The issue of ‘foreign funding’ to local civil and political society, and the political agendas associated with it, remain a highly sensitive issue in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) following the ‘Arab Spring’. By mid-2012, it has become clear that the ouster of aging dictators has not abolished either their regimes or their practices. Branding civil society activists and organisations who receive foreign funding as agents of the West aiming at regime change is a common tactic that contributes to perceptions of a presumed ‘conspiracy’ behind foreign funding. The recent campaign against local and international NGOs in Egypt illustrates how the notorious ‘foreign funding dilemma’ retains a sadly pressing relevance.
Perceptions vary according to the type, origin, destination and stated purpose of foreign funds. Publicly debated perceptions and actual facts and figures on foreign funding flows differ greatly. Moreover, debates on foreign funding are typically focused on Western support for local democracy and human rights activists, while neglecting alternative channels in which money flows across borders and may attempt to influence domestic political developments. Finally, the motivations of both domestic and international actors to use funding – or the perceptions thereof – as a tool to advance their political agendas, is often poorly understood.
Outline for the joint Hivos-AFA-FRIDE project: Foreign Funding in the Arab World
This project will aim to address these gaps, controversies and dilemmas regarding foreign funding, and provide recommendations on how both domestic and international actors may be able to overcome them. We will do so in the understanding that foreign funding to local civil and political society organizations is primarily a political endeavour, and research under this project will primarily focus on the political dimension of foreign funding, with the subject’s technical dimensions as a secondary item of discussion.
The main objectives of the project are to:
- Analyse perceptions on foreign funding in its main variations in Arab societies;
- Contrast these perceptions with an estimate of actual flows;
- Assess the way in which external funding is used as a political tool by domestic and international actors to advance their political interests;
- Provide recommendations to international donors on how to offer assistance in a way that avoids a domestic backlash.
Activities and Output
In a first stage (July 2012 to June 2013), the project will attempt to address these questions in case studies of three countries: Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In parallel, it will produce a study drawing lessons from foreign funding during political transition periods in Eastern Europe. Shared coauthorship of reports between Arab and European authors will ensure the in-depth insight to address this highly sensitive issue, but also provide the careful South-North balance the project aims to see reflected in its research. A conference, planned for January 2013, will be organized by AFA in Cairo to discuss the draft Egypt, Tunisia, and Eastern Europe case studies. Project partners will also organize a policy seminar in either Brussels or Washington, DC in June 2013 to present the project findings to potential donors for a second project phase.
The project will be undertaken by three main partner organisations: