Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

NGOs Face Cash Crisis

Lack of experience and poor financial support are affecting Iraq’s fledgling civil society groups.
By Hamid al-Hamrani

Many Iraqi non-governmental organisations, NGOs, claim that they may soon be forced to stop their work due to a series of financial difficulties.


Fears of a looming crash crisis are growing after several failed attempts to coordinate payments between donor countries and civil society organisations based in Baghdad, Sulaimaniyah or Amman.


Analysts believe that the problems have occurred because of poor organisation within the newly-formed NGOs themselves, and hitches among international donors.


Samera al-Maliki, who runs a charity for underprivileged families in Baghdad’s al-Amil district, has turned half her house into a training facility offering computer, sewing and hairdressing courses. But she says she will have to close the programme unless she can secure more funds.


“We are in a disastrous situation, and if we don’t get some support soon from the donor countries or the government we will have to stop all our activities,” she told IWPR.


This is not the first difficulty faced by civil society organisations, which appeared in Iraq for the first time following the end of the war in April 2003.


The Iraqi public initially reacted with suspicion, as local NGOs were completely unknown in the country - and many had taken over buildings formerly used by the previous regime.


Hand-written signs such as “Help the Children”, “Prisoners Support Group” and “Women’s Awareness Group” attached to onetime Baathist offices did little to put people’s minds at rest, and many groups struggled to find financial backing as a result.


The authorities took steps to regulate the mostly ad hoc organisations from an early stage.


Before power was transferred from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the interim National Assembly, the task of coordinating with NGOs was given to the Humanitarian Aid Centre, HAC.


Under the HAC, a committee of Iraqis identified organisations they believed were legitimate and offered them workshops on how to deal with donor countries and how to write project proposals.


After the transfer of power in June 2004, this responsibility passed to the planning ministry.


In order to qualify, organisations had to sign an affidavit stating that their group was non-political, non-religious, financially responsible and would work to build a democratic society.


The Iraqi interim government then put Dr Mamo Osman of the State Ministry for Civil Society Affairs in charge.


“I was amazed how many organisations there were when I took over. There were more than a thousand,” Osman explained.


“It seemed that pretty much any Tom, Dick or Harry could turn up and get permission to start a so-called charitable organisation. Given the issues we have in Iraq, its imperative a close eye is kept on these activities.”


Osman’s aggressive approach to making organisations re-register and prove their credentials was an unpopular move.


Dr Hadi Bakir, secretary-general of an environmental volunteer organisation, was one of many to express disappointment at the new minister’s attitude.


“Instead of meeting [the NGOs] and helping to support them and secure their independence, we found that [Osman] was accusing us and threatening to dissolve the organisations,” he claimed.


Ali al-Mayahi, director of the Akhwan al-Safa Humanitarian Organisation, agrees that the ministry’s approach has been unhelpful, but admits that there are rogue elements trying to exploit the funding potential for civil society groups.


“Some political parties have set up so-called NGOs but instead of using the funding they procured to pay salaries and building rent, they are buying votes,” he claimed.


For Dr Inaam al-Wasti of the League of the Peace and Reconciliation this is the ultimate abuse of civil society status.


“Our sort of organisations are supposed to be responsible for holding the authorities to account, and yet this [trust] is being abused by those very institutions,” he said.


But an absence of strict governance and overriding security concerns, combined with a lack of funding from donor countries, has driven a number of civil society organisations to accept funding from politically or religiously motivated bodies - with the operational restrictions this often entails.


The idea of supposedly “free” money has also attracted a number of hoaxers and swindlers to set up in the NGO business.


“These fraudulent associations give the whole field a bad name and make it much harder for organisations such as ours to do their job or attract funding,” said Raad Lafta al-Khafaji from the al-Mawada group.


Adnan Abdulaziz Shihab, the head of Iraq’s recently formed NGO Association, believes that the lack of a regulatory framework for civil society organisations has led to both the proliferation of fraudulent groups and the fall-off in donor funding. “It is a lose-lose situation for everyone at the moment,” he said.


But there is little concern among ordinary Iraqis that NGOs could be in trouble. Many people see them as a luxury Iraqi society cannot yet afford.


“If these NGOs were able to provide us with security, electricity and water, then we’d all get involved in them,” taxi driver Moyad Easa shrugged, reflecting a typical view.


Hamid al-Hamrani is an IWPR reporter in Sulaimaniyah.