Civil Society Organizations in Syria Hindered by Corruption

Civil society organizations working in Syria are often ineffective.

al-monitor UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks to the media after the first day of the International Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria in Bayan Palace, Kuwait, Jan. 30, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Stephanie McGehee.

Topics covered

syrian, ngo monitor, ngo

Jun 14, 2013

Since protests broke out in Syria in early 2011, a lot of names of entities have emerged. These include entities related to anti-regime political movements, and other civil [entities] that seek not to represent a political movement or political system, but rather to monitor the regime’s violations against Syrian citizens.

Yet, the establishment of these institutions has encountered several obstacles, including funding and internal corruption issues, conflicts of interest, inexperienced staff and multiple intellectual projects.

Funders with particular goals

The most important indicator to measure the effectiveness of civil society is certainly its financial independence from all forms of internal or external political and economic authorities. Whenever [civil society] takes advantage of funding, regardless of its size and source, this damages the legitimacy of its independence. Wherever there is official or foreign funding, there will be conditions imposed by foreign funders, along with undeclared goals they seek to achieve.

Sobhi F., the 28-year-old director of a Syrian civil affairs organization who resides in Beirut, says, "The majority of civil society organizations are subject to conditions put in place by donor parties, in order to obtain financial resources for their activities. They also prefer to conduct activities funded by foreign parties in the field of women's rights, transitional justice and youth affairs, instead of carrying out activities designed to fulfill the urgent local needs required at this stage. This has turned these associations into instruments carrying out the strategic plans of governmental agencies and Western countries. Therefore, civil society is no longer an independent authority that stands between the individual and the state [with the objective of] reducing authorities’ abuses and urging them to meet the citizens’ needs.”

He adds, “There are often no specific conditions worth noting. While usually ‘the devil is in the details,’ as they say, the devil of foreign funding of NGOs is in the bigger picture, and in the long-term consequences at the socio-political level.”

Suspicious deals

Civil activist Nidal Bitari stated: “Civil society has become one big market. Some have become experts in attracting funds; they now have offices known as ‘clearing offices’ whose mission is to prepare projects and programs. They have good ties with European and American donors and they find funding for various associations, in exchange for a percentage of the allocated sum, ranging between 25% and 35%. On the other hand, a number of those employed by donor parties make it easier for organizations to obtain donations, to which they apply once they are submitted to the evaluation and decision committees. [This is] in return for a percentage of money — ranging from 20% to 30%, based on how large the funding amount is — that will be distributed to many individuals within the donor party.

According to Nidal: “The clearance offices’ role has increased in [how] organizations obtain the funding, after women’s and children's rights, gender [equality] and election-monitoring organizations joined [the game] to receive the largest sums of money offered by donors.”

Ahmed S., a 35-year-old employee at a Syrian civil society organization in Turkey, confirmed what Nidal had said that “civil society organizations have become ‘a stock market’ subject to supply and demand, where subcontracting takes place in the name of partnership. Here, subcontractors reduce the salaries of the project’s workers by half, and sign receipts that include large sums. The project’s supervisors receive the financial difference, and manipulate hotel reservations. Some donors complained that certain organizations established human rights centers and bubble companies to manage the donations. They [the organizations] assign [to these companies] the organization of workshops and seminars, as part of their funded activities until they seize the sums allocated [to them] for dealing with these companies, and do not spend them in the right place.”

He adds: “Nowadays, civil society organizations are once again lodging complaints to foreign donors against each other, to prevent a number of them from being able to access financing. Meanwhile, a number of them have sought to take control of the sources of foreign funding by hindering their competitors’ activity, rigorously exercising the same activities to exclude them from the work scene and trying to find loopholes in their scientific production in terms of training guides, books and projects. Moreover, some of the heads of organizations tried to tarnish the reputation of recently established organizations to stop them from working and prevent them from obtaining foreign grants, alleging that the various Syrian opposition entities established them to intervene in the civil activity movement.”

Initiatives worthy of support

Following the liberation of most of Raqqa province at the beginning of March 2013, civil activity and human rights bodies started to be established in the city, in an attempt to play a role in civil society and to protect Syrians’ rights and their ability to make their own decisions, decide the fate of their country, defend society and its peaceful stability, implement supervision and draw out their own itinerary. “A Movement for Our Rights” and the “Free Raqqa Youth Gathering” are among these movements and organizations. The activities carried out by A Movement for Our Rights are concentrated on the formation of a democratic state, the positions of authority which must be filled by civilians and on excluding the military from political, social and economic decision-making. According to this latter, a state must distance itself from sectarian, ethnic or national disparity. This means that a state must be established on a national basis, abide by the rules of peaceful and democratic transfer of power through the ballot boxes and it must safeguard its constitution drafted by all Syrian nationals as a basic reference.

On the other hand, a number of heads of civil society organizations have rejected the way in which donors are treating them and the fact that they are providing small emerging organizations with huge amounts of around $1 million to carry out only one activity, without subjecting them to real supervision. This opens the door to financial and administrative corruption in these organizations, while it is important to note that financing sources have rejected important projects and programs proposed by old organizations. Donors justified their actions by their wish to increase the number of organizations they are dealing with.

This has driven a number of civil society activists to retain the idea of ​​establishing a federation of Syrian civil society organizations. This is a step similar to the experience of 2001, when the Committees for the Revival of Civil Society, made up of a majority of civil society activists, were established following the issuance of the first basic document, the Statement of 1,000. The latter statement was signed by 1,000 intellectuals from across Syria.

Moreover, committees have continued to retain an informative approach, keeping a safe distance from partisanship. Their regulation is different from that of an organization or an institution and they represent an open space, including all national parties concerned with Syrian public affairs linked by free national intrinsic synergies and working to achieve the desired objective, which is to expand the scope of the Syrian social movement.

The idea behind establishing a federation is to determine foreign funding sources and to allocate them to civil society organizations and foundations in order to remedy their current direct funding problem. This is provided the federation controls the methods of disbursement of the funds by these organizations. Moreover, the federation also studies projects and programs proposed by the organizations and includes representatives from Syrian civil society organizations.

The federation says it is concerned with the affairs of the country and Syrian citizens. It accepts the membership of the various Syrian civil society organizations, whether from inside Syria or abroad. It is an independent non-governmental federation and is not associated with any political party and does not discriminate between its members on the basis of religious, sectarian or national affiliation or ethnicity.

In conclusion, civil society may play a key role in developing a voluntary awareness towards an equitable national society, i.e., in moving towards a civil and political society, which accepts others and recognizes their rights.

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