By Rachel Hayman.

When we ask people working for or with civil society organisations (CSOs) in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) what the primary issues affecting CSOs are, they highlight things like: dependency on donors, weak internal governance, charitable focus rather than change oriented, competition within the sector, and lack of accessible capacity building support. They emphasize the growing number of humanitarian crises, and the extremely challenging political environment in which civil society operates across the region.

Recent publications and reports on civil society and philanthropy in MENA[i] suggest a number of areas where improvement is required or action should be taken, including:

  • Diversification of resources: CSOs should break dependency ties with donors by diversifying their funding base. This might include more engagement with philanthropy, income generation through social enterprise, local fundraising and mobilising direct giving, and working more with the private sector through corporate social responsibility.
  • Encouraging funders to move from a charity approach to more strategic partnerships: this would allow greater trust to be built and more collaboration in planning and assessment.
  • Focusing on local rather than donor agendas: being too attuned with donor agendas, often linked to funding, means that CSOs can lose sight of their purpose and impact; it further affects their legitimacy in their contexts. Funders for their part should be more sensitive to local contexts and local ownership of agendas.
  • Improving capacity building: new approaches to capacity building are required that provide long-term and context-relevant support that is empowering and effective. Capacity building for sustainability should cover a whole range of areas such as leadership, programme effectiveness through improved monitoring and evaluation, values and resourcing.
  • Mapping and research: analysts emphasize that more research is required on civil society and philanthropy in the region, stressing that this should be carried out by people in the region.
  • Accountability and legal frameworks: civil society actors and their supporters need to find appropriate ways to engage with restrictive or outdated legislation. Some actors are calling for philanthropists to push for changes in legislation and to improve accountability in the sector.

The challenge INTRAC is posing to actors in MENA is to move from outlining good ideas and recommendations to taking tangible action.

Clearly there are longstanding obstacles to the development of civil society in MENA. However, we also see many changes across the region and new openings for action. There is a growth of looser social movements and new virtual spaces for engagement. There is vibrancy and energy from people who are striving for change in very difficult circumstances including conflict. There are local organisations that are finding positive ways to survive and thrive against the odds. There are progressive funders emerging who support civil society as a force for change, not just as an avenue for charity. And there are civil society research centres carrying out valuable research.

How can we work together to move forward? The Takaful conference on Arab Philanthropy and Civic Engagement in the United Arab Emirates on 4-5 November provides a platform to galvanize researchers, philanthropists and civil society actors to share their thinking and knowledge.

On 4th November, INTRAC is convening a panel to explore how researchers, philanthropists and civil society can effectively step up to the challenge of collaborating in support of strong and sustainable civil society organisations across MENA.

We will bring together four experts from the civil society, academic and philanthropic sectors: Dr Rania Masri from the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship, American University of Beirut; Huda Hakki from the King Khaled Foundation; Ghassan Kasabreh from the NGO Development Center in Palestine; and Didi Alayli from INTRAC.

Together we will examine questions such as:

  • What is the state of knowledge and debate on civil society sustainability in MENA?
  • Does sustainability have the same meaning from academic, philanthropic and civil society standpoints, and what aspects of sustainability are most critical for civil society in MENA?
  • How are CSOs responding to sustainability challenges, and what capacities do they need to become more sustainable?
  • What dimensions of sustainability do philanthropists consider when providing support to civil society groups?
  • What gaps exist in research around sustainability of civil society relative to philanthropy in the region?

INTRAC is also running a workshop in Ghana on civil society sustainability in West Africa with the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) on 17th November. Over the coming weeks we will share some of the key discussions and action points from these events in further blogs and webinars.

For INTRAC, sustainability encompasses the long-term effectiveness and impact of organisations and associations, networks and coalitions, movements and informal organising, participation and activism.

INTRAC believes that for civil society organisations to perform well and have legitimacy in their communities requires a clear purpose and good, progressive leadership as well as well-balanced accountability relationships with different stakeholders.

Critically, in order to operate freely, effectively and sustainably, these organisations need resources: stable funding from a balanced set of sources, relevant skills and capacities, sufficient political space, and a conducive governance environment.

More information and getting involved

If you are interested in hearing more about this work, or in participating in some way, please contact INTRAC’s Research Team (