Just five years ago, pressing issues such as migrant workers’ rights, animal rights and environmental sustainability would have been lucky to earn even passing reference in Kuwait’s newspapers and public conversations. Today, these issues are claiming their place at the forefront of the public agenda, largely due to the acceleration of vocal civil society activism. Yet despite increased public awareness, the wholly inadequate level of collaboration between civil society organizations (CSOs) themselves is proving a crucial handicap to the sector’s work in Kuwait.
In Kuwait, as in any other nation-state, the non-governmental and not-for-profit organizations comprising civil society play an important role in representing public interest and lobbying the government for policy changes in the social, cultural and political arenas. As compared to the rest of the GCC, this sector is arguably much more vibrant in Kuwait. The country also has a relatively longer history of civil society activism, going at least as far back as the establishment of the Kuwait Trade Union Federation and the Women’s Cultural and Social Society in the 1960s. However, without tapping into the potential for knowledge and resource sharing, and advocacy coordination, civil society in Kuwait is running the risk of mitigating the success of otherwise well-planned and adequately financed initiatives.
The importance of collaboration Zahed Sultan is the managing director at the en.v Initiative, an organization that works in the fields of education, environment and capacity-building in order to foster greater social responsibility in the Arab world. “Two heads are better than one,” he said. “One benefit of collaboration is knowledge sharing. If people collaborate on a given topic, then the increase in the number of communities that these people can tap into mitigates the risk of the initiative failing. It also creates a shared sense of responsibility among stakeholders. Also, the sharing of limited resources, skill sets [and] spaces creates more effective organizations.” Dr Shaikha Al-Muhareb, a member of Group-29, an organization that focuses on advancing the principle of equal rights espoused in Article 29 of Kuwait’s constitution, agrees. With increased collaboration “there will be more awareness,” she said, adding that, “you would see more pressure on the National Assembly to introduce changes in laws because there are more people lobbying for that.”
A capitalist mindset Despite the logic and benefits to be gained from collaboration, several obstacles hinder collaboration in this sector. The fundamental challenge is a misunderstanding of the importance of cooperation within civil society itself. “There’s also a huge educational component because there is a lack of understanding about the need for collaboration. When all of us live in a capitalist society, civil society itself gets drawn into the competition as well. And Kuwait as we know is a very capitalist society,” Sultan explained. Lina Al-Qaddoumi, program manager at INJAZ Kuwait, part of an international network which offers entrepreneurial and leadership training to the youth, concurred. “For example, most organizations here receive private corporate funding and they feel that if they collaborate with other groups, they would get less funding.”
Legal restrictions Another hurdle, as both Muhareb and Sultan point out, is the legal environment in which civil societies operate. According to law no. 24 of 1962, CSOs are required to coordinate extensively with the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor concerning matters of funding, management and participating in regional or international coalitions. “The other problem is when you share a project you need some kind of liberty, some kind of freedom. Societies in the past were always under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. That made it difficult for them to manage their own space of work. If there is a threat that this civil society will be banned or closed, then again societies will be very worried to collaborate with others fearing that they will get them in trouble,” explained Muhareb. Also, more recently created CSOs, many of whom operate on an informal basis, have perhaps found it harder to collaborate than those established before the Gulf War. While many NGOs were established during the ‘70s and ‘80s and received annual funding from the government, Sultan claims that during the ‘90s it became increasingly difficult to maneuver governmental bureaucracy to establish a CSO.
Personal rivalries A further obstacle is that sometimes individuals from different organizations simply do not like working with each other. “They are still possessive of their projects,” as Muhareb put it. At a more basic level, Sultan pointed out that civil societies often simply do not know of each other’s existence.
An unthreatening ecosystem This not to say that civil society in Kuwait is completely devoid of intra-sectoral collaboration. The National Committee for the Resolution of Statelessness in Kuwait is a coalition of 22 civil society and political groups, including Group-29 and the Women’s Cultural and Social Society, that work towards emancipating the bedoons. Organizations like the en.v Initiative and INJAZ are currently involved in providing capacity-building training to other CSOs. With the social media-propelled democratization of information flow, attitudes among the youth in Kuwait are also changing. They are committed to causes of equality and sustainability, and are no longer satisfied with public sector employment. Kuwait’s 2013 Companies Law provides for a slightly more flexible environment for civil society to operate, by introducing – for the first time – a legal framework for not-for-profit companies (NPCs). “You need to create an ecosystem at the sector level that is conducive to collaboration for the CSOs to not feel threatened. The intent is there; it’s the implementation that is ineffective,” Sultan maintained.
By Batul K Sadliwala