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Anomalies that have outgrown their purpose

Sep 15,2018 - Last updated at Sep 15,2018

A source I trust told me recently that the not-for-profit sector in Jordan is the second largest employing sector in Jordan after the public sector. That piece of information took me by surprise, and although I have yet to search for the final numbers to support that conclusion, I was not surprised that the sector is in fact as significant to the economy as both the private and public sectors, especially when one considers the support the donors have given to civil society organisations, as well as the incredible number of registered charities and community-based organisations under this sector, which are reportedly in the thousands.

So, it is also not a surprise that this sector has been under close scrutiny by the government, which obviously wants to control and monitor the flow of money to civil society for security reasons, but also for financial reasons. The government wanted to be able to ensure that funds are not being channelled to terrorist or extremist organisations or even to those it sees as “disrupters”.  Equally, the cash-strapped government wanted to redirect as much of the donor money that it can through its own institutions and service provision mechanisms rather than allow the funds to flow directly from donors to civil society. 

To establish control over what it saw as the unfettered mushrooming and, therefore, increased power and influence of this sector, the government a few years ago established stringent control mechanisms over the flow of donor funding to initiatives by giving itself the authority to deny approvals to the funding of any activity that it sees as out of sync with its own priorities. Of course, this power to allow or disallow activities or funding and the direct supervisory privileges it gave itself also meant that the government could use this mechanism to reward or punish civil society activists and, therefore, pretty much manage the sector’s impact and priorities for action. 

As a result, the not-for-profit sector has slowly metamorphisised away from a focus on development as an objective, which many organisations feared may put them on a collision course with the government, to a more business-y profit-y priority driven by a need to create salaries for the founders and immediate circle of friends and relatives, as well as conduct business albeit masked as seminars, training sessions or advocacy/awareness as well as research and other activities. Under this profit-driven mentality, priorities were less controversial and shied away from dealing with critical intellectual, political and social priorities focusing more on skill development and economic participation. The sector, sadly, gained the reputation of being a sector of “shops” more focused on financial gain than development.

There are significant exceptions and I am in no way undermining the serious commitment of the not-for-profit organisations that understand the role of civil society as a socioeconomic and political mobiliser of action and change, and have committed themselves to the cause. Those organisations will be the first, however, to admit to the challenges they face in dealing with the government and anti-reformists, who target the “good” civil society organisations to undermine their effort, scuttle their funding or shed doubt over their motives.

The reason I am describing this quite gloomy picture of the not-for-profit sector is to provide a preamble to a controversy that gripped social media this weekend. A parliamentarian had put a question to the prime minister about the activities and funding of an organisation carrying the name of Her Majesty Queen Rania. The administrators of the Queen’s twitter account questioned the name, asking the parliamentarian which organisation he was referring to.

What ensued was a stream of arguments and counter arguments, some credible and others really quite incredible. But behind this “discussion” was an undercurrent that should be seen within the context of this sector’s reputation and purpose. 

Many of the commentators expressed an underlying frustration with national NGOs which have royal patronage and they believe have been allowed to form a layer in the not-for-profit sector that is “profiting” from unrestricted donor funds and government-provided privileges but is not held accountable to the same degree or standards imposed on other organisations.

If one discounts the few loud voices that have used the Twitter comment to disrupt or lash out in order to serve a certain political narrative, the mainstream of the criticism is not personal but is in fact an attempt to increase transparency and accountability and, therefore, include the so-called Royal NGOs under the same regulations and laws that govern other organisations engaged in similar work. This mood comes at a time when the country as a whole appears to be heading in the direction of institutionalising and streamlining systems and processes in order to remove any ambiguity over flow of funds and equitable distribution of authority and privilege.

Many of what I call “anomalies” that we have come to accept and normalise are under discussion today in Jordan. Some of those anomalies are culturally or politically driven and have been traditionally accepted as necessary, and an integral part of how we operate and maintain stability and healthy political equilibrium. But many argue that many of those anomalies must be periodically revisited to see whether what was necessary in earlier years of the formation of state and served an important purpose at that time is still necessary today. 

The NGOs that have royal patronage were initially formed to give support and focus attention on sectors that needed prioritisation and international exposure in order to draw funding and popular acceptance. The civil society sector was still immature and it was believed that lending the stature of a royal patron to a worthy cause would highlight the importance of that sector to the Jordanian society, as well as attract funds from abroad and among the wealthy in the country. This practice is not unique to Jordan and is seen the world over where high-profile benefactors are associated with issues in order to increase awareness of their importance and fundraise. To support that effort, governments the world over also gave these organisations tax exemptions and certain privileges to facilitate their mission.

What many Jordanians feel today is that the elevated position, with regards to exposure to donors and the associated exemptions provided by the government, that was given to NGOs with royal patronage needs to be recalibrated in light of the increased knowledge and experience of the not-for-profit sector in general in Jordan and the proliferation of donors in Jordan, who are very familiar with the environment and, therefore, are able to locate and fund civil society directly.  

They worry that these organisations are also falling within the trap of seeing their activity as profit-making and, therefore, are being managed as a business with privileges. There have been increased calls that these and other NGOs and civil society organisations need, therefore, to review the way they operate and devise plans to become sustainable, self-funding and able to operate under the same rules as their civil society counterparts and that their whole operation is therefore made public and shared transparently.

This mood can be seen as a positive opportunity to look critically at where we are, how we operate and obviously how we need to move forward in order that we take account of the change around us and tune ourselves more closely with the mood in the country. 

I know that many were perturbed by the conversations that erupted over Twitter and other social media channels. However, many believe that seen from the right perspective and with the right attitude, Jordan may be witnessing a healthy trend of open dialogue and I want to dismiss from that the unconstructive tone of some of the comments, that will ultimately move the country forward in the corrective path that His Majesty King Abdullah has called for many times and which the government as well as Jordanians have publicly said they are committed to pursuing.

 

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