No dough for NGOs

While tens of thousands of Lebanese expats have been laid off because the global financial crisis, those at home are also feeling the economic bite. Among the most affected are NGO workers, whose sector, according to Ziad Abdel-Samad, head of the Arab NGO Network for Development, contributes $200-$300 million in donations a year to various causes.

The NGO sector had flourished since the civil war, as political volatility brought in a steady flow of foreign aid. Then, following the 2006 July War, new funds to aid reconstruction and rehabilitation were made available.

Today however, many Lebanese NGOs are facing huge cuts as Western donors tighten their belts. It is a situation Abdel-Samad says has been further exacerbated by a devalued Euro and other Western currencies.

Lina Abou Habib, president of CRTDA, a major Lebanese women’s organization, said her group felt the effects of the crisis “immediately.” Her budget has been slashed by half, and, because the organization works on a project-by-project basis, upcoming initiatives are likely to be dumped.

The Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union, the biggest NGO for the disabled in Lebanon with over 1,300 members, has seen salaries for staff reduced by a third, and its major project to advance vocational training and job placement is sure to be affected. Those the union seeks to help are also affected. Most employees with disabilities are informal or seasonal workers, who were the first to lose their jobs in the current hostile economic environment.

There is also a lack of volunteers, who traditionally play an essential role in the NGO projects. As Sylvana Lakkis, the general director of an NGO, puts it, “It is going to be harder for people to volunteer when the economic situation gets harder and harder.” Lakkis is more concerned for 2010. “For sure, we have to start thinking about alternative ways [to find funding]… We’re worried actually.”

Other considerations

For the Norwegian People’s Aid in Lebanon, an NGO that works with Palestinian youth and education, as well as those with disabilities, and whose budgets for 2007 and 2008 have been $16 million and $12 million respectively, the devaluation of the Norwegian Krone incurred an instant loss of around $270,000. Furthermore, Wafa Yassir, the NGO’s country director, is equally concerned about politics surrounding Palestinians when it comes to funding. “I’m afraid what happened in Gaza… and the crisis of Nahr al-Bared… will affect us,” Yassir said, as when there is a crisis, the already-tight budget donors give to Palestinian causes gets diverted to emergency aid. This is despite the fact that many Palestinians in Lebanon still depend on the NGO to obtain higher education and rehabilitation services for disabilities.

But some NGOs remain resilient. Youssef el-Khalil, president of the Association for Development of Rural Capacity (ADR), confesses that his organization has not felt the cold winds of the economic crisis “so far.” Relying at the moment primarily on the Spanish government for funding, ADR projects have a cycle of two to five years. Once funding is secured for long-term projects, European or American donors usually “honor their signature,” according to Khalil. He is hoping that by the time ADR’s present projects terminate, the economic situation will have improved.

Conventional wisdom dictates that as NGOs do crucial work in areas neglected by the government or the private sector – such as in the provision of services for refugees and persons with disabilities, or in advocacy – any cut in funding will sound an alarm for the well-being of many marginalized members of society. But Rami Zurayk, professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences at the American University in Beirut, asserts that the cut in funds due to the economic crisis could also be positive in reevaluating the long-term impact and effectiveness of NGO work. In his opinion, NGO projects in agriculture, education and environment – areas that are vast and all-encompassing – cannot produce sustainable positive change as long as the state fails to step in.

Nadim Clément Zakhia, co-founder and director at Mada, an NGO working mainly on rural development in the North, agrees, pointing out that NGOs in Lebanon have become nothing more than small businesses “like man’ouche shops” with very little sharing of power or the ability of change.

“NGOs cannot be stand-alone actors,” says Zurayk. “They need a state behind them.”