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Iraqi Civil Society Struggles To Stay Relevant, Effective

With millions of dollars of foreign aid pouring into Iraq toward civil organizations since 2003, it is time to examine how effectively this money is being used.

Now that more than 10 years have passed since Iraq’s liberation from dictatorship, observers can assess civil life in the country. Civil society organizations, of which there are around 7,000 according to some statistics, represent an important part of the new life in Iraq. However, only 1,770 organizations met the conditions for registration set by the nongovernmental (NGO) law that was passed in 2010. Among these conditions is to have a permanent headquarters, keep clear records of income and expenses and maintain specific administrative bodies. These conditions, if only to a minor extent, help to weed out thousands of phantom organizations that do not play a genuine role in this shattered country.

Civil society organizations can be divided into four main categories in terms of funding sources and size of expenditures. The first category consists of charitable organizations, which receive funds from religious institutions or political parties. These political parties benefit from the publicity provided by the civil society organizations that are affiliated or collaborate with them, especially during elections. For example, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq distributed blankets in poor Shiite areas ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections, through the Al-Mihrab Martyrs Foundation, which is a charitable organization affiliated with the party. Although this case stirred up a scandal and captivated the public, such tactics have become part of the Iraqi political scene. 

The second category consists of anti-government leftist NGOs. These NGOs have organized dozens of demonstrations, mostly following the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2010. Some of these demonstrations were characterized by ambiguous subjects and slogans, such as the protests that took place on Feb. 25, 2011. Others showed how far they are from the concerns of the Iraqi street, such as those supporting the military coup against Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on June 30. There are other demonstrations with demands that are organized and influential such as those held on Aug. 31, demanding the cancellation of exorbitant pensions and privileges provided to members of parliament. These NGOs do not look for large funds, given that their activity is limited to the presence in the street and on Facebook.

The third category can be called “salon organizations,” which are forums, conferences, seminars and media outlets that appeal to the elite. Their attendance does not necessarily reflect to what extent they are rooted or represent genuine groups of Iraqi society. It seems that such organizations are well-experienced in dealing with international organizations and Western embassies, and are the most significant product of US aid given to civil society organizations during their presence in Iraq. During a ceremony to choose the best investigative report in the oil and energy press, held in Baghdad on May 5, 2013, and attended by an Al-Monitor correspondent, Lucy Shang, a senior democracy adviser at the US Embassy in Baghdad, said that this aid amounted to nearly $850 million. This puts the effectiveness of these funds into question.

The last category of civil society organizations represents those that do the impossible amid a climate of violence and mistrust to achieve their stated objectives. Such organizations seek to receive money through donations or subscriptions, which means that they are often small organizations. Masarat for Culture & Media Development is one of those ambitious organizations that seeks to protect minorities — such as Christians, Baha'is, Yazidis and others — by raising awareness of the dangers of losing religious and national diversity in the country. 

Finally, the question remains: What are the advantages of the random provision of aid by donors, and its role in creating favorable conditions for corruption, while real civil activity in Iraq is absent in donors’ eyes?

Ali Taher is an Iraqi doctoral student in social and political science at Baghdad University, specializing in ethnic and nationalist identity.

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