One of the dominant trends in the evolution of the Arab women’s movements is a steady increase in the number of women’s non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dealing with aspects of women’s lives such as health, education, legal literacy, income generation and rights advocacy.
This can be seen as a sign of the failure of centralised Arab states to bring about social change and development. Such NGOs are widely viewed as the development of an Arab “civil society”, which can contain the authoritarian state, and as a healthy sign of real, “bottom-up” democracy in the region. On the other hand, they have also been viewed as a new and growing form of dependency on the West. Debates abound concerning the ideology of NGOs, their links both to their own states and to the states that fund them, and their utility for development and social change. These debates are given a new edge by signs that the current American government is giving greater attention than ever before to “democratisation” and “modernisation” of Arab societies and Arab regimes, through increased funding for civil society organisations. The US administration sees the role of women as vital in this respect.
This article traces the development of the Arab women’s movements, with special attention to what I call their “NGO-isation”. To shed some light on this trend, I examine the changing structures and discourses of Arab women’s movements, in the context of a development discourse based in binaries such as West/East and state/civil society. The growing number of Arab NGOs in general, and women’s NGOs in particular, must be seen in the context of a broader development trend that views NGOs as a vital vehicle for social change and democratisation. I will argue though that the NGO as a form of organisation is different in critical ways from another kind of organisation aimed at social change, namely the social movement. Analysing this difference is useful in revealing the limitations of NGOs in introducing genuine, comprehensive and sustainable development, and the social changes desired by local populations. This is not to say that the role of NGOs should be explained in terms of “conspiracy theory”, but rather that they should be subjected to a more historical and empirical approach that does not take for granted their equivalence with “healthy” socio-political development.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 35.4 (2004) The NGO‐isation of Arab Women’s Movements