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
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
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
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