrils" in Algeria, in other words the sidelining of civil
servants as a result of political or administrative reshuffles.
By their very purpose, these new associative vocations irritate the
administrative and political hierarchy, which is turned in on itself and
unused to such behaviour and attitudes; as a result, they run into
obstruction and even refusal.
The second category of "new" associations includes those which are
interested in any cause remotely connected with politics. They are kept
under close surveillance.
They include of course associations for human rights, for the defence
of women's rights and for the defence of minorities such as the Berbers in
Algeria, or associations whose purpose is to raise people's civic
consciousness, to monitor elections or to foster democracy.
Such associations usually attract people who have been disillusioned by
the practice of politics in their country and who seek to improve it
without necessarily getting directly drawn into political rivalry. Many
leaders of such associations used to be leftwing activists in the
seventies, but members of the younger generation are also sometimes active
in them (in Lebanon for example). Despite the difficulties they face,
associations for the defence of human rights exist in many Arab countries,
and some of them have played or play key roles as pressure groups,
monitoring agencies or even as a force for political change.
The common feature of the new associative forms just outlined is their
relative youth and their fragility, which is due not only to
administrative and political obstruction, but also to the fact that they
are restricted to Westernized urban and intellectual elites. This urban
and elitist element is not restricted to this type of grouping. Charitable
and social associations are also run by urban elites. But they have a
greater social impact as a result of the work they do and are in contact
with the middle classes and disadvantaged sections of society.
historical processes of the birth and evolution of Arab associations: from one elite to
Historians from various countries have shown how the "modern"
associative form was quickly adopted by Arab societies – in Tunisia,
Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Syria and Lebanon – at the end of the
In France the term "association" reflects a number of social and
political values, images and representations that centre on such notions
as "participation", "responsibility", "solidarity" and "democracy". In
other words, it concerns the freedom of citizens to defend their
individual non-profit-making interests against a remote State which
defends the general interest, or the interests of certain social classes.
It is true that in France modern "associationism" seems to be a process
in the best tradition of the social and protest movements that came into
being in the 19th century as a result of the industrialisation
of the country, social destitution and the elaboration of various
socialist ideologies. Those ideologies stressed the need to "join
together" to defend the social rights of workers, the jobless and the
destitute against the "bourgeois" peace advocated by a so-called liberal
State, whose ability to affect and shape society had increased
exponentially. The 19th-century French associative movement,
which spawned the mutual insurance system and trade unionism, entered into
an antinomical relationship with the State, even though the movement had
been instrumentalized by the government and had the effect of legitimising
the State's policy of social interventionism.
In the Arab countries, the birth and development of the "modern"
associative movement took a different form. The movement did not grow out
of either internal conflicts of interests or an antagonistic relationship
with government. It was chiefly founded on the division between colonized
societies and colonial powers. It is hardly surprising, then, that the
countries that were the first to set up associations were the Arab
countries that first came into contact with the Nahda movement, notably in
Egypt and Lebanon. The Nahda was an intellectual school of thought,
characterised by its determination to introduce new ideas and modernity
into the legacy of Arab-Islamic civilisation by adopting certain Western
social and political ideas (freedom, citizenship, women's liberation), as
well as certain organisational and administrative techniques (the modern
State, parliament, associations and foundations). Although the Nahda had
an effect on Arab societies as a whole, whether Muslim or Christian, its
ideas were based on Muslim reformism. The distinguishing feature of Muslim
reformism is its desire to regenerate Muslim societies, which had been
sapped by a conquering and "civilising" Europe, by reforming the Muslim
religion in such a way as to attach greater importance to the role of
reason, by developing science and technology and modernising political and
social structures. In order to reform society and bring it into line with
Western societies and with expatriate communities resident in the Arab
countries, it was first necessary to create indigenous elites. That is why
the aim of the earliest associations was to found schools. They were
philanthropic foundations designed to educate and train working-class
children in a modern manner while at the same time preserving their
identity by teaching the Arabic language and the basics of religion.
The earliest associations were, then, the result of initiatives by the
Arab elites of the time, which were inspired by Muslim, Christian and
sometimes secular reformism. The associations were funded by the more
affluent strata of society (shopkeepers, landowners) as well as by the
governing classes (the Khedive beys). This funding was carried out in the
name of Islam and of some of its institutions, such as zakat (religiously
compulsory alms), sadaqa (alms left voluntarily by the worshipper) and
above all wakf. Wakfs, or habus, played and continue to play an important
role as regards social solidarity. This first version of associative work
can be seen to be an initiative from the "top", with both modern and
traditional features. The associations of the time adopted modern
structures (with a board of directors, elections and annual general
meetings) and traditional structures, notably with the wakfs, whose roots
go far back into the history of Islam.
In its subsequent historical stages, associative work was approached
through the prism of other types of ideology, such as Salafism,
liberalism, nationalism and socialism. The phenomenon remained elitist in
nature for reasons to do with the political domination of Western powers
and the socio-economic structure of societies.
The second generation of associative elites was also inspired by
nationalism and the political struggle against the occupying power. The
distinguishing mark of this form of nationalism, whether it was
religious-leaning (as exemplified by the Muslim Brotherhood) or in favour
of secularism, was that it saw associative work as a base from which to
mobilize against the occupying power. Some associations simply turned into
In Tunisia, virtually the whole of the "indigenous" associative network
before independence was controlled by Neo-Destur, which was fighting for
the country's independence.
The main aim of nationalist Arab leaders, irrespective of their various
ideologies (socialism, Baathism, liberalism), was to win back their
country, which was occupied by a foreign power, and build a modern State.
It is hardly surprising that once they had achieved independence or
carried out their revolution Arab nationalist leaders should have tried
either to play down the role of associations or to keep them under strict
control or quite simply to abolish them. The State was at the heart of
those leaders' societal projects, and it was its responsibility to take
complete charge of society by educating, caring for and protecting the
poor and the most vulnerable classes and by mitigating social
Associations and Arab political systems: between rejection and instrumentalisation
Today, the impact and the types of State control over associations vary
from one country to another depending on the domestic situation, on the
distinctive characteristics of the political system and on the degree of
democratisation that obtain in each country. Significantly, it is during
periods of severe crisis, when State structures have been weakened or when
a regime seriously lacks legitimacy, that the associative phenomenon most
flourishes. The cases of Algeria, Palestine and Lebanon in wartime are
proof of that. Algeria would seem to be the only Arab country which from a
legal point of view relies on a procedure of declaration and not one of
authorisation. It would be accurate to describe what happened in that
country as a veritable explosion of associations. The social categories
that felt most at threat from Islamist extremism and the Algerian
government were the first to organise themselves. The most active were
women and the Berbers. The associative system, rather than political
parties or the press, seems to be one of the main means of expression for
Algerian society, which tries not to get trapped between the twin poles of
government and Islamism. Most associations oscillate between opposition to
the regime, tactical compromise and forced cohabitation in order to get
subsidies, but it would seem that the vitality of the movement owes
nothing to the solicitude of either the government or international
In the case of Palestine, conflicts which sprang up between Palestinian
NGOs and the newly installed Palestinian Authority confirm the same
hypothesis a contrario. And the ability of NGOs and associations to
intervene in order to solve the population's problems was amply shown in
Lebanon during the war.
As regards the relationship between governments and associations, it
may be said that they range from the strictest control and suppression to
a relative freedom, which does not mean they are not instrumentalized.
Tunisia, Syria and Libya are probably the countries with the greatest
number of such constraints today. In Tunisia, after three years of
relative freedom in the wake of the changeover of 7 November 1987, almost
all associations are now run by activists in the ruling party or
administrative offshoots. Those that have managed to retain a certain
degree of autonomy are subjected to daily harassment and administrative
Legislation in Libya is draconian, and most associations founded since
1991 can function only if the government gives them premises, subsidies
and working staff. In addition to that, they are run by people closely
connected with the regime.
In Syria, the authorities seem to be moving towards an acceptance of
relative freedom as regards associations working in the social and health
sectors at the expense of those that have not yet come into being.
Exceptions are the Committees for the Defence of Human Rights, whose
members were sentenced by the State Security Court in 1992, and the
Association for the Protection of Prisoners, which suffered the same fate
but was not disbanded. The relative freedom granted to the first category
forms part of a strategy to instrumentalise health associations in
particular, in a context where the public health service is ill-organised
and inadequate and every attempt is made to offload a certain number of
State responsibilities as cheaply as possible.
As for Morocco, while there is no denying that the Moroccan associative
movement is currently dynamic and enjoys a relative degree of freedom, one
should not forget the omnipresence and vigilance of the authorities, which
have already proved themselves surprisingly skilled at hijacking social
movements. As was shown by the arrest of activists in Berber associations
in 1994, certain limits of tolerance cannot be overstepped. Similarly,
splits, divisions and rivalries between associations are partly the result
of a strategy on the part of the regime, which tries to position itself as
interface and co-ordinator. The creation of associations by the government
itself – consultative councils whose job is to advise the King, for
example – is one aspect of this strategy aimed at taking over the energies
of civil society. It is also important not to forget that this
liberalisation has taken place because the government has ceased to
perform certain social functions and fears that Islamist movements might
be tempted to get involved in them.
The Egyptian government is also very vigilant in its relationship with
associations, even if the latter enjoy enough room for manoeuvre to be
able to play a major social role. The proliferation of Islamic charitable
congregations in the seventies and eighties was the result of the success
of Islamist ideology. But it also hinged on the following factors: a
certain expression of the tacit compromise with the Islamist movement; a
rapprochement with the Gulf States; and the implementation of social
services by NGOs.
The 1991 earthquake proved to public opinion and the government that
activists in Islamist associations were capable of providing the
population with sustained and effective aid. Today it can no longer be
said that a compromise exists between the regime and Egyptian Islamists.
The upshot has been that new associations have been granted a relative
degree of freedom. Despite the fact that they have no legal recognition
and are registered as "non-trading business firms", organizations to
defend human rights, democracy and women's liberation are allowed to
operate. However, the promulgation of the 1999 law on associations clearly
shows the problematic nature of the relationship between NGOs and the
characteristics of Arab associations
The statistics on associations quoted below throw light on some of
their general characteristics. They show that associations are few in
number and carry little weight; that their sphere of activity is
restricted to cities; that they have strong connections with educated
urban elites; that their relationship with government and the population
is characterised by patronage; and that they are not very democratic in
Available statistics as to their number vary from one country to
another. While it would be accurate to talk of a veritable explosion in
the number of associations in Algeria, where 20,000 of them were set up
within the space of three years, other Arab countries also experienced a
renaissance in the nineties, notably Tunisia (6), Morocco,
Libya (7) and
Other countries, like Egypt and Lebanon, have been steadily creating
associations. The rate in Egypt has been 200 a year. A total of about
15,OOO associations come into being annually. In Lebanon the figure is
250. In other countries, such as Syria, there has been little growth in
the number of associations, and the process of renewal takes place within
the already existing associative network (which consists of some 600
These figures do not mean much in themselves. Egypt, for example, has a
ratio of 0.2 associations per 1,000 inhabitants. What is more, they are
often offshoots of the civil service. This is particularly true of
Tunisia, where two thirds of all associations may be regarded as emanating
from the Tunisian civil service. The same phenomenon exists in Morocco,
where "regional associations" are founded by people close to the royal
palace who have influence in government and in business circles. The same
holds true for Libya and Syria, as well as Jordan, where organizations are
run by members of the royal family.
All the surveys that have been carried out on the geographical location
of such associations show that they are chiefly an urban phenomenon. In
Egypt, almost 20% of them are concentrated in Greater Cairo alone. As for
the "development associations" that are commonly found in rural
governorates, they are mainly bodies set up by regional authorities for
reasons of organizational flexibility or with the aim of attracting
foreign financial aid.
As regards geographical distribution, there have been a number of
exceptions in Morocco, where autonomous associations dedicated to the
rural world have sprung up: they implement electrification schemes,
improve irrigation networks and build schools and clinics. They are
however generally initiated by people from the village community who have
been educated and employed in a city or abroad.
This characteristic of the initiators of associations has been proved
true and given broader validity by a survey of the main factors that
encourage the creation of associations in Egypt. The survey shows that the
creation of associations remains an upper-middle-class phenomenon. The
foundation of associations is made easier by the presence of a high
percentage of university graduates. However, illiteracy and all the main
social indicators in Egypt, which are rather mediocre (academic levels by
governorate, coverage by basic social services, unemployment), are a
factor that works against the creation of associations. This confirms our
earlier remark on the "elitist" nature of associations in that country.
Surveys carried out in other Arab countries point to the same conclusion.
The data on Egypt also tallies with the hypotheses formulated by those
in charge of the Johns Hopkins programme on the "third sector", and in
particular the theory that the growth of the educated middle classes is a
factor that encourages the growth of the "third sector".
Is this general observation also valid for all associations
irrespective of their vocation? Some indicators show that it is indeed a
general phenomenon, but it needs to be qualified in the light of the
summary typology of associations set forth in the first chapter.
As regards the foundation and management of social and charitable
associations with or without any precise community-related
characteristics, it must be recognised that they are chiefly initiated by
prominent figures (who either belong to the elite of the community in the
case of associations connected with Christian minorities and regional
communities, or are political and religious leaders in the case of Islamic
Egyptian regional leagues are usually founded and headed either by
businessmen or by members of parliament from various communities.
Christian groups are run by people connected with the church hierarchy.
The same holds true for Islamic associations in Egypt: for the last two
decades, there have been businessmen who have been Islamic activists, and
Islamist leaders who see charitable and social work as a springboard for
The "new associative forms" share the same characteristics. Indeed it
could be argued that they are even more elitist, as their vocations are
based on a number of values and types of political and social behaviour
that are broadly out of reach of the population as a whole. While the
success of social and charitable activities is largely due to their
acceptance by the authorities, it can also be put down to two other
factors. First, their social services answer vital needs for the majority
of the population; and secondly, they also correspond to the system of
representation of the majority of the population, which sees a close link
between associations and charity. This phenomenon is certainly connected
with Islamic and Christian religious beliefs. In the case of Islam,
mention should once again be made of zakat, sadaqa and the wakfs system.
This factor plays an undeniable role in the funding system. While
associations which look after orphans, the poor and the handicapped
succeed in collecting donations from the public, organizations that are
concerned with human rights, the environment and women's rights are forced
to resort to international aid because people are not on the whole
responsive to those types of causes.
Those who create and are active in associations that are concerned with
raising the civic consciousness of the population need to be highly
trained and educated. Similarly, if they are to have access to
international finance, their leaders need to be figures who have the
calibre to act as an interface between their country and foreign nations.
This explains why the majority of such associations are made up of
top-level elites resident in capital cities.
Moreover, another characteristic of founders and leaders is shaped by
the fact that they are virtually forced to build a "close" relationship
with civil servants and the administration. Because of the important role
played by the State authorities and the regulatory system (authorisation
to collect funds, the compulsory presence of civil servants during annual
general meetings, the possibility of dissolution), the heads of
associations have to make sure they remain on the best possible terms with
those civil servants. This can have certain perverse effects. For
instance, the reform of Egyptian law in 1993 aimed to ban local
association leaders from attending board meetings. The reform was rejected
by a section of the third sector: the associations felt they needed
figures like that if they were to be able to exploit their connections
with the government.
It is vital to keep in mind the fact that associations are often the
point from which aspiring politicians emerge to forge a successful career.
This is not solely true of Islamist leaders. Associations are a way of
broadening grassroots influences that can serve as electoral or political
This is an important aspect when one remembers the difficulties faced
by political parties in the Arab world and the little influence they
wield. Most Egyptian members of parliament are presidents of associations,
whatever their political complexion. Regional leagues negotiate deals
among themselves to support the various candidates. Certain sports groups
in Tunisia play a similar role.
This latter aspect is not characteristic of the Arab world alone. But
it can play a particularly important role when it weakens an association,
which then seems to rely solely on its president and his contacts. The
activities of many associations cease or ease up when their presidents die
or there is a change of leadership. This brings us to the question of
First, it should be noted that associations with a veritable grassroots
membership are quite rare. They are usually associations which have a
political vocation on top of their social vocation. This is the case, for
example, with certain Islamic associations. In other cases, their
activities boil down to the activities of the board, and sometimes even of
its president. This encourages a relationship of patronage based on the
inequality of the association's leaders, its members and the public, as
well as a personalization of the leaders and a general lack of internal
Take for example the regional leagues in Egypt: community leaders also
happen to be the wealthiest people. Their relationship with other members
is based on inequality. What is more, the fact that the creation of the
leagues and part of their funding stem from the personality of their
leaders has the effect of encouraging favouritism between "bosses" and
This observation also holds true of religious associations. They are in
fact based on religious ideologies which make no attempt to call into
question relations of inequality, and which do no more than attempt to
correct some of the evil effects of inequalities, in the name of Christian
charity or of Islam. It is hardly surprising, then, that presidents of
associations stay in office for decades, thus making their jobs
hereditary. Boards are sometimes made up of a majority of people from the
A special mention should however be made of Islamic religious
associations run by Islamist movements (notably the Muslim Brotherhood).
They have a grassroots base and rely largely on voluntary action by
activist members. They also attract young people. This can be seen in
Egypt, in Palestine and Lebanon. The base of grassroots members, who are
inspired by a social, political and religious project, has the effect of
making the running of such associations more "democratic". Their leaders
have to come to terms with grassroots members and allow themselves to be
checked by them. They also propose new patterns of action that are
original compared with the traditional charity of the rich towards the
poor. This process has the effect of enabling associations to put down
roots in their environment, particularly at neighbourhood level.
Take, for example, the way that one such association, the great Gammya
Sharia, runs its scheme to help orphans, which benefits 200,000 children
in Egypt. The philosophy behind the aid system is original. Instead of
sending money orders to the families concerned, the association prefers to
put the orphan into contact with a number of "tutors" who are not
necessarily wealthy. They are people who are representative of various
professions: doctors, hairdressers, dress shop owners, pharmacists and so
on. Contacted when they attend prayers at the mosque, they agree to help
the child in accordance with their skills. The aim is to "create a social
bond" through the mosque and at the same time enhance everyone's status
irrespective of their wealth. Any individual can give something to the
social environment – money, a service, or simply his or her time.
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1. European countries, such as France,
are witnessing important changes in their political systems of action and
management of cities, brought on in particular by decentralisation, a new
territoriality (both European and global) and the diversification of
partnerships. These changes are affecting political legitimacy and the
separation between public and private, and giving rise to more diverse
political action less centred on the State as well as new formal
relationships involving different actors (the State, private enterprise,
local and community interests). See Le gouvernement des Villes, a
collective work directed by F. Godard.
2. For some researchers, the origins of
the political model of the European Nation-State are to be found in
European political and religious traditions well before the 18th and 19th
centuries (Legendre P, Badie B).
3. Some of these hypotheses can be
summarised as following: colonialisation which interrupted the process of
political liberalisation that had begun in some countries at the beginning
of the 20th century; a subsistence economy and no normal
taxation system, which keep citizens from demanding government
accountability; wars and armed conflicts that have increased the
importance of the military; Arab values and customs which result in
individuals preferring their families to politics; lack of autonomy of the
individual, civil society and the bourgeoisie; clan spirit; patriarchal
system of authority that legitimatises the power of the chief; absence of
the idea of the Nation because of the "Islamic Umma or the Arab nation";
dependency of the middle-classes on the State; demographic pressures;
betrayal of the elite classes which are not democratic; Islam, which does
not seem to separate religion from politics; and, finally, the Islamic
movement which does not respect democratic rules.For further reading, see
the important work Démocraties sans démocrates directed by Ghassen
4. Geneva, June 1998.
5. Consult the call for papers made by
the MOST Programme on www.unesco.org/most
6. Tunisia has practically multiplied
by 10 the number of associations. There are now approximately 6700.
7. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of
associations in Libya increased twelve-fold with the creation of 300 new
8. Jordan went from 170 associations in
1987 to 670 in 1996.
Sarah Ben Néfissa is a researcher at the Research Institute for
Development. She is an political and judicial anthropologist, specialised
in the Egyptian Islamic associative sector and has published several
articles on the subject and a reference book: Les Associations en
Egypte. She is a member of the International Society for Third Sector
Research and has edited articles on other subjects such as Egyptian
political parties, informal conflict resolution, political and social
issues of reference, the Islamic Law. She is currently coordinating a
collective work on associations and NGOs in the Arab world.
© UNESCO 2000
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