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NGOs, Governance and Development in the Arab World - Discussion Paper No. 46
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Management of Social Transformations - MOST
Discussion Paper No. 46

also available in French

The Scout Report for Social Sciences Selection
April 3, 2001
Volume 4, Number 15

NGOs, Governance and Development in the Arab World

Sarah Ben Néfissa

This article was used to prepare the round table "NGOs and governance in the Arab world" that was organised by the UNESCO Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme and held in Cairo on 29-31 March 2000. The author first examines difficulties inherent in the terms NGO and governance, and then focuses on the main issue of the round table which is not "good governance" as such, but the concept of governance itself. The discussion shows how politics can be apprehended differently, going beyond the institutional approach to public action that is strongly centred on a monolithic view of the State. This new perception makes it possible for political analysis to integrate non-governmental actors who nevertheless contribute to (de)regulation, such as prominent citizens and religious, family, regional or business groups, as well as associations and NGOs.

The author also gives an overview of the most important work that both the British and North American and the French scientific communities have recently produced on NGOs, and concludes with a summary of the principal results from the work that is currently underway on NGOs in the Arab world. She points to the difficulties that associations and NGOs in the Arab world are facing to be recognised as true actors of development; all too often they are seen as merely compensating for the shortcomings of the public sector.

Table of contents
    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 instrumentalisation *

    A few characteristics of Arab associations *

    Bibliography *

    Notes *

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?

NGOs 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 NGOs.

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 organisations.

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" emerged.

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).

The analytical dimension of governance and how it affects the perception of politics in the Arab world

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 (Stoker G).

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 cities. (1) 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", etc.

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, Agate P).

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 specified.

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 government institutions.

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 meeting.

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.

NGOs, 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 development.

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 funding.

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 (Ryphman P).

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 Al-Mezalla.

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.

General overview of the associative sector in the Arab countries

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.

The main vocations of associations in the Arab countries: from socio-charitable activity to politics

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 (ed.)].

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 transparency, corruption.

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 psychological stability.

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 acted obstructively.

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.

The historical processes of the birth and evolution of Arab associations: from one elite to another

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 19th century.

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 political parties.

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 inequalities.

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 bodies.

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 checks.

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 authorities.

A few 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 nature.

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 Jordan (8).

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 associations).

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 associations).

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 political activities.

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 platforms.

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 internal relations.

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 democracy.

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 "customers".

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 same family.

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 Salam.

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 ones.

8. Jordan went from 170 associations in 1987 to 670 in 1996.

About the author

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

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of UNESCO.

The frontiers and boundaries on maps published in this series do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by UNESCO or the United Nations.

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