The State of Civil Society & NGOs Under Iran's New Government
Baquer Namazi, Chairman of the Board of Directors, Hamyaran, Iran NGO Resource Center, Tehran, Iran
Under former President Khatami's rule, Namazi explained the space had opened up for NGOs, especially youth NGOs, as part of a political agenda. NGOs grew to function as intermediaries between government and people. The constraining structures of government, however, have not been removed since the initial opening of such space, and at this time, there is a lack of an officially defined role or structure for NGOs in the country, despite the large numbers of organizations that exist.
Namazi said many Iranians feel unsettled because the government is not wholly in place; he cited the example of the recent rejection of four ministers proposed by the president. Those in power in Iran now, Namazi said, are suspicious and distrustful of NGOs and view them as instruments of anti-political campaigns.
Currently, there are two camps in Iran with regard to support for ongoing NGO activities: one seeks to wait for the new government to become more settled and continue activities later; the second seeks to continue engaging in dialogue now, believing it is dangerous to "wait and see." Namazi aligned himself with the latter camp, indicating that by waiting, the space created during Khatami's time might become more restricted.
State-NGO relations have been defined to some extent by a new cabinet decree requiring NGOs to remain nonpolitical, impartial, and have various interactions with government ministries for registration and monitoring, including approval for work involving international cooperation. While the decree falls short of internationally accepted norms, it constitutes a step forward, particularly in the registration process and the opportunity to seek recourse to law if authorities infringe upon the rights of NGOs. It also allows for advocacy for policy change, more collaboration with NGOs, monitoring of situations and participating in independent fact-finding missions. The challenge Iranian NGOs face, Namazi stressed, is to ensure compliance and implementation of the progressive clauses of the decree.
With regard to U.S. involvement in Iran, Namazi said it is "ridiculous to think you can work with NGOs in Iran to change the regime," and cited President Bush's $3 million fund as both an attempt at "cheap regime change" and a move that will make the work of NGOs in Iran more difficult.
As for the work NGOs continue to do, Namazi urged Iranians not to romanticize about their capacities; he said many NGOs should rather be consulting firms if they are not transparent and do not work within the norms and code of ethics established for NGOs. He noted Iran has more than 15,000 NGOs and charities, providing the following breakdown: nearly 5,000 charities; 3,000 youth NGOs; 600 environment NGOs; 500 women NGOs; 60 NGOs engaged in human rights issues; and many NGOs working for children and other vulnerable groups. He indicated that working with the issue of human rights is highly politically sensitive, and that more NGOs must focus on disaster management and poverty alleviation to increase internal capacity.
Namazi identified the need to work on opening more space for civil society work, holding consultations for confidence-building, engaging the progressive elements in government, drawing on capacities and scientific and resource support of expatriate Iranians, working closely with UN agencies and lobbying with them and with government to enhance NGO partnership, and facilitating knowledge and experience exchange on good practices. Ultimately, he suggested the development of a national and an international code of ethics for NGOs, which would emphasize respect, transparency, accountability, and professionalism and improve effectiveness.