The Impact of Foreign Funders: When Dollars Hurt, Not Help

Against the backdrop of imperialism, occupation, terrorism, corruption, surveillance and dictatorship, those who advocate for social justice in the Middle East already have a wide range of political and social agents to confront. Unfortunately, some of the donors and foundations that claim to support those advocates are also responsible for placing additional barriers in our way. Financing our work is one thing; but fundamentally supporting our missions by listening and respecting our knowledge can be hard to find in a donor or funder.

The internationalization of the non-profit industrial complex has recreated racist and orientalist dynamics within the same structures that are meant to improve the lives of the people of the Middle East and North Africa. As agents of change in the MENA region, we have a responsibility to set our own priorities and agendas about what is the most important to us in our own societies, as opposed to letting prospective donors and funders decide those priorities for us.

To understand all the complex dynamics that influence the relationship between (third-world) non-government organizations and their (first-world) funders, we must first understand how funding is its own form of neocolonialism and control. Some of the largest foundations have at their disposal budgets that rival the net worth of some of the largest international corporations, sometimes bigger than the budgets of our own countries. These foundations are so far removed from the realities that activists on the ground face, and yet their control over finances often means that they choose what activists can actually do on the ground. This disconnect allows for both interference from the donor groups directly, and because these groups often have connections to their governments, for foreign state interference as well. When a donor thinks that a Western expert is better suited to handle a budget or safety protocols, or if a foundation is linked to the American government so that its support only goes to certain political ideologies, the end result is the same. We are that much less in control of our own futures.

Without issuing a blanket condemnation of all donor organizations, it’s important to look critically at the relationship between funding and local initiatives. A common criticism of large international NGOs is that their very existence relies on the continued suffering of people around the world. The same is especially true for donor organizations as well. Before they take any decision, or distribute a cent, they must acknowledge that they are operating within an imbalanced system, where even the best of intentions can become skewed towards a negative impact on the ground. The impacts of this imbalance range from (relatively) minor accommodations that the activist makes in how he or she projects their image to the donor, to fundamental interferences in the values, priorities, and goals of the work that the donor is meant to be supporting.

Even after twelve years of experience, here at Majal we continue to push back against Western organizations that want to tokenize us or exploit our knowledge and access. For example, we’re proud of the work that we do for Migrant-Rights.org. Through years of experience, we know how to get extensive data that is otherwise difficult to maintain because of the risk involved. We’ve developed best practices that respect the privacy and safety of our allies and our team. Yet, foreign organizations and even news outlets often use this information and our expertise without crediting or acknowledging us. I’ve seen these same foreign organizations then present their work to Western donors and get grants that we were rejected for, or that came with strings attached. When we talk about funding for NGOs, there’s often this narrative that we need them. But these donors, and their grantees, need us just as much, if not more so. We are not disposable. But at the same time, we’re not getting the support that we need, and that is a big part as to why civil society organizations aren’t progressing. We’re being used, irresponsibly.

This isn’t the only way that Majal’s work has been exploited, nor are we alone. Historically, funding has often been used to sway or influence activists and organizations to promote Western interests, especially if that funding comes from government sources. Western funding has also hurt our work, especially when a foundation or organization takes us under their wing, promising us support, and funding, only to abandon our projects once their quota for diversity has been fulfilled. Only in hindsight is it revealed that the leadership didn’t value us as equals, nor did they truly respect the work that we do within our own communities. Instead, their true support often goes to Western grantees and experts, who come armed with long resumes and American university degrees, but no insight as to what it’s like to work under government suppression and surveillance, under violence and inequality.

Our work is needed more than ever. We can change these dynamics, and reclaim the agency that our work deserves, but that requires everyone to contribute to change.

Activists, be careful, and educate yourselves on the strings that come with any kind of support. Maintain a strong internal directive as an organization that draws clear lines about what compromises you are not willing to make. Your contributions are valuable and you have a right to demand that your work is acknowledged and supported.

Donors, listen. Use local talent as much as possible. Strengthen the connections on the ground rather than in the office. Trust that the organizations that you support know what needs to be done, even as you support their capacity building. Above all, be transparent, and be clear about what your expectations are.

And lastly, to a group that has yet to be addressed here, to people from the Middle East and North Africa who have moved abroad and become successful — start playing a bigger role in the change you want to see in your home countries. Fund the change you want to see in your home countries. If the region is still a core part of your identity, if you support your family and your friends ‘back home’ as they struggled against corrupt systems, if you dream of a better homeland that you can bring your own family to one day, or come back to yourself, then fund it.

As agents of change in the MENA region, we all have a responsibility to set our own priorities and agendas about what is the most important to us in our own societies, as opposed to letting prospective donors and funders decide those priorities for us. Western funders and donors have a crucial role to play, and this isn’t to say we don’t appreciate genuine solidarity and support. Moving forward, however, we must break these dynamics that rely on our exploitation, and instead, truly work to improve the lives of the people of the Middle East and North Africa, and around the world.

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