Challenges Facing Civil Society Organizations in Bahrain:

Lack of Voluntary Sprit and Funding

Hasan Moosa Shafaei

Before the reform period, the main complaint focused on the society’s inability to express its hopes as well the lack of channels in which the public could participate in the building of their desired society. The complaints also centered on the lack of opportunities to establish civil society organizations (CSOs), as the authority at that time was considered oppressive and did not want such organizations to be established or work outside its control. Or else it may have wanted to establish some organizations, but under its own umbrella in order to serve its own purpose and agenda.

When the reform project began, the public started joining political and human rights societies, charity funds, committees, clubs, unions and various kinds of societies. These organizations covered most of the issues that concerned citizens and included all social segments such as women, youth, handicapped, children, foreign workers, unemployed and elderly etc.

The establishment of such societies, unions, committees and clubs no longer poses a problem. It has become very easy for any group to be registered in the Ministry of Social Development. The political authority- at the beginning of the reform period- was excited as well about the establishment of CSOs and, in fact, pushed towards the establishment of more, made the procedures easy and even turned a blind eye to some shortcomings. What matters for the Government is that society is moving and becomes publicly active, but within clear and defined laws and regulations.

During the last years nearly 450 CSOs were established. However, it appears now that these CSOs face new challenges within the socio-political environment under which they operate. Because such challenges are numerous, only two challenges will be discussed based on the present experience:

1- The absence of voluntary spirit

Essentially, CSOs are voluntary in nature, as they are formed independently by some members of the society and depend upon its human and financial resources. The number of volunteers and donors increases with how active the society is. And sometimes the scope of interest for CSOs also widens to include unimaginable subjects. However, when the spirit of volunteering weakens, these CSOs become weak also and deteriorate to the extent that they are unable to perform their tasks, and could also fail to accomplish what they were eager to carry out.

We witnessed an explosion in the establishment of CSOs at the beginning of the reform period. This reveals that the elite in society were aware of the importance of these organizations and their role, which led them to hasten towards forming them, followed by a large number of people who rushed to show their support and registered their names as members with some help, encouragement and financial support from the Government.

But today and after many years of civil work, it is noticeable that a large number of these CSOs are going through an inactive phase, and are unable to accomplish anything. Some have even been reduced to mere names on a piece of paper with no activity whatsoever. What has happened? And why? Was the initial eagerness merely an emotional outburst resulting from years of deprivation and oppression, which quickly subsided after officially registering these organizations?

Most CSOs are complaining of a lack of volunteers and donors, which has affected their performance. If a society neglects its CSOs, the latter will become isolated and helpless due to the lack of human and financial resources. Perhaps this is what is happening now.

The question is: why the spirit of volunteering declined in society? Does the problem lie in the CSOs’ failure to convince people of their message? Or perhaps Bahraini society is new to this experience and is now preoccupied with other worries? Or perhaps there is a lack of understanding of CSOs’ role. It is as though there are intellectuals who are fully aware of their role, but cannot find workers from the masses to implement their ideas.

It is noticeable that some sectors of society do not offer any kind of help to CSOs, but at the same time have high expectations in them, which exceed the CSOs’ capacity. Perhaps we should mention here the fact that some individuals do not even differentiate between the specialties of the various societies. For example, they might even demand a solution for the unemployment crisis from a human rights society! Or ask for financial support from one that is itself in need of money.

Moreover, CSOs, in general, depend on a small number of fully devoted individuals and the rest of the work is performed by volunteers. In Bahrain, there are shortages in both. There is a lack of fully devoted individuals due to limited resources, and hence people work only during their spare time. And in addition to this, the number of volunteers is also insufficient, so how can such organizations produce, develop themselves and have an impact on society?

2-Lack of adequate funding

There are two sources of funding: the membership subscription fees of the locals and limited governmental funding. The lack of adequate funding for many societies (including those with prestigious positions such as the Transparency Society which is a member of Transparency International) is such that they are unable to rent out offices or employ a few professional staff, let alone fund their activities, publish their publications and cover travel and accommodation expenses.

Currently, many CSOs are in a very difficult position. The Government says that it supports these institutions, and the society, from its part, expects tangible services. But how is this possible when the laws governing these CSOs forbid receiving any ‘foreign funding’ even from similar organizations abroad?

We believe that the Government bears a big part of the responsibility for the weakness of CSOs because what they have allocated so far for funding CSOs is insufficient. And if the Government believes in the necessity of making the experience of these organizations successful - in a society that is new to the democratic experience - it should recognize the difficulties facing these institutions as many of them are inactive due to financial problems.

And thus, the least the Government can do is to provide either permanent or rented offices to these organizations, as well as bearing some of the expenses so that skilled staff can be hired, and professionalism and the ability to interact with society can be developed.

It is shameful, for instance, that the Bahraini Women’s Union, which is an umbrella for tens of various women societies, is threatened, at present, to be evicted from its office because the Government had refused to pay the rent. Can such a policy improve the experience of Bahraini CSOs?

If sufficient funding is not provided locally by the public and Government, the organizations should not be blamed if they turn to foreign aid. Also, if the Government decides to increase its funding to these organizations, this should be done free from any political bias.