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the NGO that wasn’t
bogus charities collecting billions, deceiving locals

Kholoud Ramzi
Previously NGOs were seen as critical to Iraq’s reconstruction efforts. But numbers have dwindled. And not everyone is sad to see them go – many were fakes, siphoning funds, engaged in corruption and…
13.10.2011  |  Baghdad

It is highly likely that over the past eight years billions of dollars have disappeared into fake non-governmental organizations in Iraq, never to be seen again or accounted for.

Some of the fake non-governmental organizations (or NGOs) were taken to task but others simply disappeared or ceased to exist. And the directors of some of the NGOs – organizations not a part of the government yet not a conventional, profit-making business – fled Iraq with the money they had collected, others went underground.

The current head of the Iraq government body in charge of registering NGOs in Iraq, Ahmed al-Attar told NIQASH that he has no idea how much cash Iraq’s bogus NGOs have managed to collect since 2003. However he agreed that “these organizations have created a crisis of confidence - between local and international NGOs and organizations, and also between the NGOs and the Iraqi people. They have tarnished the image of civil society in Iraq,” he concluded.

Before the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that saw the end of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime, non-governmental organisations did not really exist. This is mainly because there were no institutions that were not affiliated with the ruling Baath party, which Hussein led. For this reason, as the International Centre for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL), an international body with offices around the world that promotes “an enabling legal environment for civil society” organizations says none of them could “be said to be a truly “non-governmental” organizations.

“Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraq witnessed a major opening up of civic space,” the ICNL surmises, “as thousands of new Iraqi non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were established and registered.”

This was largely due to Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 45, issued by the interim Iraqi government then being run by American diplomat Paul Bremer. Order Number 45 was drafted because NGOs were seen as an important part of Iraq’s reconstruction strategy.

As a result, the number of NGOs in Iraq ballooned. Until early last year, there were between 6,000 and even 12,000 NGOs in Iraq. The ICNL reports that there are more than 6,000 NGOs in Iraq while the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI), a voluntary committee comprised of some of the most reputable NGOs in the country that aims to improve coordination between the different groups, wrote that “between 2003 and 2010, the number of Iraqi NGOs considerably increased and were estimated somewhere in the region of 8,000 to 12,000.”

But as locals will tell you, many of these NGOs were not really doing anything. Earlier this year Hemin Saleh, the head of an NGO based in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan called Communication for Democracy and Human Rights, spoke about how a new law on NGOs in that state would affect ineffective organizations there. "Many NGOs are just places for drinking tea,” Saleh agreed. “They take some money from the government for rent and they use their office for relaxation.”

In a 2007 article Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana reported in Lebanon’s Al Akhbarnewspaper that Babil’s state government had reported that out of 300 NGOs registered in that province, only 50 were really doing anything.

No official Iraqi government departments hold statistics on the number of bogus NGOs. However official statements on the topic can be found. In July 2009, Hussein al-Safi, the former head of the NGOs Department in the Secretariat of the Iraqi Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, said that 300 fake civil society organizations had been de-registered.

And in 2005, another former minister for NGOs in Iraq, Mamo Osman, announced that “there are 2,000 fake NGOs targeting women’s issues who were receiving aid from donor countries for no justified reason”. Osman was the minister behind a drive to tighten up regulations on NGOs.

Part of the problem was the fact that registration requirements for NGOs under Order Number 45 were not tough enough. Because of the precarious security situation in Iraq at the time, NGOs did not have to verify their official premises in the country. And Order Number 45 is forgiving, saying that if the NGOs can’t fill in every part of the form, then they could apply for an extension and supply further information at a later date.

Just as it remains unclear exactly how many NGOs were registered in Iraq, it is also unclear as to what percentage of the billions of dollars worth of reconstruction funds pledged by both the USA (over US$18 billion) and other donor nations (around US$14 billion) between 2003 and 2004 went to go to Iraqi-based NGOs.

For example, in 2007 Zangana reported that Bremer had specified that US$750 million be set aside for local NGOs, and in particular those targeting local women. As of August 2011, USAID, the US government’s foreign aid agency, had budgeted for US$317 million for their Community Action program to be administered between October 2008 and September 2012, as well as around US$340 million for ongoing humanitarian efforts. Both efforts require USAID cooperation with NGOs.

So at least some of the money supplied by international governments, funds from the Iraqi government itself as well as private donations and fees has reached some of Iraq’s bogus NGOs.

During the time she worked at Iraq’s Ministry of Planning, which was responsible for the registration of NGOs in Iraq until 2005, Ansam al-Abaygi told NIQASH that hundreds of complaints of fraud by citizens against NGOs passed across her desk.

“Some of the organizations were collecting money from citizens and promising them land, apartments and financial grants,” she explained.

One of the bogus NGOs well known to Baghdad locals is the al-Ameen housing organization. In its printed materials al-Ameen – ironically the name means something like “trustworthy” in Arabic - boasted that it worked together with the Baghdad city authorities to provide the needy with decent housing in return for an affordable payment plan.

And indeed the organization did parcel out pieces of land to would-be home owners and start charging them small mortgage fees; it sold more than 5,000 pieces of land. It was only later that the home owners discovered they were actually living on government land.

Some of the recipients had already built on their land and they refused to leave their homes, arguing that they had paid money toward the purchase and also that it was the state’s responsibility to supervise both its own land and the bogus NGO involved.

According to al-Abaygi, the al-Ameen housing co-operative, which disappeared altogether in 2005, was not registered and was “engaged in fraud”. Even now though, some Baghdad locals will still direct you to the “al-Ameen neighbourhood”.

Iraq’s bogus NGOs were not all started up for financial advantage or to access international donations. Running their own NGO helped some Iraqis migrate or gain foreign citizenship. “They would say they were in danger of assassination because of their humanitarian activities and then, after they were granted asylum and migrated to Europe, the NGO would cease to exist,” al-Abaygi explained.

This year, a law passed by the Iraqi parliament in February 2010, supervising the various locals NGOs more closely, is now slowly coming into effect and this is changing the situation with NGOs.

“A formal count and coordination of these NGOs is only beginning to emerge now with the establishment of the New NGO Law,” the NCCI wrote.

The new law, Law Number 12, required all NGOs to re-register. And one of the biggest differences, according to observers, is the fact that NGOs must now provide an official address that is verified by their local authorities. While groups like the NCCI generally praised the new law, they also reported that the new registration could make for a long and arduous process and hinder an NGO’s work.

Official statistics indicated that from mid-2010 up until September 2011, only 250 NGOs have officially registered in Iraq. Hundreds of organisations were apparently denied the right to register and others were asked to submit further documents.

Leading Iraqi human rights activist Hana Edward, head of the Al Amal (Hope) organization which works in women’s rights and also with displaced Iraqis, was pleased about the new law, saying it would put an end to the bogus NGOs because of the need to supply proof of a permanent address.

On the other hand, Edward worries about some of the other new conditions of registration which include proving that NGO heads have not been convicted of any crime and also that they have been cleared of playing any major part in former dictator Saddam Hussein’s government. She believes this has led to a decrease in the number of official registrations.

Another point of criticism centres on the fact that the new law includes no mention of state support for civil society organizations, such as NGOs, yet it places NGOs under the direct supervision of the executive branch: NGOs apply for registration to, and report to, the NGOs Department in the Secretariat of the Iraqi Cabinet.

Nonetheless, al-Attar, who, as head of the NGOs Department, will be in charge of registering NGOs, is optimistic that things will get better. The implementation of the new law “will put an end to the fake NGOs in Iraq and will improve the standards of existing NGOs’ work,” he told NIQASH.