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Iran: Growing NGO Community Offers Political Activism Where Government Does Not

  • Golnaz Esfandiari

The number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Iran has increased rapidly in recent years. Activists say the groups have been effective in raising public awareness on environmental and child-welfare issues, and have also given a voice to the country's disenfranchised young people.

Prague, 16 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- There are more than 8,000 nongovernmental organizations operating in Iran, working on everything from environmental protection and human rights to poverty alleviation and cultural issues.

Shiva Dolatabadi is the co-founder, together with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, of the Society for Protecting the Rights of Children. Over the past decade, the group has helped establish kindergartens and has provided training and education on children's welfare issues. Dolatabadi says Iran's nongovernmental sector is developing rapidly.

"I can say this movement, to a great extent, has found its way. We see new NGOs being established every day. So maybe the problems we had in the beginning -- problems with registration and organizations' charters, which made it difficult to enter the sphere of NGO activity -- are now getting easier because of the rise in the number of NGOs," Dolatabadi said.

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is often criticized for failing to implement reform. But observers say he is largely responsible for the emergence of the NGO sector in Iran. The president, who came to power on slogans promoting rule of law and civil society, has earmarked government funds to help establish and promote NGOs.

The country has a history of community-based charitable organizations. But the growing crop of new NGOs is a response to both global trends as well as the country's internal needs. They deal with broader development and social issues, rather than providing direct charity.

Victoria Jamali is a professor with the environmental faculty of the University of Tehran and a co-founder of the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution, one of the country's most active NGOs dealing with ecological issues. She says Iran's NGO community is closely knit, with new organizations able to benefit from the experience of more established groups.

She also says women and young people -- who have virtually no political representation despite making up nearly 65 percent of the population -- are playing an important role in the nongovernmental sector.

"Our young generation is very much aware of the different issues [affecting Iran], and [this] growing awareness has led them to found many of the NGOs that have been established in recent years," Jamali said.

Seyed Javid Aledavoud is the director of the Iranian chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). He says that in the absence of a pluralistic political system, many Iranians have turned to NGOs as the only way to fight for social change.

"The only possibility for social [activism] was to establish NGOs,” he says. “I don't attribute this to the fact that everyone wants to be engaged in environmental activities. If getting permission for political activities and establishing political parties was as easy as establishing NGOs, then I think the activity of political parties and organizations would have grown in Iran to the same extent [that NGOs have]."

Still, activists say NGOs face a number of difficulties in Iran. The laws on founding NGOs are often restrictive, funding is scarce, and many groups lack both experience and expertise. A majority of NGOs operate from a member's house or flat because they cannot afford an office.

Aledavoud of the SPCA says those groups who accept the government funds earmarked by Khatami compromise their independence and autonomy. But the most pressing problem, he says, is that the Iranian government does not take the NGOs' work seriously.

The laws on founding NGOs are often restrictive, funding is scarce, and many groups lack both experience and expertise. A majority of NGOs operate from a member's house or flat because they cannot afford an office.
"Our main problem, as NGOs, is that when we say something, when we protest or make a suggestion, governmental organizations do not pay attention -- we don't have room to get our word across. I believe that the government should seek the NGOs' counsel, and not vice versa. If one day we get to that point, then we can say that we've really been effective," Aledavoud said.

So far, the government has been largely unresponsive to calls from NGO activists. Aledavoud says he has engaged in no constructive dialogue with legislators on the issue of animal protection. Environmental NGOs have organized demonstrations against government road projects and the granting of unrestricted hunting licenses for foreigners, but have yet to see any of their efforts bear fruit.

Jamali of the Women's Society Against Environmental Pollution says the future, however, may bring better results.

"I think it is very important that we tell the officials that we see, we feel, we understand, and we know what is happening. The fact that they are not paying attention is another issue. We know that we may not be successful immediately, but we don't care about short-term achievements. We hope that in the future we will be able to play an effective role," Jamali said.

Even if the government has been slow to respond, activists say NGOs have been successful in raising public awareness about social issues like domestic violence and the environment.

Dolatabadi, of the Society for Protecting the Rights of Children, says NGOs have already begun to nurture a culture of responsibility in Iran.

"I think [NGO work] is having a very positive impact in collective action and the practice of democracy. I think this is in itself important, because activities such as volunteer work create a kind of commitment to the society. And I think it has a bright future, because the idea that some citizens decide to devote their time to a matter of social concern can play a very important role in the progress of the society," Dolatabadi said.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. She can be reached at