NGOs take on new roles in Iran

Sussan Tahmasebi

Iran has a long, rich history of community participation. A great many Iranians support non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both financially and as volunteers. With an improving environment for NGOs under the Khatami government, traditional community-based organizations (CBOs) and modern NGOs are found in growing numbers all over Iran.

Both CBOs and NGOs are increasingly becoming engaged in more development-oriented activities as well as their traditional charity and relief work.

Traditional CBOs

Traditional CBOs usually provide a variety of charity and relief services at the community level. They cope with disasters and provide social safety nets for deprived groups. Community charity funds (Sandogh-e Qarz-ol-hassaneh) provide interest-free loans to those in need. CBOs have strong roots in Iran’s culture and history of philanthropy, spirit of volunteerism and religious values, which call for care to be given to the less privileged. They receive an impressive level of trust from the communities they serve.

CBOs have been operating in Iran for centuries, surviving despite the repressive policies of the monarchy and the constraints of the Islamic regime. One of the oldest registered Iranian NGOs is the Armenian Women’s Association in Isfahan, established 105 years ago; the oldest was in fact established 150 years ago. The past 20 years have provided a fertile ground for the growth and development of these organizations.

Many CBOs have registered with government agencies in recent years, but many are not registered and operate in a legally informal manner– even some of the larger organizations, which enjoy substantial financial and voluntary support from the community. Exact numbers of CBOs are difficult to estimate. Charity organizations are estimated to number around 3,000 and charity funds around 10,000.

CBOs as agents for development

CBOs hold great promise as potential partners in development efforts as the most genuine and viable people’s organizations, with great knowledge and a wealth of experience, especially in working with disadvantaged communities. Unfortunately, this potential has been neglected by the state, by researchers, by international organizations and by the new NGOs. CBOs have also been excluded from the benefits of new global knowledge and from efforts to create a viable NGO sector in Iran.

Traditional CBOs have been criticized for creating dependence through their emphasis on relief and charity work. In Iran, however, some CBOs have started to look at root causes, adopting innovative strategies and preventive methods of service delivery. Government agencies are increasingly acknowledging the importance of CBOs as development partners and as a sector which can be relied on for the delivery of social services.

Modern NGOs

Many factors have led to the development of modern NGOs in Iran, including Iran’s participation in international conferences, which spurred the creation of many. These modern NGOs’ communication skills have enabled them to create links with government officials and the international community. They are more likely than traditional CBOs to utilize modern approaches, based on research findings and best international practices, in the delivery of social services, advocacy efforts and public awareness campaigns.

Some modern NGOs predate the Islamic revolution in 1979, but they are limited in number and have been criticized for their weak links with the community and limited progress in addressing the root causes of social problems. Nevertheless, successful modern NGOs that have overcome some of these criticisms can be found throughout Iran, largely established in recent years under the leadership of researchers, academics and professionals. A favourable policy environment since Khatami’s election in 1997 has increased considerably the number of youth-initiated NGOs, environmental NGOs and women’s NGOs. Health and population, human rights advocacy and science and technology are three other areas modern NGOs tend to be engaged in.

Modern NGOs are estimated at over 1,000. The real figures are likely to be higher because registration of a new NGO in Iran can take from several months to several years. This means that many modern NGOs have begun their activities despite the fact that their application for registration may be pending.

While CBOs receive their funding from community contributions, modern NGOs receive their funding mostly from their founders, and through membership fees and in lesser amounts from the community, international sources, including the UN, and through government contracts and grants.

Role of NGOs and CBOs in reform efforts

Reform efforts within Iran are much broader than the current struggle for power between political factions. President Khatami has consistently stressed the importance of strengthening civil society in order to achieve a more democratic Iran, responsive to the needs of its citizens. Despite setbacks in reform efforts, his government has taken steps to allow for broader participation of civil society in general and NGOs in particular.

A noteworthy component of discussions on reform centres on reducing the size and role of government in Iran. One of the main proposals set forth by government planners includes creating viable mechanisms for the private sector and NGO sector to take on some of the functions previously carried out by government in the areas of social services delivery and policy development. The Third Five-Year Development Plan includes many proposals for actively engaging the NGO sector and supporting its growth and development. For the first time, funding has been allocated for NGO activities. The Office for Women’s Participation, for example, has supported many NGO activities, including the sponsoring of conferences and research, while the State Welfare Organization has been recruiting NGOs and private sector organizations as contractors to deliver social services to disadvantaged populations.

Under Khatami, government has thus taken on an active role in creating an enabling environment for NGOs. The Ministry of the Interior has partnered with the Iran NGO Initiative[1] and several other NGOs to reform the laws that govern the registration and operation of Iranian NGOs. Currently, there is no single law that governs the operation of NGOs and registration is quite burdensome, with NGOs required to get security clearances before registering. A new bill addressing the legal framework for NGOs will be presented to Parliament within a few months. It is hoped that these reforms will lead to a more enabling legal environment for NGOs.

Entering the policy debate

As the legal environment for NGOs improves, they will be able to work with government to create policies which better meet the needs of Iranian society – a traditional society that is increasingly moving towards modernity. Despite the current legal barriers, NGOs are increasingly advocating for the needs of vulnerable populations, including the poor, children and women, and are beginning to address environmental and health issues and even the more sensitive human rights issues. Progressive family planning policies in Iran, which have received considerable international attention, can be attributed in large part to the advocacy efforts of Iranian NGOs, researchers and medical professionals.

CBOs, because of their strong links with the community and strong religious beliefs, can be in a good position to address socially sensitive issues such as women’s rights and family law. Many CBOs have begun to question the ability of the legal system to address the changing needs of Iranian society, and some have expressed an interest in beginning a dialogue with government officials on this front. Iranian NGOs are actively seeking to find out how NGOs in other countries, both Western and Islamic, have been able to engage government in policy dialogues, and what role NGOs should play in ensuring that the voices of their constituencies are heard.

While the environment for NGOs has improved considerably under the Khatami administration, there remain many problems and constraints. NGOs have been creative in trying to address these issues. A recent NGO conference addressing ‘Barriers to People’s Participation’ hosted a debate between NGO leaders and government officials. The goal of this debate was primarily to address misunderstandings around how to create a more enabling environment for Iranian NGOs.

One positive outcome of the conference was that officials at the Centre for Women’s Participation agreed to halt their current NGO strengthening activities, which centred on promoting the development of new women’s NGOs – a policy which many NGO leaders had objected to because they felt that this should not be the role of government. They agreed to begin a dialogue with NGO leaders and to develop their policies and programmes based on these discussions. The results of this dialogue, as well as the process utilized to achieve these results, will certainly serve as a model for other government agencies in their attempts to develop NGO-friendly policies.

1  The Iran NGO Initiative is an NGO programme designed to strengthen the capacity of Iranian NGOs to serve as equal partners with government in development efforts.

Sussan Tahmasebi has been working with the Iran NGO Initiative for the past 18 months. She will be conducting a study designed to document innovative and best practices used by Iranian NGOs and CBOs. Before that, she worked for eight years with US-based non-profits, primarily in the areas of maternal and child health and children’s issues. For more information on Iranian NGOs, contact Sussan at

Information on NGOs in this article draws upon Baquer Namazi (2000) Non-Governmental Organizations in the Islamic Republic of Iran: A situation analysis UNDP, Tehran.

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