The term civil society organization (CSO) refers to groups performing service-oriented or development-oriented work in the “third sector,” that is neither governmentally owned and managed nor strictly acting as business concerns. In the Iraqi context, it is common for such organizations refer to themselves as munadhamat ghayr hukumiya, or “non-governmental organizations” and indeed the federal-level agency responsible for the registration of such groups is known as the NGOs Directorate, about which more information appears below.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) are new forms in the Iraqi context. In the Ba’thist period civil society as a concept was not recognized and many of the civil-society functions were either repressed or incorporated into the state. Almost immediately after the fall of the old regime and virtual collapse of the Iraqi state in spring 2003, the Iraqi CSO sector began to emerge, and has since grown exponentially. At the early NGO coordinating meetings in summer 2003, usually convened by Western donors, there were just a handful of newly minted CSOs in attendance. By the following year such meetings were numbering in the hundreds of organizations. Today the number of CSOs in Iraq is impossible to pinpoint but estimates range as high as 10,000 or more CSOs, although formally registered groups are much fewer than this.
Iraq Civil Society Organization Numbers
In all areas of Iraq, including the KRG, there are approximately 6,350 non-governmental organizations registered with the NGOs Directorate nationally (as of 2008). But estimates including unregistered CSOs have ranged from 6,000 to 12,000 total organizations. However, only a small fraction of these will meet the minimum standards of political and identity-group impartiality, transparency, accountability, and capacity.
It is almost impossible to arrive at a meaningful estimate of how many CSOs possess these qualities or to plot their geographical distribution. NCCI, the European-funded network of international organizations working in Iraq estimated in 2010 that approximately 800 CSOs in Iraq were “active.” The US Department of State estimated in its 2008 Human Rights Report for Iraq that 1,800 CSOs were “operational, including 235 human rights NGOs and 181 women’s rights NGOs.” Moreover, the State Department noted that “The vast majority of human rights NGOs were affiliated with political parties or with a particular sect and frequently focused human rights efforts along sectarian lines.”
Geographical Location and Iraq Civil Society Organizations
Geographical location is an important factor shaping the nature of CSOs in various provinces. These differences are ascribed not to the nature of the population of each province per se, but most especially to regional differences in the security climate in which CSOs have developed in the last 8 years. CSOs in the western and northern areas of the country, where the security situation has been less stable until more recently, in general tend to be more recently established, less multi-functional in their capabilities, and suffer more capacity gaps, both as a sector and as individual CSOs. However, capacity gaps in parts of Iraq (Wasit or Muthanna governorates, for example) have experienced relative stability since 2003.
Civil Societies and The Iraqi Government
A new law was implemented in 2010 to govern NGO-s, and is a testament to their recognized power within the Iraqi state. The approval of the new law in 2010 is considered a victory for independent CSOs in Iraq and on paper signals a new balance between the state and civil society organizations. The law was hailed as one of the most progressive in the region, including provisions for clear and straightforward registration process, lifting barriers to foreign and domestic funding, operational activity, and international contact. However, implementation remains frozen as implementing provisions have not been issued by the Iraqi cabinet. Even with the new law on the books, the pre-April 2010 system is still in effect. Furthermore, the NGOs Directorate, at least according to the allegations of CSOs interviewed for this project, remains responsible to the political parties that control the Iraqi Council of Ministers.
Iraq National Government vs. Iraq Civil Societies
Iraqi CSOs often operate within a hostile and frustrating environment due to the Iraqi national government. Multiple claims are made against CSOs by Iraqi officials, and political affiliations play a major role in choices of funding and registration.
Local Councils and Iraq Civil Societies
Local councils at local level in Iraq have no formal role in the governance of CSOs, although informally local councils can vary greatly in their approach to CSOs. Some have been quite cooperative in project implementation and service delivery, though on the other hand, local councils can be an obstacle to registration at the federal level by withholding necessary documents and cooperation.
Funding of Iraq Civil Societies
Funding for Iraqi CSOs comes from several sources. One is within the Iraqi political system. This funding stream is often politically compromised and difficult to access for independent CSOs. Many have been denied funding from both provincial and federal governments. The 2010 NGOs law requires some civil society work be funded by the Iraqi government, but implementation standards are unclear and could be politically compromised as there is no shortage of CSOs with links to the dominant political parties in Iraq and their networks of patronage and/or corruption.
Another funding stream is domestic fundraising and member contributions. There is a weak capacity for fundraising in general. There can be a tenuous relationship between citizens and civil society groups that can limit the willingness of Iraqis to part with scarce cash in support of organizations representing a sector that does not in the abstract enjoy a great deal of confidence on the part of the Iraqi public. The most successful organizations at employing domestic contributions in their fundraising tend to be rooted in religious or family networks.
Three Iraq Civil Society Organizations reported that their main day-to-day operations were completely or nearly completely funded by contributions of one principal activist. International donors remain the most reliable source of funding for independent CSOs and the best hope for the continuation of an independent civil society sector in Iraq.
Donors & Iraq Civil Society Organizations
Civil society in Iraq is in its infancy, and is highly dependent on donors for its development. Discontinuities in donor commitment to Iraqi CSOs could be damaging to the health of CSOs or public confidence in the sector. Donor relationship with Iraq CSOs should have appropriate expectations: Capacity building will take years, not months. Adequate research by donors should be conducted of individual Iraqi CSOs, as well as increased communication normal application process to properly vet and understand potential grantees.