Civil society in Lebanon has a long history of activity, stepping in where the government has been unable to attend to the needs of its citizens, mobilizing into organizations aimed at providing these services. However, just how active the sector is has proven hard to measure, and thus enhance.
Even the exact number of registered civil society organizations, also known as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), in Lebanon is hard to come by, but it is estimated to be around 8,000 across various sectors. A 2015 report by Beirut-based consulting firm Beyond Reform and Development states that in April 2014 there were 8,311 civil society organizations, in addition to 180 youth and sports clubs. However this number does not include informal operations. There is also widespread anecdotal evidence of inactivity—besides the more serious allegations of mismanagement and outright corruption. While there is scarce research on the amount of NGO activities and the number of active NGOs, it is suggested that quite a few of the registered organizations are not active at all.
This topic came to light last month with the launch of the American University of Beirut (AUB)’s Non-Governmental Organization Initiative (NGOi), launched via the Global Health Institute (GHI) and the office of Regional External Programs, and aimed at developing and empowering NGOs operating in the country. During the event, Dr. Shadi Saleh, founding director of GHI, said there are over 10,000 NGOs in Lebanon—a staggering number for a country of less than 11,000 square kilometers, and considered to be the highest number of NGOs per capita in the region.
The fact that there is much uncertainty about the size and effectiveness of civil society initiatives raises questions over practices in the sector. According to officials at AUB, the lack of communication and coordination among organizations, even those that tackle similar issues and work with the same communities, is also problematic.
Everything has its price
NGOi intends to be a regional hub for the NGO sector, offering certification for those who meet their criteria, as well as training and capacity building courses, a knowledge resource center, and a platform for organizations to meet and share knowledge. While an initiative to support thousands of NGOs appears at first glance noble, NGOi’s costs and approach raised a few eyebrows during its launch ceremony on April 11.
The annual membership costs per NGO (for being part of the NGOi network) was cited as $400, with a maximum of five members registered per NGO. Individuals can also become members for a fee of $120 per person. Membership comes with benefits such as a 20 percent discount and priority registration for NGOi’s courses, but does not guarantee certification.
To apply for NGO certification, NGOs must first be members of the NGOi community. In order to then be certified by NGOi, they must be officially registered as an NGO in Lebanon and meet the allotted criteria in 10 subtopics: governance and strategic planning, financial management, risk management and compliance, legal management, community centricity, staff and volunteer management, program and project management, resource and asset management, proposal writing and management, and communication and reporting. These were consolidated from a combination of standards used by various other organizations and experts according to NGOi Co-Manager Afif Tabsh.
NGOi’s course offerings include training sessions in strategy, operations, fundraising, and communications and reporting. Each 32-hour course costs $500 per person. Batches of four courses are considered certificates, while eight courses are a diploma. There is also a comprehensive development program that works as a 10-day intensive training course across all 10 of NGOi’s certifications standards at the cost of $1200.
NGO certification itself costs $3,500 (inclusive of membership) and lasts for only two years, after which the organization must reapply. The payment must be made before the certification is achieved and the fee is not returned if an NGO is unsuccessful. To mitigate the risk of NGOs paying the fee only to discover they do not meet the certification criteria, NGOi plans to host free workshops to clarify the criteria so that organizations can ensure they are up to standard before applying. After the initial certification process, NGOi will provide all applicants—successful and unsuccessful—with a breakdown report and those that do not meet all the criteria can use this feedback to address the gaps in their work, with a six month window to reapply without being charged again for the process.
Tabsh clarified at the event that AUB was not an official accrediting body, but that the certification would mean an NGO has met all the criteria set by the university. He went on to explain that NGOs accredited by NGOi will be able to boast recognition by the top-tier educational institution. During his presentation at the launch, he argued that accreditation would increase NGOs’ credibility when speaking to donors, beneficiaries and partners, as well as membership of NGOi facilitating performance improvements via its courses and granting access to other NGOs in the network.
While AUB and government officials who spoke during the ceremony commended the efforts of the program, the Q&A portion of the launch ceremony saw audience hands jolt up throughout the room. Several attendees made the point that NGOi’s fees were prohibitively high, with one audience member explaining that many small organizations that work with disadvantaged communities receive little financial support and simply cannot afford such costs. In addition to that, she explained that they may not even be able to justify that cost because they would see little value in programs that cater to those seeking the credibility and skills needed to approach international donors and organizations. Several audience members also reminded the organizers that not everyone in these communities has the language level required to benefit from NGOi’s workshops and resources, which will be held in English.
A starting point
Tabsh responded to audience criticisms by arguing that NGOi was “a starting point and a work in progress” that will continue to develop, but that their main focus was helping NGOs and the communities they serve. The organizers also said that they were working on producing Arabic-language training courses for the future.
The initiative is definitely a start—and likely a step in the right direction. But it also seems prone to untie a whole bag of questions of concern for both the targeted NGO community and the ambitious organizers of the NGOi: Who exactly is the target for this program, and is there a sizable portion of the thousands of locally operating NGOs that would actually take part? While there is a large hypothetical market, how much of it is an addressable market? Meaning, how many local, registered, capacious, and ambitious organizations, who are not already partaking in this kind of training, would be interested in this program?
It is not certain how many registered NGOs, which are local or branches of international organizations with legislative licenses, are actually large enough to have the finances to allot to this certification and training. On the other hand, there is also the question of how many smaller NGOs—including those that work on volunteer basis, or very small scale, or are philanthropic endeavors by public figures—would aspire to the kinds of standards set by NGOi. On top of that, there may be local NGOs not interested in receiving American certification, as mentioned by one audience member at the event. Lastly, it is not sure to what degree such a program would actually generate improvement in the ways NGOs operate, and reduce malpractice.
NGOi is raising more questions than it is providing answers, but the initiative is engaging a vital sector in a necessary conversation. If it is flexible enough to accommodate local needs, the NGOi program could empower these organizations, and the communities and causes they work to support.