The emergence of new forms of civil society in Jordan has the potential to help strengthen social solidarity, encourage more active and informed engagement by citizens, and could help support a smoother transition to a functioning democracy.
- Jordanian civil society has long been distorted by state control and the dominance of large, formal, professionalized non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of royal and foreign patronage. Local activists and commentators question the ability and desire of such NGOs to play a credible role in informing, engaging and influencing the public and policy-makers.
- The emergence of new, local grassroots civil society organizations (CSOs) – or what this paper calls ‘organic civic initiatives’ – is changing how Jordanians conceive of civil society. Structured as not-for-profit companies, these initiatives generate revenues through small-scale social enterprise, rather than relying on financing from government bodies or foreign donors.
- Extensive interviews with the founders of such initiatives underline a perception that the traditional model of civil society in Jordan is flawed. In response, alternative forms of activism are developing under the radar, largely unnoticed by a donor community that still focuses on large-scale formal NGOs. The new initiatives take a more bottom-up approach to engaging with and mobilizing civil society. They view communities as assets and potential sources of cooperation, rather than as objects of centrally determined solutions derived from Western practices.
- The new organizations are helping to provide a private space for the debate of public issues, reflecting an emerging sense of civic engagement and local agency in Jordan. Yet civil society organizers believe that the Jordanian government is creating regulatory hurdles to prevent small-scale CSOs from expanding. Government officials, conversely, argue that these new organizations are inefficient and poorly managed. Tensions and mistrust between civil society and government officials undermine the potential for new initiatives to expand and develop.
- The lack of constructive engagement represents a missed opportunity. Instead of treating civil society with mistrust, the government should allow and encourage it to mediate between the state and the public. CSOs can make citizens aware of their rights and responsibilities, while fostering open channels of communication that allow the government to hear and act on public concerns.
- The obstacles to the integration of civil society into the mainstream policy debate also reflect national security preoccupations. Jordan’s external challenges have led to the prioritization of a narrow definition of security, focused on militarization rather than on broader concepts of human security. As a result, work on essential issues such as the economy, education and the social fabric has been sidelined.
- The emergence of these organic civic initiatives and their bottom-up approach of inculcating informed, engaged and tolerant citizens is one of the factors that could support a smoother transition to a functioning democracy in Jordan.