Current Affairs

How NGOs Abandoned the Middle East’s Radicals

The smiley photo-ops and peppy press releases of NGOs in the Middle East obscure the fact that these organizations are often an obstacle to real freedom.

Keeping up appearances is hard work. I learned that when I worked for a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Amman, Jordan. As Jordan’s only government watchdog, this NGO is a favorite of the international donor scene. Much of its money comes from powerful countries like the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union member states, and its biggest task is parliamentary election monitoring. 

Every time an election is called, the organization sends droves of volunteers to polling places to ensure the voting process runs smoothly. At polling stations across the country, these volunteers meticulously document every small irregularity for the NGO’s employees to analyze. Staff at the office work 12-hour shifts, joke about sleeping under their desks as they draw up shiny graphs on voting, and film informational videos to be shared online. It’s a gargantuan undertaking in the quest to ensure Jordan’s parliament is democratically elected.

The only problem is that Jordan’s parliament is basically powerless. Though it’s nominally in charge of passing laws, the King has veto power over any bill, and parliament rarely proposes a law the King disagrees with. On top of that, the King controls the armed forces and holds decisive sway over its courts.

Parliament’s function, which is universally understood in Jordan but rarely explicitly acknowledged, is to be a pressure release valve for the King if the going gets tough. When an ill-fated policy, like austerity, begins to impact people in adverse ways and they take to the streets, the existence of parliament allows them to march to the Prime Minister’s office instead of the King’s palace. The King then dissolves parliament through a Royal Decree and calls a new election. The new Prime Minister is given the unsavory task of being the face of yet more unpopular policies. This happens every couple of years.

It’s the King who rules Jordan, not parliament. If Jordan’s NGOs, and by extension their powerful Western donors, were serious about promoting democracy in Jordan, they’d simply call for the transfer of power from the King to parliament. 

Of course, this never happens.

Making that call would unsettle the political landscape of Jordan, and the role of NGOs within it. NGOs would have to meaningfully side with the people, and against the government. They could lose their funding if they did this; their workers could get deported during the revolt, their leaders arrested. Some may wind up dead. A democratic Jordan may then do outrageous things like roll back the gutting of its public sector, nationalize key industries, or be more outspoken against American imperialism in the region. Wealthy NGO donors can’t have that.

Instead of working toward democracy, donors and NGOs will extol the virtues of democracy without ever seriously committing themselves to it. In the process, they give the appearance that democracy is alive and well while silently ensuring that power stays firmly in the hands of the monarchy and far away from the people. Problems of poverty and powerlessness are handled as apolitical tasks that can be solved through thousands of small projects, and not broad class struggle.

This happens in poor and exploited regions all over the world.

Scholars were warning against the destruction of Kenya’s public health sector by ‘NGO‐isation’ as early as 1998. Throughout the 2000s, feminists and academics were decrying the damage NGOs were causing in Palestine by undermining popular movements for national sovereignty with neoliberal projects under the guise of “development.” In the Appalachian region of the United States, keen observers have noted that the poor are left jobless and alienated while millions of dollars flow into NGOs which do basically nothing. After the explosion in Beirut’s port destroyed much of the city in August 2020, international NGOs rushed in, derailing local activists and unions’ own organizing efforts.

But ringing alarm bells about NGOs’ perilous impacts have apparently done little to stop their rapid growth. Making sure never to seriously offend their donors or the host governments that allow them to operate, NGOs rake in billions selling themselves as motors of civil society and “development” while sapping power from radical grassroots movements that could  leverage demands against the state. 

I saw this happen in real-time in Jordan. Throughout the country, labor activists risk their lives to provide a better future for their communities and are ignored by NGOs, whose staff live and work in a sequestered bubble—far away from the struggles of the people they claim to be empowering. 

A Segregated Outlook

The first thing I learned about Amman was that an invisible line divided it into two parts: West Amman and East Amman. 

In West Amman, walled-off villas feature wrap-around gardens growing limes and oranges. Boutique cafes serving cappuccinos to its wealthy residents flourish while armored personnel carriers idle across the street. Here, highly educated expatriate workers intermingle with local elites who are collectively tone deaf to the material struggles of the underclass. There is no such thing as solidarity or liberation in West Amman. But in the underclass’ world, these concepts are crucial to their survival.

In East Amman, unfinished buildings are piled onto each other, and large families fit multiple generations of members into single flats. Narrow streets weave between poor and working class neighborhoods that sprawl into the desert. Many inhabitants are refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Iraq who oscillate between unemployment and underemployment in Jordan’s informal market. In some of these neighborhoods, like the Palestinian-dominated Wehdat, there is little to no police presence except on days where Wehdat’s professional soccer club is scheduled to play.

While West Amman is quiet and spacious, East Amman is stifling and claustrophobic. This type of class divide is replicated in cities throughout West Asia and North Africa that have a heavy security-development presence, from Baghdad to Juba and Nairobi.

For those living in West Amman, there is little reason to ever step foot into East Amman except to work on an NGO project designed to help the poor or marginalized in some way. And for those living in East Amman, there is little reason to venture into West Amman except to work as a gardener or cook for the wealthy, or as a construction worker building the next Starbucks. 

After the 2003 Iraq War and Arab Spring revolts of 2011, countless NGOs relocated their headquarters and field offices from wartorn countries into Abdoun, Weibdeh, Jabal Amman, and al-Shmaisani—neighborhoods in West Amman. Arabic language schools closed their doors in Aleppo, Damascus, and Cairo, and reopened in those same neighborhoods in West Amman. Finance capital and humanitarian aid flowed into Jordan, which began taking in huge waves of refugees. Jordan’s dependency on foreign aid deepened, and it began looking more and more like a “Republic of NGOs.” 

Poor neighborhoods, like Al Qayseyyeh, that stood in the way of new residential and diplomatic buildings were quickly demolished; their inhabitants getting next to no compensation for their displacement. As West Amman expanded with brand new glass buildings and mansions guarded by security, East Amman gained more dense networks of concrete blocks and metal signs letting passers-by know the rusty playground across the street was, in fact, funded by USAID—a U.S. agency often engaged in soft imperialism—in a collaboration with a local NGO that may not exist anymore. The split between West and East Amman ossified.

By the time I arrived in Amman to study Arabic in 2016, the divide had become so naturalized that local news outlets I read offered different weather forecasts for each wing of the city.

I, like so many others from Europe and the United States who ventured to Amman, thought the best way to make a difference in the region was to gain employment in a nonprofit NGO. Surrounded by their offices and immersed in the West Amman world of nonprofit workers, it seemed the most intuitive thing to do. It didn’t hurt that the only kinds of organizations that paid expatriates to stay in the Middle East were the ones well-connected to powerful donor agencies like USAID, the U.K.’s Department for International Development (DFID), the European Union, and Western embassies.

Once I entered the nonprofit world, I noticed terms like democracy, equality, empowerment, and civil society were buzzwords the NGOs used to advertise themselves outwardly. Inside, most are stuffed with labyrinthian mazes of bureaucracy, specialization, and intractable hierarchy. There are project managers operating within proprietary project management software, grant application writers gaining fluency in flowery NGO-speak, separate staff using expensive geographic information systems (GIS) and customer relations management (CRM) interfaces, donor relations specialists, logistics, monitoring, and accountability officers, and flocks of jet-setting consultants who recycle pitches and presentations freely between wildly different organizations. Most of these positions and the senior-level management jobs are quietly reserved for the multiple-degree-having white expat worker, while underpaid local staff are relegated to the field with few opportunities to get promoted.

Far less emphasis is put on striving for “democracy” than quantifying “key performance indicators” and accounting for “deliverables” in glossy reports that nearly always give the impression every project is a towering success—never the dismal failure they often are. 

Any semblance of horizontal organizing disappears as massive donor agencies are catered to by large international NGOs who capture much of the money on offer in the international development and humanitarian world. Meanwhile, smaller local NGOs are stuck scavenging for scrap grants to do micro-scale projects. Internal communication breakdowns run rife, staff are constantly rotating between projects and countries, and coordination between different organizations is virtually nonexistent. A dedication to neutrality and an apolitical concept of “human development” informs the process and end-goal of large NGOs’ projects, which take the form of short-term programs whose scope is determined by finances. 

In Jordan, humanitarian projects aimed at helping refugees and under-served communities sometimes look like direct assistance in helping with food provisions and hygiene. However, there are countless more attempts to alleviate the impacts of being powerless by offering them feel-good ways to fill time. Refugees in Jordan can take classes in Brazilian jiu-jitsu fight-dancing, “trauma-informed” yoga, drama and theater, and painting. Some can even learn how to skate. With any luck, these activities can build lasting social bonds among the poor, and give them something to look forward to.

Many of these programs are advertised to donors as easy ways to relieve the stress of being a refugee or exploited child laborer. The sources of this stress, such as being a powerless refugee without rights, remain unsolved. The success of these programs is measured in how many refugees they can involve, rather than how effectively they defend those people’s rights. Refugees’ livelihoods are gamified—the scope of their activities and suffering packaged into statistics and testimonies read by no one.

Development-minded projects that are designed to have a sustainable impact involve integrating vulnerable populations into neoliberal wage labor regimes in the form of vocational skills training. Refugees and women living in poverty have an endless stream of sewing and cooking workshops to give them a way to sell their labor on the extractive market. Perusing West Amman shops, expats then get the opportunity to buy pottery, purses, jewelry, soaps, mosaics, and jackets made by the vulnerable with the promise that a portion of the funds will go back to those who made the handicrafts.

But even these projects are rarely designed to succeed.

To give an illustrative example, after I stopped working at NGOs and became a journalist, I investigated economic inequality in southern Jordan. In one small and impoverished Beduin town, local aid workers tried to train women in culinary skills to make food for markets. The project got a $5,000 grant from a USAID program aimed at promoting small businesses, but the town didn’t have a kitchen to start the training. When the community and aid workers tried to contact USAID about providing technical expertise to build the kitchen, they were ignored, so they resorted to building the kitchen themselves. To get help with training and moving food into markets, the workers again asked USAID for help, and again they were ignored. After a few months, USAID abruptly ended its small-business program in Jordan entirely, and the effort was abandoned.

“USAID just throws money into the hands of these people, and they don’t follow-up,” an aid worker involved said to me at the time. 

Another aid worker agreed, adding “we felt it was really unfair that in some database somewhere, it would be documented that this village had received a grant, where in fact no one really followed up with where the money went.” 

In the absence of a functioning economy in this town and dozens of others in southern Jordan, a growing number of desperate youth are pushed into smuggling drugs—an extremely dangerous job since border troops in the region shoot smugglers on sight. Even more attempt to numb the pain through drug use. Either way, poor families are left to helplessly watch their prospects dwindle and their children die.

For the few development projects which do get off the ground, when it comes to ensuring equality in worker protections like a living wage or residency status for refugees—things that would require confronting corporate and state power—the NGO world goes silent. The hyper-professionalized experts suddenly have nothing to offer, and market whims determine the fate of those integrated into it. There is never a project proposal to take to the streets, to occupy strategic buildings, to get arrested in front of the international press, to unionize the precarious workers, to agitate for mass politics. 

The pro-democracy facade of NGOs is wiped away, and the vulnerable are thrown to the wolves. 

The Radicals Ignored by NGOs 

Inside the exclusive realm of West Amman, NGO leaders and elite human rights advocates sometimes get together for fancy meals. Over soufflés, hors d’oeuvres, and the occasional glass of wine, they brainstorm about future projects and take turns congratulating each other on what a great job they’re doing. If the NGO I worked for hosted one, I was expected to stand, smile, and hand out gift bags to our esteemed attendees. I tried my best to hide from sight. 

In one such gathering of wealthy feminists in 2010 hosted by the Jordanian government, the elite nonprofit sector was forced to temporarily confront one of the people they plaster on their brochures but abandon in the real world.

A middle-aged man, who no one at the meeting recognized, stood up. “Where were you?” he asked the elites in a thick accent that told them he was from the rural areas of Jordan. The man was Mohammed Snayd, and he was the leader of the Day-Waged Labor Movement (DWLM), which was a collection of day-waged laborers who had been protesting for better working conditions since 2006. They staged sit-ins and had developed a decentralized telephone network to coordinate and mobilize. Most who were involved in the movement were women working for the Ministry of Agriculture. Because they were day-waged workers they were paid for daily work as opposed to receiving regular monthly salaries, they weren’t protected by the country’s minimum wage law and weren’t given retirement funds or health insurance. 

Underpaid, overworked, entrapped by debt, and living in poverty, day-waged workers began organizing for better labor protections. Their primary demand was for the abolition of the category of “day-waged labor” entirely, and for all day-waged workers to be treated as permanent employees. They also demanded a living wage. 

After years of struggling to be heard by the government, the DWLM had just done the unthinkable in the culturally conservative country of Jordan: they had staged a mixed gender sleep-in demonstration outside Jordan’s Royal Court. The move was enthusiastically supported by the workers’ families in spite of the stigma and danger around the protest tactic. It was one of the most ground-breaking forms of protest the region had seen in a century, and the elites of West Amman never knew it happened. “Where were you? Why didn’t you support [the women]?” Snayd asked the wealthy activists. They dismissed him and his cause as irrelevant to them. 

Awareness of the DWLM spread through word-of-mouth at the time, and the West Amman activist crowd evidently did not have enough contacts within the country’s working class to know what it was or what it was accomplishing. 

In NGO-speak, the DWLM could be a dream come true for nonprofits. Here was a women-led, horizontal grassroots movement mobilizing in search of empowerment. It was everything local and international NGOs describe their primary missions to be about. But the workers weren’t looking for wealthy donors to finance a project, or to be taught how to make rugs. They wanted solidarity in a class struggle. Their empowerment came from confronting the state and the market, and demanding concessions. Their type of feminism wasn’t the liberal, representational kind espoused by the NGOs, it was imbued with labor radicalism.

Agricultural workers like Mohammed Snayd had already witnessed the failures of elites and NGOs to help them. In fact, Snayd’s activism came in part from suffering through the government taking away his livelihood and replacing it with the false promise of an NGO project. In the central region of Dhiban, where Snayd and many of his fellow DWLM members are from, breeding livestock and working on small-scale farms were the primary economic lifelines. To support them, the Jordanian government heavily subsidized livestock feed. However, facing pressure by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to implement austerity for the public sector, Jordan began cutting back on these livestock feed subsidies. This raised the cost of keeping livestock so much that it became financially untenable. Herds shrank and eventually disappeared.

In a half-hearted attempt to intervene against the steady impoverishment of the region, a government-organized “NGO” run by the Queen at the time, Noor Al Hussein, set up an almond tree farm. Locals derided the project, and predicted it would fail because the region didn’t have enough water to sustain the cultivation of almonds. This is because in 1992, the government began directing the region’s water supply to the rapidly growing metropolis of Amman, which dried up the land. The NGO did nothing to get the region’s water supply back. Locals pleaded for more investment, but were ignored. Their prediction turned out to be correct: the farm could not sustainably grow crops, and was soon shut down.

“All of the development projects are neglecting the core elements of Dhiban’s economic history that have always been its strengths,” Snayd said. “The government is neglecting agriculture and breeders.”

Many of Dhiban’s farmers, including Snayd, were pushed into precarious day-waged labor. In this context, the DWLM represented a resounding call from Jordan’s agricultural workers to reclaim a sense of dignity and economic self-determination. Their campaign was a groundbreaking success in two ways.

First, they were able to secure permanent employment for tens of thousands of workers and day-wage laborers. Second, through their innovative tactics and unflinching demands for workers’ rights, they catalyzed a new wave of popular movements centered around economic demands. DWLM organizers in Dhiban were the first in Jordan* to begin protesting in the so-called “Arab Spring,” on January 7, 2011. This made them among the first in the region to mobilize after Tunisia began its own revolutionary movement a few weeks earlier. 

*Sadly, those curious about the DWLM’s role in the Arab Spring will find little information available online. There are precious few written accounts of radical Jordanian labor movements and their impact. There was virtually no contemporaneous reporting on the DWLM or the network it formed which then activated in early 2011, and so information regarding it has come mostly from oral interviews conducted years later. 

In Dhiban, which was quickly gaining the reputation for being a bastion of labor activism, Snayd helped to establish the “Dhiban Youth Committee,” organizing new youth-led protests around the country. Veterans of the DWLM drew thousands into Jordan’s streets to demand an end to austerity and corruption, and for the government to raise the minimum wage. Named the Jordanian Popular Movement, or Hirak for short, the demonstrations temporarily brought life in Jordan to a near halt. In a rare move, protest leaders bypassed the farcical parliament and called out the monarchy directly. 

Inspired by the day-waged workers’ success as well, phosphate miners struck several times in 2009 and port workers in Aqaba went on strike in December 2011. Protesting school teachers asked DWLM organizers for advice on how to build a formidable movement, and launched a barrage of protests including sit-ins and a strike. By the end of 2011, their union, the Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS), was recognized by the government. It represented nearly every teacher in the country, garnering about 140,000 members. In a country of about 10 million people, the JTS thus spoke for a sizable part of its entire labor force. In total there were over 840 labor actions in 2011, including strikes, walk-outs, and protests by nurses, doctors, construction workers, water and sanitation workers, and service workers. The labor movement in Jordan had been revitalized.

When the government started a new round of austerity-minded cuts to the public sector a few years later, protests again erupted throughout Jordan. Most prominently, teachers demanded an increase of their wage, which had remained stagnant for years and stood slightly above the country’s poverty line. Because the size of the union was so large, such a demand would have effectively raised the living standard of nearly every single Jordanian family in the country, since almost every family has at least one teacher in it. 

An obstinate government intent on meeting the recommendations of the IMF rebuffed the teachers. Talks quickly broke down, and the JTS began an indefinite strike in September 2019, closing nearly every school in the country for a month. 

Teachers and students held daily rallies where they persevered through beatings and other intimidation tactics by riot police. To end the strike, the government agreed to a series of wage increases. But by the spring of 2020, the government announced it was back-tracking on the deal. The JTS immediately began preparations for a new nationwide pressure campaign, which would culminate in another indefinite strike. The government wouldn’t have that. 

Before the campaign could get underway, security forces raided every JTS office branch in the country in July, arrested its leadership, and announced the union was now illegal. The move shocked Jordanians, who turned out in nearly every city and town to protest. Marches in solidarity with the union overtook major city highways. Protesters gave passionate speeches from the frontlines of police barricades.

“I am the country, I am the nation. I taught you how to love the nation. I taught you the national anthem! I taught you how to draw the flag. How do you dare to raise an arm at me?!,” one teacher was filmed saying.

Videos of police brutality against the teachers spread through social media networks while the government banned reporting on the crackdown. About 1,000 teachers were arrested. Journalists caught covering it were also targeted by the state. 

These were the largest protests in the country since the DWLM-inspired uprising of 2011. The JTS was possibly the largest civil society organization in the entire nation: over 100,000 members strong standing together in solidarity, defending themselves and their communities. Its dissolution dealt an irreparable blow to exactly the types of civil power NGOs boast about empowering. And where were the NGOs? Even though their senior staff hadn’t heard of the DWLM, they surely noticed the JTS’ historic strike, the crackdown, the police riots, and the mass arrests even from their palaces in West Amman.

Humanitarian-focused NGOs could have handed out water and food to the protesters. They could have organized medical treatment for those beaten in the streets or tortured in Jordan’s detention centers. Development-minded NGOs could have backed the beloved union, since its demands related to the financial wellbeing of the entire country and the integrity of its public sector. 

Every NGO could have helped organize resistance with the union, sent its senior staff in front of police barricades, raised money for the strike fund, ran international media campaigns for the workers, or pushed donor countries to stand with the union. Wouldn’t the donors love to hear about a client NGO taking such initiative to empower “local beneficiaries”? Apparently not. NGOs’ conspicuous silence proved they were ultimately beholden to the Jordanian government and their wealthy financiers, who themselves are preoccupied with ensuring Arabs stay out of Europe, and were not concerned with the people’s wellbeing. The nonprofit scene mostly ignored the plight of the teachers, save for Human Rights Watch who collected stories of police brutality and condemned the crackdown.

By September the teachers were crushed, and the JTS was obliterated. 

Both the Day-Waged Labor Movement and the teachers’ revolt tried to beat back an inhumane capitalist market enforced by state power. But because NGOs rely on the state and market, they end up functioning as counterrevolutionary obstacles standing in the way of these popular movements. At best, they soften the blow of being rendered powerless and disposable. 

Living in Amman, I got the sense many seasoned NGO workers know this.

Isolating ourselves in fancy, overpriced bars in luxury hotels, a conversation among expats and rich locals inevitably arises around midnight when a few drinks have relaxed the atmosphere. The project is falling through, the dance class isn’t helping an impoverished family in any meaningful way, the donors don’t look interested in giving another grant. The colorful reports we enthused over in the beginning feel ridiculous now that we’re the ones writing them, and we know how much of it mystifies the situation on the ground. A sense of defeat looms over us.

Sometimes this feeling is bitterly projected onto locals in racist tirades declaring them lazy or not yet ready to have the kind of democracy the West enjoys. Other times it comes out as a quiet, resigned sadness that our hopes of transforming lives will never be realized, that projects will never be enough. We glance at a table of young and excited-looking expats practicing Arabic and give them a wry smile. Their dreams will be dashed like ours were, or they’ll leave before this realization ever sets in. These moments come and go. More drinks bring conversations back around to the latest office gossip. 

For the cynical NGO worker who sees the futility of projects and feels the sense of adventure being replaced by a desire for comfort, the only thing left to do is try to simulate the feeling of being home while knowing at least they’re doing something, anything to help. Muttering “it’s better than nothing,” the NGO worker lulls himself to sleep.

But as we sulk, gossip, and accept awards on behalf of our organizations at mansions with pools, the real heroes—radical labor activists—are getting arrested, interrogated, and even tortured by the secret police. There will be no ritzy award ceremony for the Mohammed Snayds of the world, at least not until they die and their movements against capitalism cease to be a threat.

The cause of labor goes on without the backing of the NGOs. 

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