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The state of civil society
Smoldering in Tehran, Part 7



Sima Nahan
November 30, 2005

Some time in the 1990s, “civil society” -- jame’e-ye madani -- entered popular and official parlance.  Loosely connected to Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations,” nongovernmental organizations popped up everywhere and NGO became a familiar word. Over 2000 registered NGOs were listed in a resource publication by the end of the decade. While religious charities and “G-NGOs” -- governmental non-governmental organizations -- comprised a great many of the listed organizations, many impressive grassroots efforts were also made. Having contacts in a number of old and new civic organizations in Iran, I started my own nonprofit in the U.S. to mobilize international support for the terrific work that these organizations did >>> Photos

Some of the best Iranian organizations were both hesitant and reluctant to make contact with international organizations. Never sure of how the Iranian government might respond to this attempt, they weighed every move with utmost caution. On the political level, there was skepticism about the motives of international organizations and fear on the side of the Iranians that they might inadvertently be pulled into serving hidden political agendas. On the professional level, many Iranian NGOs felt that by collaborating with international organizations they would end up doing the work -- for no or very little money -- for which the international organizations would get the credit. They were quite aware that lucrative “development” careers were made at the expense of local NGOs.

Nevertheless, the desire to break through their international isolation was strong and many NGOs agreed to work with me. Our gingerly steps came to a stop after 9/11 when even lip-service support in America for any democratic activity in Iran seemed to vanish. I was quite surprised last winter, then, to receive calls from American organizations to whom I had applied for grants years ago. Suddenly there seemed to be new interest in contacting civil society organizations in Iran and offering assistance.

By this time, however, new reservations were added to the old ones about working with Americans. The war in Iraq had made Iranians uneasy about U.S. plans in the region. There was renewed mistrust and skepticism with respect to American organizations. Certainly any contact with Americans, let alone acceptance of assistance from them, was dangerous.

“We are dangling by a hair,” one experienced NGO activist told me. “One controversial move and we’re gone.”

“Weren’t some of the so-called civil society organizations that were involved in the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela funded by Americans?” another asked.

I had declined the offer of assistance from the American organizations without having the chance to consult all my NGO “partners.” Having little time in Iran, and weary of the push to co-opt civil society by both domestic and international ulterior motives, I only talked to people I personally knew, letting them know of the interest of American organizations.

The people I talked to listened with interest, some with amusement. With the profound uncertainty brought on by the elections, any lengthy discussion about the pros and cons of international contact seemed a waste of time. “We have learned to live in bunkers,” a friend said. “Now we have to add a layer or two of reinforcement to the bunkers and hope to survive.” But I saw that they were not passively sitting in their bunkers.

The Bam earthquake had taught the NGO community good lessons in preparing for the next disaster. An ambitious new umbrella organization of national NGOs and corporate donors was formed to improve coordination in the event of another emergency. A small group giving education and support to mothers on child-bearing and child-rearing issues had grown into a large and busy organization. They just completed a series of public education pamphlets, funded by the office of President Khatami.

A children’s literature organization founded in the 1960s had expanded into publishing books for children with various disabilities. A private foundation providing small loans in the form of sewing and fruit-drying machines to woman heads of household had grown steadily. A center for street children, an offshoot of a children’s rights NGO, had expanded its work to give services to Afghan and Arab refugee children as well. And small groups -- from bird watching and eco-tours to consciousness-raising about domestic violence and restoration of old musical instruments -- were formed by the dozens, frequently developing into full-fledged organizations.

Sadly, no one thought the idea of contact with non-Iranian organizations -- civil society to civil society, as it were -- is plausible at this time. The only collaborations with international organizations are between U.N. agencies and the Iranian government. A well-known educator working with the children’s literature NGO recently turned down an offer by a European organization to honor her. “We can’t risk what we’ve built -- and we don’t trust them,” was essentially what she said. A decade ago it had seemed possible to help support and promote civil society organizations in Iran. Now I found myself conveying their “Thanks, but no, thanks” message to offers of assistance >>> Part 8

Smoldering in Tehran: Index

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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