US funding of local civil society draws criticism

United States funding of civil society organizations, a controversial matter among pro-democracy activists in recent years, has become an even trickier issue with the lack of information on non-governmental organizations’ financial resources, in addition to the policies of US aid agencies that seem at times to favor the government. What’s more, under current laws and with the government careful to keep such organizations in check, there’s little room for freedom.

The problem is two-fold. The first concern lies in groups taking money from government or government-funded organizations, which, in the eyes of many, including director of human rights center ANHRI Gamal Eid, only helps the latter maintain its tight grip on political reform and human rights advocacy.

"Not just that–sometimes NGOs pretend to be independent, taking money from US aid agencies with one hand and from the government with another while furthering a pro-government agenda," said Eid.

Lawyer and head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Hafez Abu Saada said that government money is always tied to conditions, including regular reports to the government about its activities. "Of course there’s a risk of being placed under the scrutiny of the government if any kind of aid is received through it," he said. "They ask you what you’re doing, and why. Why would any pro-democracy group want that?"

Funding or not, there are already examples of human rights and advocacy organizations in Egypt that have mysteriously taken up pro-government stances on certain issues. Maat, a Cairo-based center "for peace, development and human rights," has, for instance, staunchly criticized the 6 April pro-democracy movement for calling for a national strike as a stand against political oppression and government corruption.

Maat published statements in April 2009, four days before the strike action, condemning it, despite the fact that strikes are a legitimate form of protest, calling it a "deception" of the Egyptian people. The 6 April strike the previous year had been endorsed by several independent political movements, human rights groups and opposition parties, and had gained popularity through social networking websites. But instead of supporting it, Maat described such actions as the work of "a devil controlling the action from beneath a veil" and "a lost battle"–a questionable stance from an organization supposedly mandated with safeguarding people’s rights.

Maat’s director, Ayman Ukeil, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that his center was not against strikes, but against the 6 April strike in particular, "because of the form that it took." He said that human rights groups had an obligation not to act like parties but as independent organizations. "We have a ceiling to what we can do [set to us by law] and it’s that we shouldn’t act like we’re a political group, party or syndicate … we don’t defend governments, but we’re not political podiums." 

Maat denied being funded by any government office, as some rights groups had claimed in the wake of its attack on 6 April’s 2009 strike. According to Ukeil, its current director, "all the money comes from America" and from other sources, such as the Jordan-based Future Foundation, which, according to Abu Saada, is "not exactly government and bears no relation to its namesake within the ruling party" in Egypt, but it’s still "a coalition of government [bodies] and civil society organizations."

"The press doesn’t have any right to view our expenses. It’s up to us if we decide to reveal them. But there’s no obligation," Ukeil said.

Almost all organizations keep their expenses and money sources out of the public domain, since Egyptian law does not oblige them to disclose their financial accounts to the public or press. So oftentimes it would be hard to link their political stances with the way they are funded, according to Eid. The same organizations are also not obliged to reveal all their sources of funding to the public or press, so they rarely do.

But money is not the only source of influence. By law, any aid received by an entity inside Egypt must be cleared in advance by Egypt’s State Security apparatus, the Ministry of Social Affairs and the Central Accounting Office. Financial reports have to be scrutinized by the government, according to Ukeil, and, theoretically, the government has the power to freeze the activities of a civil society organization if it decides that it is wasting money or overspending. Such decisions can only be appealed in court.

The second concern is US aid agencies, which place no restrictions on how their aid recipients are funded by other sources and whose changes in funding levels and trends sometimes reflect US politicking in the region.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) published its October 2009 report explaining that governance program efforts had been unnoticeable. USAID’s audit report said that only 52 percent of targets had been achieved in 2008, while only 62 percent of planned activities were completed.

However, a 2008 report by the Project on Middle East Democracy by project director of advocacy Stephen McInery on democracy, governance and human rights in the Middle East highlighted the changes in funding patterns based on US President Barack Obama’s budget request for the fiscal year 2009, and criticized the apparent shift in commitment to pro-democracy advocates by the US–even before the cuts were officially announced.

McInery, citing a 12 percent decrease in overall assistance to Egypt, said that one of the past US concerns that led to cutting aid was the perception that "funds sent to Egypt are used primarily to support and strengthen Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) and its allies, effectively nullifying any intended effect of building pluralism or political competition."

The advocacy director said that one of the main steps to control this had been taken in recent years. He pointed to an amendment passed in 2004 giving USAID the authority to "distribute aid directly to independent organizations without the approval of the Egyptian government." The idea behind the amendment was to reduce the influence of government on such organizations and to prevent it from picking and choosing which civil society groups should receive aid.

However, the newly announced USAID policy has offered a more restrictive funding procedure than what has been enacted in recent years. In addition to slicing pro-democracy funding to Egypt almost by half, it made it conditional that only organizations officially registered with the Egyptian government will be eligible to apply for aid–a notion that suggests that the government may indeed get veto powers over who receives US money, which in principle defies what the US had tried to achieve only five years earlier when it approved the amendment, and which, according to McInery, "would greatly impair US efforts to reach Egyptian civil society."

"Many civil society groups, fearing heavy-handed interference by the government in their affairs, choose not to register as an NGO, but instead register as a civil corporation, opting to forfeit their tax-exempt status in order to be free of Egyptian government regulation and interference," explained McInery. "The Egyptian government has been particularly angered by US government funds that have been disbursed to several of these ‘civil corporations,’ which the Egyptian regime considers to be in violation of Egyptian law."

Some say that, if anything, the move to lift some pressure off the government, perhaps at the expense of civil society organizations, is political in nature. "Considering that, for the past decade, this was never applied, the change in policy can only be explained as part of US Ambassador Margaret Scobey’s efforts–a sort of a favor to Egypt–to turn the page after years of difficult relations during the Bush administration," independent analyst and writer Issandr el-Amrani said.

Even proponents of registration for non-government organizations, like Abu Saada, said there must be some legislative changes to ensure that the government doesn’t misuse this right to endorse or refuse registration. He agreed that the new aid policies were meant to take pressure off the Egyptian regime. "It looks like the US has accepted the Egyptian’s government’s point of view, namely, that our situation is unique and that development is inevitably slow here–and that perhaps big radical changes will shake the system and help the Muslim Brotherhood [opposition group] take power."

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