CAIRO: Egyptian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) conducting human rights work are in a bind these days. With local sources of funding almost non-existent, they are being forced to turn to foreign organizations for the funds to pay their expenses. But foreign money has some inherent complications; it opens them up to accusations of being unpatriotic and engaging in suspicious activity.
Unlike NGOs concerned with domestic and charity issues, NGOs that deal with human rights have little chance of receiving any local funding. “On the national level people prefer to donate to NGOs that carry out charity activities, they don’t realize the importance of donating to legal activities, Ehab Sallam, project director of the Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners (HRAAP), said. If I go to a regular Egyptian citizen and tell him to donate for the support of prisoners’ rights he will just stare at me and then walk away.
Ayman Hantish, vice president of the Group for Democracy Development (GDD), adds that even the perception of being against the government can be a deterrent. “Businessmen, who are the ones able to fund such activities, are afraid of funding any project that they think would be anti-government. They don’t want any trouble with the government, he noted.
Even though they have tried, neither the HRAAP nor the GDD have received any local funding since they were established in the mid ’90s. It has been entirely due to foreign funding that they were able to carry out their work over the past 10 years; work that many would argue has contributed to an improvement in Egyptian human rights practices. Ironically, it is also due to this foreign funding that they are attacked.
The most recent example of such an attack was during the preparations for the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections, when NGOs demanded that they should be allowed to play a supervisory role. Government officials and state-affiliated journalists used their foreign funding to undermine the credibility of the NGOs, in what Nabil Abdel Fattah from the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies termed “systematic campaigns for the moral assassination of human rights activists.
The irony of the situation is that although most Egyptians realized that this was just a tactic to avoid supervision, many hold the same view when it comes to foreign-funded NGOs. A view which Abdel Fatah blames the media for. “Through the movies and programs shown on television we have been repeatedly taught that financial cooperation with foreigners is a type of treachery.
“Any foreign funding has conditions, and the NGOs that receive these funds have to act according to them. The West doesn’t give away money out of a benevolent heart, they always want something in return, Ahmed Abdel Qader, a 23-year-old accountant said, adding, “Do you want me to believe that someone who would take a couple of million dollars from some foreign organization is doing it for the sake of the country? These people are agents.
Hantish dismisses as ridiculous the accusations that NGO members are spies. “Our reports mention transgressions that take place and that anyone can find for himself, he said. “Saying that we are helping the West one way or another by exposing these transgressions is nonsense.
The only conditions set by the funding organizations are ones that regulate the process of how the money is spent. “The organizations that fund us don’t impose any conditions; we come up with a project, they consider it from the angles of budget, goals (whether it fits in with the types of projects they fund) and possibility of accomplishment, and then they decide on either accepting it as it is or not, Sallam said. “After the donor agrees to fund us, the relationship between us becomes purely financial. A monthly evaluation is carried out to make sure that the money is being spent in each of the categories agreed upon.
Unfortunately, due to the current circumstances in the region, the overwhelming majority of Egyptians have become paranoid about foreign grants that are used for the implementation of democracy-related practices. “There is an inability to discriminate between regional and local politics and many Egyptians, including intellectuals, tend to summarize the West’s relationship with us into the American-Israeli alliance and link democracy with the American interference in the region, Abdel Fatah said.
However, not only the government is behind attacks on these NGOs. “Islamic groups are also another major force that attack these NGOs for supporting a secular system for human rights, Abdel Fattah said. “They criticize their foreign funds and accuse them of propagating Western values whenever these NGOs report any transgressions carried out by them.
What many people do not realize is that the organizations that fund these NGOs are the same that have been, for decades, funding 75 percent – if not more – of the government-run development-related projects and semi-official organizations, such as the National Council for Women and the National Council for Human Rights, the main ones being USAID and EUROPEAID, followed by the Canadian CIDA, Swiss SDC and the Japanese Embassy.
Not only that, but according to the new law regulating the work of the NGOs, issued in 2002, the responsibility of finding out whether the donating organization is “suspicious lies with the government. “Government officials should not doubt the sources funding us, Sallam stated. “According to the new law, if the funding organization doesn’t have an office in Egypt, it is the government’s job to make sure that it is not a suspicious source before allowing us to make use of the donated money.