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Iranian teachers fill gap between state, society after floods

Teachers in Iran have played an important role in relief efforts in the wake of recent flooding, shining a light on the impact of Iranians' mistrust of the state.
Damaged vehicles are seen after a flash flooding in Shiraz, Iran, March 26, 2019. Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY - RC16EE5DB1C0

Although governments are responsible for dealing with natural disasters, individual and collective relief efforts by citizens cannot be overlooked. Indeed, the effectiveness of private relief endeavors in past decades in Iran has paved the way for more and better public engagement in humanitarian efforts, most notably through NGOs. The devastating flooding last month in northeastern and southwestern Iran is a reminder of how the socio-cultural context of Iranian society has long fostered a tendency to come to the aid of fellow citizens affected by natural disasters.

The participation in relief efforts by celebrities, artists, athletes and politicians as well as various social, political and civil groups and guild associations reflects the humanitarian sentiment found across Iranian society. Along with the recent flooding, in which dozens were killed and the damage is estimated at around $2.5 billion, another event illustrative of eliciting individual and organized action is the 2017 earthquake in western Kermanshah province that left hundreds dead and major destruction in towns and villages.

Unfortunately, a historical division between state and society as well as deep-rooted misunderstandings between the two have largely prohibited governmental organizations from partnering with civil society groups and has placed serious obstacles in the way of civil society taking effective action. In numerous cases, this has created considerable difficulties for humanitarian efforts to help disaster-stricken people. 

In addition to specialized NGOs that assist people in crisis, teachers guilds becoming active in providing relief to victims of natural disasters has been a growing trend in recent decades. For example, after the Kermanshah earthquake, Kanoon Senfi, a teachers guild organized through its regional branches as well as nationwide to provide monetary and non-monetary aid, including more than 100 container homes for use as temporary shelter, with 16 of them designed as temporary schools. Following the recent flooding, thousands of relief shipments, including food, clothing and health-related items have also been distributed.

Why would guilds, whose intrinsic purpose is the pursuit of its members' professional demands, become involved in relief efforts? What is the significance of such interventions?

The divide between state and society in Iran has social, economic and political roots dating back many years and has been exacerbated more recently primarily as a result of economic pressures. This division has led to a mistrust of state bodies responsible for relief efforts to the extent that in some cases representatives of organizations and others prefer to travel to affected regions themselves to deliver aid in person. Many NGOs prefer to act independently and manage the process of collecting, transferring and distributing humanitarian aid themselves.

In this regard, Kanoon Senfi organized four centers charged with assessing the needs of people affected by the April flooding and ensuring the just and respectful distribution of humanitarian aid. The Kanoon Senfi branch in a city near those suffering flood damage has been responsible for dispatching truckloads of supplies in accordance with information on people's needs collected by the four aforementioned centers.

Several considerations are noteworthy in reference to the significance of the active engagement of teachers guilds in relief efforts. First and foremost, according to various surveys, teachers have in the past several decades been among the most trusted social groups in Iran. This sentiment should be viewed together with Iranians' historic mistrust of the state, as it directly influences the extent of humanitarian assistance collected.

Second, in the absence of strong and inclusive NGOs, organizations with networks comparable to those of schools and teachers are rare among Iranian civil society. Therefore, teacher activism in emergency situations can be more efficient than the efforts of other professional groups and associations.

Third, the job of a teacher is mostly seen as sticking to the curriculum, but Iranian teachers have taken a giant step forward in highlighting moral and humanitarian values, potentially leading to long-term changes in perspective among students as well as their families.

Not all organizations that take it upon themselves to participate in relief efforts do so as independently as Kanoon Senfi. For instance, Anjoman-e Eslami Moalleman (Islamic Association of Teachers) and Sazman Moalleman (Teachers’ Organization), which have close ties to the Reformist political camp, prefer to channel aid through governmental organizations.

Tahereh Naghiei, secretary general of Sazman Moalleman, has asserted in regard to the provision of aid, “We should act in a way to ameliorate the division and mistrust between the people and the government and to reinforce the government and governmental bodies responsible for relief efforts. Having a sole headquarters during crises will improve the effectiveness of [relief] activities and bring the people and the government closer in the long term, leading to favorable social and political consequences.”

She further explained, “As our branches across the country are free to choose a form and type of aid, few of them have participated in relief efforts. But we believe that in order to prevent disorganization, there should be reinforcement of the Iranian Red Crescent Society and other governmental bodies as responsible entities.”

Laborers also engaged in the recent flood relief efforts. Although workers are considered one of the largest civil society groups in Iran, they have not formed nationwide guilds. They have nonetheless joined aid efforts as individuals and as groups. For example, workers at several factories dedicated part of their salaries to helping flood victims. Furthermore, laborers at the Heavy Equipment Production Company dispatched a team to repair dredging equipment and heavy vehicles free of charge. Although such efforts are helpful, when compared to those of teachers, the lack of a nationwide organization as well as proper communication about collective actions are obvious hindrances.

In short, the involvement of teachers in the provision of humanitarian aid in Iran stems from the social status of their profession, historical mistrust between state and society and the extensive organizational capabilities of teachers associations. With economic pressures on ordinary Iranians seemingly increasing mistrust of authorities, this trend will likely continue.

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