Without A Strong Civil Society, Middle East Environment Has No Chance (Op-Ed)

jordan-protests-arab-spring-civil-society-environmental-movementCase Study: A stable security state or a nation eager for reform? We look at Jordan and the strengths and weaknesses of its civil society

Whilst Jordan may not have seen the flurry of protests that lots of other Arab countries witnessed during the Arab Spring, that doesn’t mean Jordanians are not desperate for reform. In fact, they are and to a certain extent the government has been eager to show they are happy to make changes. In the last two years alone there have been amendments to over 42 articles of the Jordanian Constitution. But, for many, these reforms aren’t having a real impact and there are growing concerns that the authorities are becoming more draconian.

First, there were efforts to censor the internet and last month, protestors gathered to demand the release of activists charged with opposing the regime and slandering the royal family. It seems that becoming a campaigner and a genuine member of Jordan’s civil society just got a little more difficult.

“Although Jordan is a security state – if a less extreme, less openly repressive version of one than Egypt was – it continues to be held up as an example of one of the more progressive and democratic Arab states. Jordan’s path to reform has been a carefully managed top-down process which has all the trappings of democracy while lacking substance. Despite its failure to take meaningful steps towards democracy, donors continue to laud Jordan as a democratizer.” 

That was the damning conclusion that researchers Ana Echagüe and Hélène Michou at the Foundation for the Future came to in a report released in May 2011 exploring Jordan’s civil society.

Over a year on has anything changed for the better? It’s hard to tell. A recent report launched by the same organisation points out the real challenges facing civil society organisations in the country. Firstly, donors tend to fund projects more than the infrastructure of the organization, leaving the organisations structurally weak and with sustainability issues. Secondly, there are legislative and government obstacles to the free execution of civil society activities in Jordan.

For example, the Foundation for the Future explains in a press release that foreign funding is subject to government approval and societies must “not intend to achieve any ‘political’ gains covered by the Political Parties Law in the course of their work”, though the term ‘political’ is undefined.

Why is all this relevant? Well, I have been thinking a lot about the environmental movement in the region and the importance of a strong civil society for it to flourish. If people are able to organise freely, feel that their voice matters and are unified then they are likely to take action on issues that concern them. If not, they will wait for the government to not only realise the severity of the problem but also come up with a solution. This is particularly worrying if the issue is climate change.

Climate change is not a problem that can be solved by governments and authorities – it’s far too wide reaching for that. It needs local solutions and local actions to go hand in hand with government support and policy. The problem can’t wait for governments to wake up and smell the carbon-dioxide coffee. So, if we are serious about building up an environmental movement in the Middle East, then we need to be serious about building up a strong and independent civil society first.

For more on Jordan see: 

Websites Go Black to Protest Internet Censorship in Jordan

King Abdullah: Israel is Disrupting Jordan’s Nuclear Ambitions

Recycling Yourself When Green Projects Go Bust

Image of Jordanian forced holding flowers distributed by protesters calling for release of political prisoners in Amman last month. Muhammad Hamed/Reuters.

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