Civil Society Organizations in a Tribal Culture


Strengthening civil society is an indispensable part of the development activities of today. Major donor agencies look at ways to empower Civil Society and strengthen their voices. In a country like Yemen where donors shy away from direct budget support with the government, they look at CSOs as the main channel for funding.

However, the lack of understanding of the political systems in Yemen has failed to define the nature of the Civil Society Organizations and their representational mechanisms. Although the country is democratic, CSOs remain controlled by the government and big players on the scene. Being a CSO is not necessarily any qualification for involvement in good development work or wider representation of the people. Each organizations values, practices and principles need to be carefully examined.

In this Islamic country, most of the CSOs roles are mainly limited to delivering humanitarian assistance based on *Zakat*, some take the role of service delivery on their shoulders and the rest of these organizations have moved to represent political and tribal interests. Diverse roles are spread and few strategic inputs delivered. Harmonized efforts are too challenging to introduce as well.

Civil Society involvement is growing in numbers, but has been week in terms of participation. This may be due, in part, to a lack of encouragement from the government side to support their participation. Civil society involvement needs room to grow if development and policy making is to include voices of the poor and if local accountability systems are to be strengthened. While there are more than 4000 Civil Society Organizations in Yemen, all of them lack a voice in the policy making. Most are struggling to survive especially with the increasing lack of funding from both the Government and the International Community.

A major handicap to CSOs is the way the government view their role. The government often define the CSOs overall responsibilities and is keen for them not to cross a certain line. Democracy, governance, human rights are handled by strong CSOs who are either controlled by the government or driven by strong political actors. I think it is critical to understand government’s policies towards the CSOs which deal with governance and democracy. Are all of them being granted permission to operate? If yes then are they politically independent?

Another question is how far is the government willing to identify the CSOs as important partners in the development process and policy making rather than agents for delivering services. The Government has specific rules and regulations to establishing CSOs which are very sensible, however, administrative and governance hurdles do not foster an enabling independent environment for the CSOs to carry on their role effectively.

The role of the donors is also shifting, they are now trying to be more strategic in their programmes and focus on development aid rather than humanitarian assistance. This had a significant impact on urban NGOs who are surviving on donors’ assistance. As a result, the humanitarian ones were rapidly vanishing and losing a voice in civil participation. The limited funding to CSOs has also increased the competition and introduced giant Civil Society Organizations that monopolized the donor’s market.

In trying to achieve the maximum benefit in coordination with NGOs and adhering to international policies that advocate the importance of the CSOs role, building capacity of NGOs and Civil Society has become the focus of the International Donors. The concept of building capacity however seem to be limited at the CSO’s role in writing proposals alongside with their ability to better manage and organize themselves. The fierce competition between CSOs is resulting in a focus to respond to the donors’ requirements rather than the citizens’ needs. There isn’t enough attention paid to further developing the role of the CSOs to extend to the citizens and increase further transparency and participation.

The problems and challenges of engaging with Civil Society Organizations are universal and Yemen seems to be no different than any other country in that respect. However, the real challenge resides in the nature of the Republic of Yemen and the weakness of people’s role in contributing to building their state. Yemen remains heavily tribal with fragmented diverse interests; the country is split between tribal up north, tribal in the south, coastal areas with weak tribal and state affiliation and a southern part of Yemen that suffered from communism. In a recent unified state in the 1990, Civil Society Participation has not been used a strategic tool to strengthening building the role of the society, it has simply lacked potential and influence.

Given the weakness of the Civil Society Organizations in this country, it has been fairly easy to stop funding of the CSO’s due to the lack of their capacity or effectiveness. However, it has been extremely difficult to identify the potential of these CSOs and help them in developing their capacity and engage further in representing the people. If lack of transparency and mission objectives of CSOs prevail, then societies will shy away from them more and more. If government controls CSOs then there will be little hope for these CSPS to be used as an effective tool to lobby for citizens needs and their voice in policy will be driven by the government.

Civil Society Organisations need to think broadly about the mission they need to accomplish rather than the projects they have to implement.


It is important to address the following points in the project and develop them as they may help in explaining the politics of CSO engagements. They key questions will address the following:

  • Role of the government in promoting CSOs work, rules and regulations that are developed in democratic states that can help foster CSOs participations. Understanding of the government’s role in providing the proper environment for CSOs and their readiness to provide a political space for the CSOs to express their views and influence policy dialogue—Government willingness to support the CSOs in policy dialogue
  • Understanding the risks that the CSOs maybe subjected to and that hinders them from achieving their best performance
  • Understanding CSOs institutional sustainability ;
  • Identifying the willingness of Islamic CSOs to promote themselves to a decision making process- Trying to find ways of American Islamic NGOs who have a strong approach in policy and decision making and benefit from the experience;
  • Identifying the main risks and barriers that hinder the CSOs from performing or cause them to dissolve;
  • Understanding donor's role in influencing the CSOs;
  • Identifying how can CSOs be a player in governance and social development, (good practices in other countries);