If it weren’t for the capital letters, you might initially dismiss a GONGO as something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Resist the urge (about the only thing GONGOs and Dr. Seuss stories have in common are hearts eight sizes too small). GONGO stands for government organized non-governmental organization. Sound counter-intuitive? Good. Because that’s what GONGOs are all about.
In October 2010, Shadi Hamid wrote “many NGOs are not actually NGOs […] They are funded, staffed and otherwise supported by governments. The idea is not to inspire change but rather to control and mitigate it.”
GONGOs are perhaps the most insidious tool available to repressive regimes out to co-opt efforts at political and economic change. Prominent examples outside the Middle East include the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Organization, the Sudanese Human Rights Organization and North Korea’s General Association of Korean Residents in Japan.
Saudi Arabia operates a GONGO called the International Islamic Relief Organization, and prior to his ouster in January 2010 Tunisia’s Ben Ali had a GONGO triple-threat under his thumb: Tunisia’s National Solidarity Fund (NSF), National Solidarity Bank (NSB) and National Employment Fund (NEF).
“The charitable contributions that funded the Solidarity Network were in fact forced contributions from businesses and individuals throughout the country,” wrote Fadhel Kaboub in the May/June issue of Dollars & Sense Magazine. “The ruling party rewarded contributors with easy access to government resources, scholarships, employment opportunities for family members, government contracts, commercial licenses, and export subsidies.”
To make matters worse, most of the international community swallowed Ben Ali’s “progressive” endeavors hook, line and sinker. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was particularly vocal in praising the Ben Ali regime’s program of economic reform (the IMF seems perpetually tone deaf when it comes to the Middle East. In February it issued a statement lauding Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi for his own reform program just days before the regime launched its brutal crackdown against protesters).
Not everyone in the business community bought the party line, however.
In 2007 the NSB was named “Microfinance Bank of the Year” during the 2007 African Banker Awards in Washington D.C. Independent Monitor MicroCapital.org smelleda rat, writing, “we at MicroCapital would like to state clearly that a 5% annual interest (rate) is clearly not sustainable. The validity of this award is called into question if the winner is not a real business.” MicroCapital also noted rather presciently that the “NSB does not currently report to any third party performance evaluator of operations.”
Obviously the Ben Ali regime hadn’t fooled Tunisians, either.
In a 2009 piece for openDemocracy, Amel Boubekeur wrote “there is little rationality or justice in Tunisia’s approach to economic redistribution, which is mainly a vehicle for Ben Ali to reward his allies and punish any who dare to protest […] a national solidarity fund and the Tunisian Solidarity Bank cater to the needs of the poor and he unemployed, though both programmes are in fact financed by obligatory contributions from citizens and companies. The president is the only one who can decide how and to whom these funds can be allocated, which explains why they are often distributed by local cells of the RCD (the ruling party).”
The Financial Times’ David Gardner may have summed up the whole sordid mess up best in March, writing “the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, which ran their economies as rackets for a tight group of kleptocrats and concessionaires, may have discredited the very idea of reform.”
The real problem with GONGOs then is that they breed distrust among the very people that “real” NGOs and grassroots organizations work hard to empower. Instead of nurturing civil society and helping it thrive they do their best to strangle it. We have seen how easy it is for corruption and cronyism to spoil badly-needed programs of development and liberalization: look no further than Egypt.
Reformers throughout the Middle East already have good reason to distrust traditional pathways to development. It is therefore critical both locals and the international community identify, out and isolate GONGOs before they spoil the new ones, too.
Nick Lewandowski is a freelance writer who has lived in Germany, Spain and Egypt. In addition to writing professionally for both print and the web, he blogs at http://cursorblink.blogspot.com.
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