Confronting shrinking civic space in localisation agendas: Creating an ‘enabling environment’ for Arab philanthropy


Kit Muirhead


Creating an ‘enabling environment’ for civil society organisations (CSOs) to grow and thrive is integral to creating appropriate, meaningful, and impactful localisation approaches.

As a result, many speakers at the Arab Foundations Forum (AFF) highlighted that before genuine approaches to localisation can take place, there is an urgent need to create a safe, supportive, and coordinated space for civil society organisations, and other local actors, such as activists and social movement makers, to conduct their work free from excessive regulation, fear, or hostility.  

In a highly comprehensive and engaging ‘Members Meeting’ Naila Farouky, CEO of the Arab Foundations Forum, highlighted that in the last five years, there has been significant growth in the number of CSOs and foundations across the MENA region. Such actors are instrumental in orchestrating local responses in development policy, including through the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the provision of basic services to the community. Others monitor human rights and environmental abuses and engage in awareness-raising and advocacy efforts to combat local, national, and regional inequalities.  

Despite this recent growth, civil society space across the MENA region has been shrinking and many CSOs and local activists face an ever-growing curtailment of their rights and capacity for action. Migration and asylum seeker policies, counter-terrorism measures, and strict COVID-19 procedures are examples in which MENA governments have used policy to limit the rights and resources available to civil society actors. 

Whilst INGOs also suffer from these restrictive policies and practices, it is local civil society actors that carry the burden in these environments. On day two of the conference, during an ‘AFF Member’s Presentation’, Muna Abbas, CEO of the Asfari Foundation, shared the findings of a research paper detailing the migration of civil society organisations from the Levant region to the Global North. Such a trend is intriguing considering the current, global fixation on achieving ‘localisation’ – i.e., the goal of placing more control in the hands of local actors in development approaches and programs.  

This report found that although local civil society actors are better equipped to navigate complex political environments and assess risks and opportunities on the ground, they are also more vulnerable to the restrictions of national laws that limit funding opportunities. For example, government anxieties over terrorist networks using NGOs for money laundering have resulted in stringent restrictions on the movement of funds for philanthropy and civil action. Delayed and lengthy international transfer processes, the freezing of funds and even the complete closure of bank accounts by the government are unique challenges facing Arab Philanthropy.

Having to register under national laws means that local actors routinely come up against unnecessary and time-consuming bureaucratic hurdles, political intervention in their work and general hostility inflamed by populist rhetoric. In addition, workers in these organisations allegedly face physical attacks, smear campaigns and legal prosecution. In some cases, governments, including those of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, have used security and counter-terrorism laws as a smokescreen to arbitrarily prosecute local NGOs and activists.

Indeed, such struggles were experienced by the Arab Foundations Forum itself, which decided to dissolve its original entity and regional offices based in Jordan and re-establish itself as a non-profit registered in the US. 

Alongside the research of the Asfari Foundation, AFF has taken substantial steps towards better understanding how to tackle some of these challenges. Their landmark 2022 report, An Enabling Arab Civic Space for Resilience, Growth and Sustainability  outlines the need to create sustainable partnerships across government, private and public sectors that break down “mistrust and suspicion”: As outlined by Naila Farouky, in a recent report on building Arab philanthropy infrastructure:

“The reality of having to establish an Arab regional organisation outside of the region to adequately serve the region is confounding, but also highlights the need for more cooperative relationships between the sector and regional governments – one that is built on foundations of trust and respect, rather than one that is punitive and based on suspicion”. 

In building such partnerships, Naila highlights the importance of maintaining the independence of the philanthropy sector, to ensure that “collaboration [is] with governments rather than under governments”. 

In addition, many speakers at the conference highlighted that an enabling environment, that allows for improved, localised giving, cannot operate without data and research that is locally owned and produced. As a result, the AFF has created an Arab Philanthropy Survey to begin grounding data and research within the region itself. The AFF is hoping that the expanding body of research will be used to inform policy and build bridges between governments, NGOs, and philanthropy in the Arab region. 

Finally, these efforts, from both the AFF and the Asfari Foundation promote pressing and critical questions for the broader localisation agenda. Particularly, how do we conceptualise ‘local actors’ when the binary between international and local becomes blurred? As has been the case with the migration of local CSOs from the Levant region to the global north. In designing ‘enabling environments’ for civil society to thrive, it is important to continually question who is doing the defining of the ‘local’ and how these categories are constructed in relation to broader social and political agendas. 

Tagged in: #AFFAM2023

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