Book review: The importance of transparency in civil society funding

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 11 Jun 2012

Shohaib calls for NGO funding to be properly monitored, arguing their role is detrimental to the country's national security

Asrar al-maal al-siasi (Prisoners of Political Funds)by Abdel-Qader Shohaib, Cairo: Akhbar Al-Youm - Culture Section, 2012. 231pp.

The main starting point for Abdel-Kader Shohaib in the recently published Prisoners of Political Funds is the importance of transparency and the monitoring of funds going to civil society organisations and NGOs.

Transparency is the issue, according to Shohaib, not the foreign funding itself, especially that the Egyptian state itself has been a major beneficiary of foreign funds from the Arab world and beyond. Shohaib argues that all funds should be properly monitored through parliament and organisations responsible for following up on how funds are actually spent.

As described in the introduction to the book, the beginning of the thread leading Shohaib to conceive of this book was a number of USAID advertisements in newspapers in the month following the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. In the adverts, USAID announced the availability of funds for organisations and foundations, whether Egyptian or American, for projects in various sectors, including economic development and fighting poverty. What attracted Shohaib's attention in particular was that this was the first time the USAID would be dealing directly with the organisations, rather than going through the government as it had previously. Nothing indicated the requirement that the organisations be legal or licensed to work in Egypt.

Shohaib's investigations show that some $150 million of the aid money planned for Egypt in 2011 was redirected to NGOs, and 600 organisations submitted proposals for funding.

The rest of the story is known, ending by presenting a number of American and Egyptian NGO workers in court. In a twist, that shows the extent of interference from the ruling military council in the work of the judiciary, the Americans were released and able to go home to the US. All of this hardly attracts the author's attention; he pauses only to comment that the Egyptian state should have been more courageous in this situation.

On another front, the author indicates that Arab funds took the same route, for example the Mohammady Sunna Followers NGO had received some LE 181.7 million from Qatari organisations, some 141.4 million from a Kuwaiti organisation and the NGO has never indicated where or how the money had been spent. 

Shohaib, however, admits that the legislation governing the work of civil society organisations is not fair, allowing the administrative authority, that is the Ministry of Social Solidarity, full prerogative. The ministry can determining the plans and projects of these organisations and close them at any time, without even stating the reasons. It is this tight control that pushed many civil society organizations to register as companies rather than NGOs.

Soon after the revolution, some of these organisations played a role in defending those sent for military trials, monitored elections and documentation of abuses committed by the ruling military council and interior ministry. This has unsurprisingly led Kamal El-Ganzouri's cabinet to retaliate with fierce attack on the work of these organisations. However, the author here only sends passes mass judgment on all NGOs, stating that all of these organisations are only after intelligence information to the benefit of the CIA. Shohaib warns of their effect on national security and the possibility of American interference in internal affairs.

The author seems to ignore the fact that the United States does not really need justification to involve itself in Egypt's affairs and that not a single figure of authority in Egypt has taken that is against the United States at any point for the last 40 years.
Transparency is indeed critical for a healthy civil society and funding environment, as Shohaib argues. But so are freedoms and dismantling the oppressive hands of state security.

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