Taghmees Social Kitchen, an organic civic initiative in Jordan. October 2013. Razan Fakhoury. All rights reserved.Five years on from the ‘Arab Spring’, many observers assume that youth activists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have been discouraged from pursuing social and political change, including attempting to democratize their societies.
This view is reinforced by mounting barriers to engagement and government repression of dissent. In fact, in many countries young people remain highly engaged with social and political issues. However, they are exploring creative new approaches to community activism that are subtler, less visible and often less explicitly political than street protests. In this way they seek to circumvent some of the existing constraints on civil society in authoritarian contexts. In Jordan, there is a younger generation of educated activists attempting to navigate the middle ground between maintaining the status quo and pushing for regime change.
In Jordan, there is a younger generation of educated activists attempting to navigate the middle ground between maintaining the status quo and pushing for regime change – neither of which is a viable or desirable option for them. Troubled by the intimidating public and official rhetoric towards civil society, they are reinventing their approach in order to build new perceptions of civil society organizations (CSOs) as trustworthy and effective. They also want to reclaim the definition of civil society as a ‘mechanism of collective empowerment that enhances the ability of citizens to protect their interests and rights from arbitrary or capricious state power’.
A defining feature of the mobilization of younger-generation civic activists has been the emergence of ‘organic civic initiatives’. These are a new form of social enterprise, established under a 2010 law as non-profit companies. Under this structure, a Jordanian is allowed to form his or her own company to work in areas relating to four pre-designated social objectives: education, health, capacity-building and microfinance.
The companies are exempt from tax as long as profits are reinvested in the relevant social cause, though this is decided on a case-by-case basis by the authorities. Whereas registering an NGO with the Ministry of Social Development is cumbersome and slow, activists say that it takes 45 minutes to register as a non-profit with the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. Non-profits also face somewhat fewer legal restrictions on their functioning. There are now around 100 such organic civil initiatives in existence.
The popularity of non-profit companies as a form of civil society has been ascribed to several political, cultural and structural factors. The Arab Spring was associated with the rise of a more informed and critical generation, prone to asking questions and rejecting established institutions. It also informed an entrepreneurial spirit, with young people aspiring to be ‘productive, not just consuming donations’, as one interviewee put it. It also informed an entrepreneurial spirit, with young people aspiring to be ‘productive, not just consuming donations’.
These factors, together with nostalgia for local roots and culture, encouraged young activists to prefer local solutions for community development over the imported, top-down donors’ models. The rise of social media also created international networks that provide a space for young people to engage and have their views heard.
These organic civic initiatives fund their social missions through selling services and products to domestic and some selected international NGOs, the government and the public. Generally, the services and products that each group provides are related in some way to its social mission.
For example, Tammey (described in Case study 1) designs youth development projects and commits part of its income to development initiatives such as a learning programme broadcast via local radio. Another example is the Taghmees initiative (Case study 2), which focuses on providing learning experiences through fortnightly gatherings. It sells home-made foods, prepared by women in deprived areas, both at its events and in other parts of Jordan.
Despite the variety in approaches, organizers articulate some shared principles: building citizens’ self-confidence as agents of change, creating a space for people to air hopes and grievances, and speaking truth to power using grassroots approaches. A core theme is the importance of drawing on local culture.
As one interviewee said: ‘Rather than organizing a conference about co-existence between Muslims and Christians, we rely on storytelling from the elderly on the practices they followed to live peacefully together for decades.’
The initiatives also emphasize human development, explicitly valuing local communities’ agency in setting priorities for themselves, rather than focusing on donors’ predefined objectives.
This contrasts with the common complaint about traditional NGOs’ agendas being externally dictated. One civil activist said: ‘We went to a rural place and started talking to them about their daily lives. When asked what they see as a daily challenge, people spontaneously said unemployment and women’s rights.’
The activist argued that this was the result of donors going to communities and framing the problems observed in terms of programmes they intended to implement. She also said that people are now more aware of the language donors want to hear, and therefore tailor their answers to donors’ perceived priorities in the hope of increasing their chances of receiving aid.
Another activist mentioned a huge campaign about AIDS prevention in one of the most conservative villages in Jordan: ‘Probably it was on the donor’s agenda and the NGO had to implement it because they want to stay in business. Such a village could have benefited from another intervention.’ ‘Rather than organizing a conference about co-existence between Muslims and Christians, we rely on storytelling from the elderly on the practices they followed to live peacefully together for decades.’
These examples are by no means unusual. It is often the case in the foreign aid sector that identifying a particular issue creates a self-fulfilling agenda, as a community or region is framed as part of a ‘problem’ that then informs priorities and decision-making in the head offices of donor organizations. At a local level, in turn, people start believing the perceived problems to be real, distrusting their ability to tackle challenges on their own, or adopting donors’ rhetoric to obtain financial benefits.
In contrast, the community-centric approach of the new non-profit social enterprises is helping to create a feeling of belonging and ownership among groups previously excluded by ‘one size fits all’ aid projects typical of the established forms of civil society.
The new approach also boosts awareness and appreciation of local culture, which some claim is undermined by the established donor model as supposedly novel concepts are imported into the host country with little cultural awareness.
One clear example is the ‘volunteerism’ culture in USAID projects in Jordan, which ignored a long-standing community tradition of social solidarity and mutual support, especially in rural areas. This tradition is called ‘al-owneh’, which literally translates as ‘cooperation’ or ‘lending someone a helping hand’.
Who are the new actors?
The activists involved with the new organic civic initiatives are mainly around 25–35 years old, and tend to come from middle - or upper middle - class backgrounds. Many are western-educated. Some are affluent enough to have been able to leave full-time jobs in order to establish these initiatives; others pursue them in their spare time.
Activists’ previous experience varies: some come from professional civil society roles but have been frustrated by the limited impact of their work with established NGOs; others include dentists, business consultants and doctors.
For now, most of these initiatives are based in Amman. Outside the capital, civil society still mainly consists of community-based organizations that pursue charity-like activities such as distributing food to the poor, running free medical services days, and providing equipment to the disabled.
The themes addressed by the new non-profit companies vary. They have included broad issues, such as socio-economic empowerment and community and youth development; and more focused ones, such as documenting local heritage and providing platforms to discuss environmental and infrastructure issues.
Until recently – and unlike other CSOs – these new non-profit social enterprises were granted unconditional permission, on registration, to receive foreign donations. This meant that they didn’t need prior permission from the government, so long as donations were properly documented in their financial records. On 18 October 2015 a new mechanism for receiving foreign funding was introduced.
However, on 18 October 2015 a new mechanism for receiving foreign funding was introduced, under which NGOs and non-profit companies must receive prior permission from the Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation to receive foreign donations, especially in programmes related to the Jordan Response Platform to the Syria Crisis and the country’s own national and development goals.
Despite this apparently draconian turn, a number of the organic civic initiatives have been relatively indifferent to the change in policy. This reflects the fact that, as mentioned, many eschew donor money for reasons of credibility, authenticity, efficiency and independence.
Political relationships and policy impact
The organic civic initiatives tend to avoid association with formal politics. First, as mentioned, their legal mandate limits their work to the four areas of education, health, capacity-building and microfinance. This makes it risky to assume a political role that could be seen by the government as outside their mandate.
Second, they saw that the Arab uprisings were followed by conflict and violence in neighbouring countries. They are therefore seeking a softer, ‘sugar-coated’ approach to influencing decision-makers and pushing for policy change. Consequently, they don’t consider themselves entirely absent from the political scene as such, but rather as manoeuvring cautiously around it. They don’t consider themselves entirely absent from the political scene as such, but rather as manoeuvring cautiously around it.
As one activist put it: ‘It’s not that we are absent, the tools, tactics and language of confrontation are just different nowadays.’
Social media makes it easier for their agendas, and the voice of the general public, to be heard. They believe that political change comes from within, and that for change to happen it is necessary to have an informed population. This explains their preference for working on a person-to-person basis, informing people of their rights and responsibilities rather than assuming an overtly confrontational political role.
A third reason for the new initiatives’ reluctance to get involved in politics is simply fatigue with institutional barriers to activism. As a result, many are more interested in exploring new avenues for positively affecting their communities.
No structural social change is visible yet as a result of this form of activism. Instead, groups view their impact in terms of being able to influence their immediate local constituencies, even if these constituencies are small. This also reflects the fact that organic civic initiatives are not looking for large and quick gains, instead working on behavioural attitudes in the hope of achieving long-term effects. They would prefer to be perceived as authentic and credible rather than to scale up their initiatives too hastily.
However, it is unlikely that organic civic initiatives will stay out of formal politics forever, especially given the absence of representative and visionary political parties in Jordan. The new initiatives have already combined social and economic causes, and will at some point add political ones to the scope of their work. They are trying to be more creative in asking for political rights, but lack the necessary skills and experience ‘to play such a decisive role in the meantime’. It remains unclear how and when a transition to a more overtly political role will occur, and what its likely trigger will be.
Organic civic initiatives: challenges and criticisms
When asked about their challenges, organic civic initiatives responded that money was not their main concern. A greater issue was the uncertainty about future legal restrictions in a context in which civil society comes under suspicion and laws can change suddenly and arbitrarily.
The changes in laws on foreign financing, and new requirements for even small non-profit companies to appoint a legal adviser and an accountant to supervise and audit their financial records, add to enterprises’ costs while reducing their fundraising options.
Conversely, the ease of registering risks a proliferation of ‘copycat’ organizations. In at least one case, the authorities set up a website imitating one of the organic civic initiatives, even choosing an almost identical name. The initiative was a website called Forsa [‘Opportunity’], which offered a platform for information on scholarships and internships for youth; the official version, established by a RONGO, the King Abdullah II Fund for Development, was called Forus [‘Opportunities’].
Another challenge is the lack of a philanthropic culture in the private sector. Organic civic initiatives are generally uninterested in marketing sponsors’ brands, even though there is a perception that the private sector wants to be associated with RONGOs, in order to be closer to the royal family. There is a perception that the private sector wants to be associated with RONGOs, in order to be closer to the royal family.
Interviewees also complained about the deficit of solid evidence, statistics and research on the social problems they seek to address: ‘We teach ourselves, we read a lot and spend much time speaking to community members in an attempt to make sense of the happenings. However, if some sort of studies were available, it would have saved us much time and criticism.’
Organic civic initiatives also face criticism and scepticism on account of their novelty. There is little public awareness of their role. Moreover, the fact that most of the people running such initiatives are middle - to upper middle - class and western-educated means that they are sometimes perceived as elitist. A lack of evidence-based interventions encourages the pursuit of issues according to their personal importance to the organizations’ founders rather than their relevance to the community.
Some organic civic initiatives are criticized for being ‘one-man shows’, named after their founder, which raises questions about their sustainability and governance. Finally, the fact that numerous initiatives operate on a very small scale – precisely in order to maintain their integrity and stay true to their ideals – raises questions about their effectiveness. So far they have tended to avoid not only scaling up their operations to national level, but also openly challenging – or, conversely, collaborating with – government or traditional NGOs. Their less hierarchical, more inclusive way of operating is in itself a challenge to accepted social norms in Jordan
Nevertheless, the nature of their engagement with communities and their operational practices promote a tolerant and more informed discourse among the people. Moreover, their less hierarchical, more inclusive way of operating is in itself a challenge to accepted social norms in Jordan. It represents a form of ‘civil society 2.0’, based on the norms of sharing and collaboration that are increasingly prevalent in Web 2.0, on social media and through crowdfunding initiatives.
Practitioners are experimenting with alternative forms of organization on a small scale. This embryonic activism could enrich civil society and contribute to the development of a stronger democratic culture.
Case study 1: Tammey for Human Development - An initiative to foster different thinking processes with, for and by youth
Headquartered in Amman, Tammey for Human Development is a micro-consultancy that operates in research, education and youth projects. Its name means ‘silt’, which is intended to imply fertility, development and diversity.
The organization sees young people as ‘untapped assets’ who have the potential to shape local and national development processes by coming up with innovative models to challenge the bureaucracy to excel. Tammey’s operating model reflects the notion that there are many ways in which people can develop themselves other than through imposed structures, and that it is possible to find solutions that draw on a person’s or community’s own values rather than those of donors.
To generate income, Tammey’s team of seven provides services and consultancy (individually or under the organization’s umbrella) to UN agencies, governmental organizations, international and domestic NGOs, civil society, private organizations and youth groups in the Arab states. The scope of Tammey’s work covers several aspects of youth development: supporting research and youth policies, managing youth projects, designing non-traditional youth learning processes, and capacity-building.
Tammey reinvests 10–20 per cent of its net income into the community in different forms: either to support initiatives and solutions, or to run programmes and activities that aim to catalyse and cultivate creative options for youth development, such as an eight-week volunteering programme and a radio programme for young people. Tammey also offers its headquarters as a multipurpose ‘safe learning space’, available free of charge for youth groups. People use the venue and equipment for meetings, rehearsals, shooting short films and a book club.
Tammey also provides funding to community solutions that focus on social and economic solidarity. It recently supported a ‘socio-economic solidarity business’ called Izwiti, located in downtown Amman, which revived the long-standing but neglected cultural practice of exchanging meals between neighbours. Customers pay for sandwiches, minimally priced, but may voluntarily buy a token for an additional sandwich, which they place on the wall for a needy person to come and collect.
Taking into consideration the Arab region’s specificity and the issues surrounding Palestine, Tammey is also active in raising awareness about ‘normalization’ in relation to the Israeli occupation – that is, the possibility of treating Israel as a normal state and fostering relationships with it. Recently, Tammey has been working on an awareness campaign about the proposed gas agreement between the Israeli and Jordanian governments.
Case study 2: Taghmees Social Kitchen - A new definition of immersive study
Taghmees – or ‘Social Kitchen’– is a public community learning experience and an enterprise for strengthening home-based economies. The name refers to a traditional Arab way of eating, which involves bread and dips. It also reflects the idea behind the initiative: ‘to immerse oneself deeply into … a discussion, an experience, or life’. Taghmees is designed to reclaim learning spaces by gathering participants, referred to as ‘family members’, and encouraging them to engage and critically reflect on issues while eating together. Participants sit in circles to ensure there is no hierarchy and that everyone’s experience is welcomed and respected equally. In Jordanian culture, where patriarchy and patrimonialism are deeply entrenched, allowing people to express themselves in a safe, non-hierarchical environment means building their confidence that their opinions matter. This also enhances their critical thinking. As one of the organizers says: ‘We do not bring an expert to address people; it is to let people talk and exchange ideas, engaging in discussions about their experiences.’
One gathering discussed the issue of standards in public life. It was timed to coincide with the release of Tawjihi secondary school exam results, which is a big moment in a student’s life in Jordan. Students at this stage experience strict evaluation from their families and acquaintances. As a result, many tend to feel that their social value is measured by their exam grades. Taghmees’s session sought to explore wider interpretations of success and failure by enabling participants to share different perspectives.
Taghmees generates its funds through an income-generating initiative. According to one of its co-founders:
‘We’re not looking for donor funding or grants. We recognize that these foreign funds come in the form of loans to Jordan, which are then paid off by increased taxes on a majority of already struggling people, who never asked for our help to begin with.’54 Taghmees buys seasonal food (such as white cheese, jams and olive oil) from local women, for distribution both at its gatherings and more widely. At Taghmees meetings, members voluntarily contribute money for the food, placing it in a jar that reads ‘family jar for learning’. According to one of Taghmees’s co-founders: ‘We’d like the support of those that see the benefit in what we offer and value the spirit we’re trying to create to help keep our kitchen alive.'
The choice of terminology is seen by the participants and wider public as less alienating than the usual NGO jargon.
Taghmees substitutes the word ‘beneficiaries’ with ‘family members’, capacity-building with ‘mujawara’, which means learning by sharing experiences with neighbours and other participants. The initiative provides a platform for people who did not succeed in the conventional education system to feel of worth. This is achieved, in part, by substituting the concept of academic learning with that of learning from life experience. In contrast, Taghmees’s co-founder talks of schools as places ‘where knowledge is deposited and unchallenged’.
Case study 3: Zikra - A social enterprise based on the concept of exchange tourism
Zikra, a social enterprise based in rural Ghour AlMazra’a in the south of Jordan, offers domestic exchange tours that allow city-dwellers and members of a rural community to meet and learn from each other. At the heart of its work is a belief that capitalizing on people’s abilities, focusing on what they have rather than what they lack, and embedding mutually beneficial learning experiences are the best ways to lift people out of poverty. The enterprise’s initial strategy, after its founding in 2009, was identical to that of many development NGOs in seeing the poor as passive beneficiaries of aid.
Zikra collected items donated by the rich urban population and distributed them to the less fortunate people of Ghour AlMazra’a. However, Zikra’s founder came to believe that the patron–client relationship of a charity may help the poor momentarily, resulting in a ‘feel good’ factor but not alleviating poverty permanently.
Accordingly, after interacting with the locals, Zikra took another direction. It evolved from one-way charitable offerings to a structure of two-way exchanges and partnership aimed at expanding people’s capabilities. These exchanges involve urban Ammanites signing up for day trips to Ghour AlMazra’a, where the locals escort them through different stops and activities that reflect their everyday life. Village women introduce the visitors to activities that include tomato-picking, bread-baking, making cosmetics and knitting, while children also participate by demonstrating traditional street games. This kind of ‘exchange tourism’ utilizes the assets of the rural communities and gives them a sense of pride in their culture; urban visitors, in turn, have an opportunity to appreciate a rural lifestyle based on producing and farming rather than on consumerism. The trip concludes with a traditional lunch of tomato and bread cooked together by the locals and the visitors.
The revenues generated from the trips are invested in three programmes: the Interest-Free Micro Loan Fund, the Development through Art and Culture Program, and the Zikra Education Fund. Families who take out interest-free loans to invest in an income-generating enterprise repay the loans by participating as hosts for the above-mentioned tours.
In the Development through Art and Culture Program, Zikra partners with private companies and talented individuals to conduct vocational and arts workshops (in handicrafts, photography and film-making) in Ghour AlMazra’a. In exchange, the facilitators receive an understanding of the village lifestyle and engage in community discovery trips with local participants. As a result, many hidden talents from Ghour AlMazra’a have been discovered and enhanced, and some have even become internationally known. In addition to giving the community innovative means of self-expression, these workshops provide it with unconventional sources of income.
Case study 4: Hills Skate Park - A community-built skate park in Amman
In October 2014, three friends initiated an online crowdfunding campaign to renovate a public space and build a skate park in Amman. The idea was triggered by the fact that people lack public recreational facilities in the Jordanian capital. The co-founders chose a crowdfunding campaign in preference to pursuing corporate- or donor-led funding options. ‘The idea is neither to turn into marketing channels for the corporate sector nor to be implementers for donors’ policies; we wanted to create something from the people to the people, as community owned as possible.’
The government facilitated the paperwork for permission to build the skate park, and was informed that money would be raised online. However, it never asked the co-founders to set up a legal entity or to get the prior consent of the Ministry of Social Development and the Council of Ministers, as the law stipulates when receiving both domestic and foreign funding. The money was sent from crowdfunding website www.Indiegogo.com to an NGO, Make Life Skate Life, run by one of the co-founders based in Germany.
Since the NGO is not registered in Jordan as a foreign NGO, he travelled to Jordan with the money and started funding construction of the park. The construction process involved both professional builders and community members working as volunteers. ‘We even had a 60-year-old man who would show up every day and help us move the bricks.’ The park now offers a space for young people to enjoy.
Many of the skaters come from broken homes or refugee families, and this park was built in the hope of giving them a healthy, free and accessible resource for having fun. An on-site equipment loan system was established to provide free skateboard rentals for those who cannot afford to buy their own.
Through online crowdfunding, the organizers were able to complete the project within three months without the paperwork or scrutiny that a traditional aid arrangement would require. However, the co-founders do report back to the individual funders periodically via online updates. ‘The community is very happy, even the Imam in the mosque brought us Knafeh.’ When asked if they are thinking of registering their initiative formally, the cofounders answered that they are not, as this would incur an extra financial and time burden. This initiative shares some features with the other organizations described above. One is a growing sense of engagement with global issues, facilitated by technology and social media.
There is a sense of detachment from the agendas of international donors, and a desire to move away from formal frameworks and institutions towards informal work and new types of organization. While the idea of a skate park may seem a luxury for some, the moral behind it is meaningful: ‘In skating, if you’re not falling, you’re not trying,’ says one of the co-founders. ‘I guess the reason I’ve stuck with it this long is I don’t mind failing.’ The initiative shows the possibilities for innovative funding and organization models to take place below the radar, especially if they are for initiatives unrelated to formal politics. Below the surface, such models also constitute potentially significant enablers of social change, underpinned by a more active approach on the part of engaged young citizens.