19 December 2012

Egypt: Empowering NGOs in Egypt - the Need for a New Legal Framework

Photo: This is Africa
Egyptian citizens


We have more than 30,000 NGOs in Egypt. However, many are not active, and others are facing legal and funding challenges. We always say with this number of NGOs, poverty and illiteracy shouldn't exist here.

However, the government in Egypt doesn't provide legislative, administrative, or funding support to NGOs, which makes "the NGO phenomena" nothing--except showing a sign of democracy in the country.

After the 2011 revolution in Egypt, a manuscript of the new NGOs' law was released, which still hampers the ability of civil society to serve various communities. It also confirms the right of the government to interfere in the activities and governance of NGOs. For example, the manuscript mentions that NGOs are no longer allowed to deal in different activities. If an NGO is working in economic services such as micro-credit and employment, it can't provide social or educational services such as illiteracy eradication or shelter. This destroys the main concept of civil society, which rests on freedom and independence from the government. This also hinders many NGOs from better integrating their services for the poor, and decreases their role in comprehensive development of communities. This is one of the law's many problems.

The new law is increasing government control on NGOs and neglects the main issues needed to solve problems such as governance, funding, and legislation for new organizational models. Although there are numerous concerns, I will focus on three of the most important.

First, the current law gives authority to the Minister of Social Affairs to dissolve any NGO or replace its Board of Directors if it breaches the law, after consulting the NGOs' General Federation. This puts NGOs under the authority - and corruption - of the ministry. If an NGO breaches the law, this has to be filed to the judiciary, and there has to be special courts dealing with NGOs' related issues. Unfortunately, even when an NGO's case is filed, the criminal courts deal with them. The law has to change to prevent dissolving any NGO except after adjudication to ensure fairness and independence, and specialized courts have to be formed to deal with such issues.

Second, it has always been a complex problem for NGOs to collect donations inside Egypt or to seek funding from international foundations. For local donations, NGOs have to obtain special permission from the ministry that allows them to collect donations for a maximum of three months; then, the permission has to be renewed.

To obtain this permission, NGOs have to go through lots of paperwork, and their requests may be declined. If an NGO gets permission, the NGO cannot collect donations except through one marketing mean. For example, an NGO may collect donations through one of the following: SMS, or a bank, or through point of sale, but not through all of them. This is an unacceptable interference and decreases their ability to mobilize public funds for social good and maintain financial sustainability.

Regarding international grants, the law says that NGOs can dispense a grant from an international foundation within 90 days of submitting the grant documents to the ministry and receiving a written approval. This leaves NGOs to the ministry's huge bureaucracy and corruption, and interference from other parties. In Egypt, NGOs may wait more than a year to receive one approval on an international grant! The Ministry of Social Affairs doesn't give approval except after getting the green light from the State Security and the State Intelligence. While this seems logical to prevent some NGOs from dealing with illegal or politically dangerous foundations, there are two issues here.

First, approvals take a long time, which contradicts the law. Second, we question why NGOs should get permission on grants from international foundations that already have branches in Egypt. Those international foundations have already obtained permission from the government to operate in Egypt, so there is no need to obtain further permission to deal with them!

So what would I change? While getting permission is not the issue, the law has to allow NGOs to dispense its international funds if they don't receive any written concerns from the ministry. The law has to give the right to NGOs to collect donations publicly through various means, and they should be granted this permission as long as there are no lawsuits filed against those NGOs. Otherwise, NGOs will not survive.

One last issue I want to address is the absence of legislation to allow the formation of not-for-profit companies, or social enterprises. In Egypt, you can open a non-profit organization (or an NGO) under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Affairs, or a for-profit company under the supervision of the Ministry of Investment. The government still doesn't understand what a "social enterprise" is, and it can empower social organizations to sustain their activities by competing freely in the market.

NGOs in the form of associations are not allowed to have shares or invest in for-profit companies, and thus lose the opportunity to gain yearly profit share to sustain themselves. Again, the law is decreasing the financial independence and sustainability of NGOs.

I always say that the people who open NGOs in Egypt are heroes! It is already tough to solve complex social problems, but it distracts us even further to have a law that hinders our ability to give more to our people.

Dr. Raghda El Ebrashi is the founder and Chairperson of Alashanek ya Balady Association for Sustainable Development (AYB-SD) in Egypt, and an Ashoka Fellow.

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