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Iranian NGOs: Sowing the Seeds of Civil Society

Source: PARSA Community Foundation's newsletter


After a period of unprecedented growth which coincided with the drive for political reforms in the late 1990s and early 2000s, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Iran have entered a relatively low-key period of activity, characterized by less political overtones and concentration on grassroots involvement.


Youth and women are key players in Iranian NGOs. According to a 2000 government survey, some 40,000 women worked as volunteers in health-related fields with NGOs. Activists say that these fledgling nonprofits have been successful in raising public awareness on various social fronts, sowing the seeds for grassroots participation in building a civil society.


Iranian women NGOs making a difference in Iran (by Syma Sayyah, Dec. 2005)

Some sources put the actual figure of active NGOs at 8,000. Today, NGOs are covering a wide spectrum of issues, from environmental protection and human rights to poverty alleviation and fighting domestic violence. But NGOs face many challenges, most notably the inveterate suspicion by governments. Baquer Namazi, a director at Iran NGO Initiative, says, "The laws regarding setting up NGOs both in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries are restrictive and narrowly limit cooperation between local and foreign NGOs." The government handles NGOs with a heavy hand, and where there is international involvement, it prefers to support GINGOs (Government-Initiated NGOs), he adds. 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.


Registration of any NGO in Iran requires a permit from the Interior Ministry. Many activists, however, have been asking for a change in regulations so that NGOs can be registered with the Bureau for Registration of Companies, rather than being under the security-minded gaze of the Interior Ministry. In a 2004 review of the regulations governing NGOs in Iran, Negar Katirai wrote that the most important legal problems NGOs in Iran have to overcome are, first, the absence of comprehensive, accurate, and effective laws on NGOs, and second, the lack of support for NGO activities on the part of the government.


The resurgence of NGOs in Iran has frequently been linked to the tenure of former president Mohammad Khatami. However, many observers believe that the surge in nonprofit activities both predated and outlasted the 'reform period.' Shiva Dolatabadi, co-founder of the Society for Protecting the Rights of Children in Iran, says, "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."


Volunteers play the key role in NGOs. "Different groups of people work with us," says Amir Reza Moradi, director of Zendegi-ye Mosbat, a group that fights the spread of HIV/AIDS. "Doctors, experts and clinical psychologists are involved in field research and educational workshops; HIV-positive patients share their experiences with others; young people act as instructors; there are also artists who help us with posters and brochures."


Have NGOs already begun to nurture a culture of responsibility in Iran? Dolatabadi is positive. "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," she says.


Development of NGOs and civil society in Iran is also part of a much larger global trend of citizen driven change. According to Bill Drayton, Chairman & CEO of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public , "The amount of change in a society is directly proportional the number of changemakers in that society."


About PARSA Community Foundation:

PARSA Community Foundation is the first Persian community foundation in the United States and the leading Persian philanthropic institution practicing strategic philanthropy and promoting social entrepreneurship around the globe.  Managing the largest independent endowment fund dedicated to Persian philanthropy, PARSA CF provides tax-advantaged vehicles to donors and makes grants to nonprofit organizations.  PARSA CF provides a platform to enable collaborative giving, philanthropic education and purposeful networking.  The organization is a nonpartisan, nonreligious, and nonprofit, registered as a 501(c) (3) entity in the United States.  PARSA Community Foundation does not make grants in Iran.


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