05 Mar 2013

Ten Years of Evolving Civil Society Space in Iraq

1- Civil society materialization

Civil Society Organizations became commonplace in Iraq after 2003, when they intervened and began to play an important role in supporting the citizenry and improving life conditions by compensating for gaps in service provisions, while promoting democratic practices in a country that had experienced decades of dictatorship.

Ten years after the civil society sector emerged, CSOs could boast important achievements. However, they still face major challenges to place themselves as an influential part of governance in Iraq. Limited capacity, limited access to neutral funds, and the distrust of the Iraqi Government, are among the elements weakening CSOs’ objectives. Moreover, a dubious legal environment, poor cooperation between Iraqi civil society and public authorities, as well as a lack of community understanding about their role adds to the challenges of improving governance in Iraq. They are often perceived as charitable organizations that provide humanitarian services.

The majority of CSOs in Iraq are small scale organizations formed by groups from a common community or family group to serve a specific area or type of activity. This exacerbates their poor capacity and structure as donor driven bodies to significantly limit their ability to respond to change and development, as well as their ability to build their knowledge and specialization.

Despite these challenges, CSOs are increasingly recognized as vital stakeholders in Iraq’s recovery process and improving governance. In fact, there have been many positive outcomes as a result of CSOs’ short, yet effective, presence in Iraq. Five years of collective advocacy for the best international practices regarding the drafting of legislations resulted in major victories including the successful push to repeal the Informatics Crimes Draft Law in early February, 2013, as well as laws against discrimination and violence against women.

It is important to note that civil society in Iraq widely differs from a Western-inspired model, which is defined as independent from traditional social structures and the state. Iraqi civil society relies on values of solidarity, social networking and cohesion rooted in religious and tribal ethics. As such, CSOs might not find enough space to develop under the competition of religious and tribal groups and it might be at risk of being shaped by the state’s, and political parties’, attempts to penetrate and control civil society. However, because of certain shared characteristics, CSOs and religious organizations in Iraq have opportunities to cooperate and link in order to create a more comprehensive democratic space, which was unprecedented in Iraq’s recent history because of the state’s marginalization of religious organizations.

Most of the literature that investigates and assesses civil society in Iraq adopts the standard discourse of western social theories and ignores the particularities of the Iraqi context. There is a great need to research unresolved topics linked to community roots. A detailed mapping of existing CSOs is necessary in order to identify those who still remain independent and could be supported; this may increase CSOs’ capacity to pursue their objectives.

CSO impact is also related to their availability on the ground. The number of CSOs in some parts of Iraq is high compared to other parts. For example, there is one CSO for every 11,472 persons in Baghdad, while the number is one per 53,969 in Missan, in the south of Iraq. This creates not only a skewed and imbalanced delivery of humanitarian services and support of public space, but also impedes cooperation between different groups in different governorates.

Another element that heavily influences the impact of CSOs in Iraq involves sectors related to consultations on legislations and advocacy at the level of the Iraqi Council of Representatives. CSOs are doing well in this respect. However, this is often the role of “elite CSOs”, while advocacy at the community level is relatively weak. One of the main reasons for this concerns community trust towards CSOs and the perception of CSOs. The other reason is the relatively low percentage of middleclass CSOs compared to a high percentage of grassroots organizations. Middleclass CSOs are organizations with a good level of experience and capacity for change while grassroots CSOs are mostly community based initiatives, rather than organizations with highly developed institutional structures.

INGOs can still play an important role in strengthening Iraqi civil society. Their awareness and mobilization capacities within the international community are greatly needed so that Iraq does not continue to disappear from donors’ agendas and the public consciousness. INGOs can also establish a supportive environment for Iraqi CSOs to develop, as they have done with the new Iraqi NGO law. Capacity building programs, geared towards CSOs, especially in the field of internal governance, could also be strengthened. Developing closer relations between INGOs and their Iraqi partners, perhaps by working together to design and implement a project, and subsequently monitor and evaluate it, could be one key to strengthen Iraq’s civil society.

However, INGO contributions to the development of the Iraqi CSO sector may not actually progress. Defining their long-term orientations and their place in the Iraqi society is likely a path along which the various components of the Iraqi CSO sector have to go follow independently. At this stage, INGOs could support CSOs by explaining to them their own evolution as INGOs and the choices they had to make. INGOs will eventually leave Iraq and may be replaced by other structures with a greater orientation towards development and relevance in the Iraqi community. The Iraqi NGO sector would then have to chart the course of its own history and future, developing its own codes and practices, as well as support methods and strategies.

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