03/03/2010Positive change is coming What should civil society do to meet it?
by Nader Kabbani
The First International Development Conference of Syria 2010, organized by the Syria Trust for Development in January 2010, included open and engaging discussions about the role of civil society in development. Important announcements were made suggesting that positive change is on the way for the NGO sector in Syria.
The First Lady of Syria Asma al-Assad, indicated that a new NGO law is nearing completion which will represent a fundamental change in the way the sector is regulated and pave the way for a more enabling environment for civil society organizations; Abdullah Dardari, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, suggested that civil society will fill a vital space in the new social market economy as the public sector retracts from some domains that are not easily occupied by the private sector; Diala al-Hajj Aref, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, emphasized the Ministry’s leadership role in developing the new law and promoting an enabling environment for NGOs.
These elements point to an expanding public space and increased opportunities for NGOs in Syria. However, with a bigger role comes greater responsibility. It would be a mistake for the NGO community to simply sit back and wait for these changes to take place. Rather, we need to be prepared to grasp the opportunities and meet the challenges ahead. Such preparation must take place on at least three levels.
First, NGOs must work to improve their organizational capacities and structures. Pure charity work may be carried out effectively by a few dedicated volunteers, using simple fundraising strategies, under the leadership of a strong executive board and the supervision of the charity’s membership.
However, NGOs engaging in developmental work must reach minimum professional standards to be effective. These include setting well-considered objectives and strategies, developing organizational structures to carry out work effectively, and putting in place proper documentation, monitoring, and evaluation systems.
Second, Syrian NGOs need to develop the technical capabilities of their staff to plan, manage and communicate their projects effectively as well as build partnerships with beneficiaries, local communities, other NGOs, and public and private sector organizations. It also means developing capabilities to communicate and interact effectively with donors, from preparing proposals to communicating progress and results.
In our visits with NGOs across the country, one of the most frequent constraints mentioned is the lack of funds, whereas one of the most frequent complaints of donors is their inability to spend available funds for lack of well-articulated projects. Thus, there is no shortage of funding for development work, but rather a shortage of capabilities to access these funds.
Third, the NGO sector needs to fill the space being created through the new legal framework and economic transition. This requires that NGOs build new institutions that can help them network and work together effectively. Some of these institutions will no doubt be provided through the new law and associated policy framework.
However, others will have to be developed by the NGO community itself. The latter should include formal institutions of networks, groups, communication channels, and more. They should also include informal institutions such as positive social norms and professional standards, including agreed upon codes of conduct, a commitment to transparency, a culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity, mechanisms for working together and resolving conflict, and others.
The NGO community is fully aware of the need to develop their organizational capacities, technical capabilities, and networking channels. In fact, these were the three main objectives identified by a group of NGOs that participated in a series of national workshops held in 2008 and 2009 as part of a project to establish a Platform for Development NGOs in Syria – a joint initiative by Syria Trust and UNDP.
The project aims to establish the NGO Platform as an independent organization supporting networking and capacity development activities of the sector. However, it is ultimately up to the NGOs themselves to make the most of these opportunities, by taking the initiative to build their own capacities and develop partnerships toward shared objectives. As the CEO of the Syria Trust, Omar Hallaj, made clear during the conference, for its part the Trust will reach out and partner with civil society organizations to work jointly towards the development goals of this country..