NGO workshop, December 27, 2009
In a workshop organized by the Center for Arab West Understanding, representatives of sixteen Egyptian non-governmental organizations discussed the challenges involved in increasing their participation in the evolution of civil society. Keynote speaker Dr. Baha Bakry urged the NGOs to become the ‘fifth authority’ (in addition to the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, plus the media) in the national landscape, cooperating together to address developmental and peacemaking issues beyond their individual spheres of influence.
Due to the intense commitment NGOs give to their field of expertise there can be reluctance to act outside of their knowledge, especially when ordinary tensions threaten to become a violent dispute. If the social power of NGOs can be coordinated, however, their influence can be utilized to prevent clashes and restore peace. Increased networking will facilitate NGO cooperation, but NGOs should aim for wider participation in community issues. They should take the lead in involving local government officials, business, community, and religious leaders, and even the media in the creation of an ‘early warning system’ that can prevent escalation when interests clash. As root causes are considered with the free exchange of information and expertise, time, effort, and possibly even human lives can be saved.
The participants agreed that the strengthening of civil society in general is vital in preventing future conflicts, and that NGOs have a major role in this regard, especially as they operate within and promote the values of citizenship. Unemployment should be addressed, for those without work are more likely than others to clash when disputes arise. Youth services are also important, as the younger generation must be educated in the principles of peace and social solidarity. Ties with the media must also be promoted, for NGOs are among those most likely to report community issues objectively, free from the biases associated with particular interests. It would benefit society if each NGO became a regional media center with strong links to the provincial press.
The NGO representatives identified several areas that stand in the way of such emergence. Lack of financial resources, insufficient human resources, poor coordination between NGOs as well as with the state, and an inability to communicate the importance of their work to the general community were highlighted as the chief barriers checking the growth of a healthy civil society. Participants wondered why developmental problems were still increasing when there are over 24,000 registered NGOs at work in Egypt. The recommendations above were posed after consideration of all these difficulties.
These conclusions followed a two day conference organized by the Center for Arab West Understanding under the title “Strengthening the Social Role of NGOs through Communication and Interaction”.
Participants were led in lectures and training sessions organized by Prof. Baha Bakry, president of Sinai University and professor of urban ecology, member of the steering committee of the Moral Rearmament Society, and president of the Egyptian Green Party. Further training was provided by lawyer Sa’id Abd al-Hafez and writer Hani Labib. Columnist Osama al-Ghazoly and Prof. Nagwa Raouf of Cairo University provided moderation. Cornelis Hulsman, secretary general of the Center for Arab West Understanding introduced the workshop and prepared the case study for the second day. The workshop was supervised by Eng. Sawsan Gabra, chair of CAWU, and Jayson Casper, workshop organizer.