Developing Civil Society and Economy in the Mena Region

Developing Civil Society and Economy in the Mena Region


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Original: English

NATO Parliamentary Assembly

developing civil society and economy in the mena region

Draft Report

Vahit Erdem (Turkey)


International Secretariat 19 June 2007

*Until this document has been approved by the Mediterranean Special Group, it represents only the views of the Rapporteur.

Assembly documents are available on its website,



II.Civil society in the MENA region

III.Economic development of the MENA region

IV.Western developmental aid and civil society support for the MENA region

A.International organizations and initiatives

B.Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)

C.Own initiatives of the MENA region

D.(Western) Government initiatives in the MENA region

E.Educational and academic exchange

F.Case study: the lebanese reconstruction

V.New approaches to Islam and development cooperation


VII.References and Sources


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I. Introduction

1. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region as well as the Gulf states are a politically and economically heterogeneous group of countries that are often incorrectly characterized as a collection of relatively homogenous states, sometimes addressed with a singular policy approach. This flawed approach may have taken hold because of the assumed common religious, cultural and ethnic profiles of the region's nations, and a range of shared political, security, diplomatic, and economic challenges. Nonetheless, since it is difficult to discuss an entire region in detail, the report acknowledges that the region is heterogeneous but tends to face similar challenges and problems.

2. This report attempts to address recent civil society and economic developments in the MENA and Gulf region, looks at Western and international developmental aid in these fields towards the region and gives recommendations on how existing policies and initiatives could be refined and improved.

II. Civil society in the MENA region

3. There are many definitions of what constitutes civil society and various different opinions about whether political parties, family and clan structures etc. should be included. Two definitions are quoted below at length and will serve well in the context of civil society activities in the MENA region addressed in this report.

4. According to the Centre for Civil Society at the London School of Economics (LSE), “Civil society refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organisations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy group.”

5. According to the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) 2002 of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Civil society, lying between the individual and the state, comprises groups (organized or unorganized) and individuals interacting socially, politically and economically and regulated by formal and informal rules and laws. Civil-society organizations (CSOs) are the host of associations around which society voluntarily organizes. They include trade unions; non-governmental organizations (NGOs); gender, language, cultural and religious groups; charities; business associations; social and sports clubs; cooperatives and community development organizations; environmental groups; professional associations; academic and policy institutions; and media outlets. Political parties are also included although they straddle civil society and the state if they are represented in parliament.

6. The benefits of a strong civil society in a given country are obvious. According to the United Nations Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR), “Civil society organizations may provide checks on government power. In doing so, they may contribute to better governance by enhancing the accountability and transparency of the political system. The CSOs may also contribute to policy formulations, safeguard rights, articulate interests, and deliver social services. In doing so, they may enhance efficiency and participation in public affairs and strengthen the rule of law, other characteristics of good governance. Media institutions, for instance, have sometimes, where they enjoy reasonable freedom of expression, indeed become important vehicles of accountability, transparency, and participation, benefiting and representing the citizenry more effectively than the official legislative organs of government.”

7. The four Arab Human development reports (AHDR; 2002-2005), written by Arab academics and UN professionals for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) present the major obstacles that the development of a healthy civil society in Arab states currently faces. The AHDRs assess the MENA region in terms of education levels, literacy rates, gender equality, life expectancy, health, transparency and democratic structure of public institutions and other indicators and link these factors to development in general. In many of these areas, the MENA region has done poorly. The reports directly associated development with the problems of governance, politics, women's rights, health care and education matters. However, one has to be careful about these much-quoted reports. Political pressure has been exercised by the US government during the writing process, because negative effects on the development of the region were partly blamed on the occupation of Iraq and Palestinian territories by the US and Israel.

8. Regarding the two issues of this report - economic development and civil society - one has to acknowledge firstly that the different countries of the region are far from being homogeneous and cannot be treated with a one-size fits all approach. While the economic development in the Gulf States is thriving, civil society participation remains low. On the other hand, Lebanon, for example, has a lively civil society with almost 5,000 NGOs but suffers from economic problems resulting from a number of current and historical conflicts.

9. To analyze civil society activities and actors, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies suggests five categories for civil society actors in Arab countries: (1) leisure and socializing activities, (2) social assistance and social service delivery, (3) knowledge oriented activities, (4) societal interest representation and (5) public interest advocacy. While the majority of activities today in the MENA region are concentrated on the first three categories, especially social welfare, the last two have more political implications. POGAR mentions industry associations, trade unions, commercial associations, employers’ associations, professional associations, media institutions, non-governmental organizations, and officially recognized human rights organizations and political parties as the most relevant civil society elements and actors.

10. Unfortunately, systematic data on CSOs activities, members and societal impact are still very limited in the MENA region. To compare simply the (often estimated) numbers of exiting NGOs in a certain country says little about their relevance and impact. With some hesitancy, however, it is possible to say that countries such as Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon and Yemen have a relatively large number of NGOs, while there are few to none in the Gulf States, Sudan, and Syria.

11. When examining the relations between Arab states and their CSOs, there are again wide variations. In closed and autocratic states like Libya, Syria and several Gulf States, NGOs and any kind of independent CSO is suppressed and prohibited. Where they do exist, they are often completely controlled by the State. States like Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, on the other hand are recently opening their systems to more civil society participation, and have a growing number of organizations that are becoming autonomous from state-control. States like Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon and also the Palestinians have large and active civil societies that are – at least compared to the other countries in the region - allowed to work relatively freely. The relevant laws concerning CSOs are the Association Laws, NGO Laws, Media and Press Laws, Syndicate and Political Party Laws that exist in most MENA countries or are currently written or changed. Next to these laws, administrative measures often forbid, restrict or strongly regulate activities of CSOs and leave much room for the state to intervene and prohibit their activities, foe example through the registration and licensing processes of associations. Sometimes political decisions simply overrule legal and administrative regulations. In some countries, like Egypt, the declared state of emergency has become almost permanent which allows the executive branch to limit various freedoms.

12. While there are many outside factors effecting or preventing the work of CSOs, the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies also notes the internal limitations of existing organizations in MENA countries, including a generally weak contemporary culture of civic participation, a structural and financial dependency on the state, as well as weak internal capacities, democratic structures and ideological fragmentations.

13. While the AHDR in 2003 observed a rather negative trend concerning state-civil society organisations in many Arab countries and gave a rather pessimistic outlook, the AHDR 2005 clearly notes a growth of activism in CSOs throughout the Arab world and observes a “qualitative leap in the pace, scope and impact of their activities”. They became in general more visible and self-confident with their positions and made increased use of – where existing - independent press, satellite television channels and in public rallies.

14. It is justifiable to say that in the past years, CSOs in MENA countries in general have gained influence in several countries. Both through national initiatives and through the international and Western influence, “civil society” has become an integral part of Arab political discourse. NGOs were able in the last years to raise political issues that included electoral processes, human rights, women’s rights, transparency and corruption, health systems, environmental issues, justice and public information.

15. One prominent example is the Egyptian “Kifaya! (Enough!)” movement that openly opposed the Egyptian President’s re-election and the transfer of power to his son. The movement included various political alliances, the Muslim Brotherhood and CSOs that declared their solidarity with the movement. Another example is Syria, where different opposition groups issued the “Damascus Declaration” demanding that the ruling party adopt constitutional changes and other political changes. In Bahrain, political and civil society associations signed a statement in 2005 rejecting an anti-terrorism bill that they saw as a threat to their recently gained freedom of expression, opinion and action. In Sudan, widespread activity by political and CSOs to implement the peace agreement and approve a new constitution guaranteeing public freedoms could be observed. In Jordan, unions protested against a new bill on professional associations, which would reduce the current limited but existing rights of free expression and assembly. In Saudi Arabia, Arab and international human rights organisations asked the new King to release prisoners that had served their terms, and the King granted this.

16. The AHDR 2005 also positively mentions the increased female participation in CSOs. According to the report, their more visible presence helps to re-educate society to accept an active female presence and contributes to replacing the traditional feminine stereotype. A growth of mainly online networks can also be observed. Examples are the Arab Regional Resource Centre on Violence against Women (AMAN), the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, the International Bureau for Humanitarian NGOs (IBH), the Sada web site for the defence of rights and freedoms and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (Links see References in the end).

17. Some Western countries fund CSOs as part of developmental aid as well as for serving their own political agendas, while often bypassing the foreign national governments. Some examples and actors are mentioned in the following chapters. This has sometimes led to drastic reactions of Arab governments and to debates about whether Western funding should be accepted by foreign CSOs, without government consent. Another question that arises is how much Western funding influences foreign politics and cultures to follow Western values.

III. Economic development of the MENA region

18. In the field of economics, it is important to bear in mind that economic structures in MENA countries vary and that each country faces different problems. Nevertheless, economies in the MENA region can roughly be divided into two types: the rentier model economies and the semi rentier models. The rentier model, especially apparent in the Gulf states, almost completely depends on the selling oil and distributing parts of the revenue to citizens (a fact that leads analysts to correctly refer to “the oilfare states” instead of “welfare states”). An important exception is Algeria, where there are high revenues from oil but little re-distribution. The semi-rentier states in the rest of the MENA region depend on back-transfers from their nationals working abroad, foreign aid and outside loans. An exception to this rule would be Tunisia. Among the most serious economic problems that countries in the region face in varying degrees are economic stagnation, a rapid population growth, inadequate education, as well as the availability of water and other natural resources.

19. In a recent paper on economic reform in the Arab World, the Carnegie Middle East Center calculated various economic figures for 2005. According to the paper, Arab countries only make up 5.5 % of global exports, 90% of which comes from oil. The MENA countries have the highest unemployment rate in the world, with an average of more than 12% in 2006. The GDP has declined in many of the countries over the last few years while the productivity remains low.

20. Economic reforms have been on the political agenda of many Arab countries in the past. The Carnegie paper suggests mainly three reasons why these economic reforms so far had only limited success. The reasons include the lack of a common understanding what reform means. International organisations, Western governments, populations and governments of MENA countries all have a different idea of what economic reform means and how to measure it. Second, the MENA countries lack the capacity and commitment to reform economies. A third reason is that the established elites have resisted and obstructed economic reform that, especially when it is linked to political reform, might be seen as harmful to their positions. Sometimes the Arab-Israeli conflicts are also used as an excuse for the delay of economic reforms in countries that are not directly involved in the conflict.

21. While economic reform can hardly be undertaken without political and institutional reform, different approaches and schools of thought exist about the link between the two. The EU’s Barcelona process, for example, aims for a simultaneous political, social and economic development, while other states and actors set clear priorities for either institutional-political or economic reforms first.

22. Other economic problems of the MENA region are its weak integration into the international economy and its low level of intra-regional trade. The economies are among the most heavily protected in the developing world. With the global competition growing fiercer, the MENA region will find it more and more difficult to compete with other countries and regions in any field.

23. The level of Western and foreign direct investment in general in the MENA region is extraordinarily low. Among the reasons are perceived and real political uncertainties and instabilities, poorly structured equity markets, a relatively low level of private business activity, inadequate worker training, administrative complications and the level of corruption.

24. In some countries an insufficient and old infrastructure is an obstacle for economic development. While roads, communication systems etc. are well-developed in the Gulf states and in Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco, there are shortcomings in some other countries. The widespread use of mobile telephones in all MENA countries, however, has compensated the former communication insufficiencies.

25. The MENA and to a lesser extent the Gulf region suffer from a brain drain. Scientific and academic research and development spending is low throughout the MENA region. With some exceptions, academia in general suffers from problems with funding, institutional structures and a political environment that restricts scientific dialogue. Like in many other regions in the world and also several European states, this causes a brain drain in the MENA region that looses its best educated parts of the population to Europe and especially the US. There is also an intra-Arab brain drain and work migration towards the oil-rich Arab Gulf states.