Dr Fatemeh Sadeghi
23 March 2022
We cannot be happy alone. When we live in a region where there is war and damage all over the place, we can't be happy either.
Leila Arshad, Civil Activist and Founder of the House of Sun
As the neo liberalization of economy has dislodged governments from their social duties, NGOs - particularly in the Global South - have taken on the burden of social services provision. This NGOization of prosperity seems to explain the overwhelming discourse and activities that in recent decades have promoted and aided local civil society. It is impossible to give a comprehensive evaluation of NGOs and the outcome of their activities in this short piece. Some recent examples, nevertheless, such as the experience of NGO activities in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021, might offer some lessons. This experience seems indicative not only of the failure of the U.S. in Afghanistan but also of the failure of NGO activities to promote civil society in this country.
After the downfall of the Taliban in 2001, many Afghan civil society activists were eager to help improve their country torn apart by thirty years of civil war. However, due to the lack of central government funds and opportunities, they ended up becoming NGO employees set up by foreign actors. Thus, their activities and priorities did not originate from the local Afghan context but were instead set up by foreign donors and charities, who often lacked local knowledge and expertise of the country. In Afghanistan foreign NGOs were only able to operate when they were funded. In other words, the NGO activism became a profit-making economic activity. Consequently, grassroot level volunteer activities became gradually obsolete.
NGO activities mostly suffer from a narrow focus on certain domains or social problems, which limits the impact of their activity. Therefore, in the absence of structures and comprehensive plans for development and social welfare, they might fuel corruption. It comes as no surprise that a large portion of the funds originally allocated to the Afghan NGOs eventually got transferred abroad or pumped into war zones.
The situation was a bit different in Iran. As a result of NGOization of civil society in Iran, many NGOs started appearing in the early 1990s. However, many of them were forced to stop their activities either because of government pressure or lack of expertise and budget. One of the grassroot organizations, which worked with homeless women and children, remained active for many years before its recent closure.
The Association of the Women of the Land of Sun, known as the House of Sun (khaneh khorshid), was a relief center that began its activities as the first DCI (Drug Information Center) in Iran. Established in 2007 in a poor neighborhood in the south of Tehran, it initially started to provide health care to women with addictions. The House of Sun hosted women from a variety of backgrounds: Drug addicts, HIV and Hepatitis patients, victims of domestic violence, homeless women, and residents of the neighborhood who needed support and social services. Gradually, it became a center where women were not only helped and supported (including legal, educational, nutritional, hygienic, mental, and emotional help) “but could also return to find a way of life, and above all hope and dignity”, as a recovered client relays. It became their home.
The clients of the house were often victims of various forms of domestic violence, and most of them were encouraged by their husbands to work and pay for their addiction. About eighty percent of clients were between twenty and forty-nine years old, while half of them were barely able to read or write. They were either generally denied basic education or were forced to drop out of school before completing primary school due to severe financial and family problems. To secure drug supply, they were often involved in criminal activities that multiplied their problems. Many of them had unprotected sexual relations and contracted diseases such as HIV.
Suffering from physical and psychological conditions caused by addiction, the women were unable to find and hold a job. Most of them lacked education and skills such as nursing, sewing, knitting, and had no interpersonal relations. Many of them also struggled with mental disorders and were often dismissed from their jobs. To economically empower women vocational training and job creation were introduced by the House of Sun.
Leila Arshad, Director of the House of Sun, started working in this neighborhood a decade before the revolution. “In the 1970s”, she notes, “I was working as a student in the area, and twenty years later I returned to support street children who had just appeared in the city and whose issues were not given much attention. Our idea was to find these children and provide them with education because the Convention on the Rights of the Child considers schooling as a basic right. But when we interviewed the children, we realized that education was not their priority. They were hungry and suffered from diseases. We also realized that street children are a product of the addiction of their mothers. That’s how we founded the first DCI for women.” Helping women is not an easy job in a society where women suffer from gender discrimination. “Institutions that serve women are marginalized, and they experience pressure and stigma”, notes Leila Arshad.
Gradually, the House of Sun became not merely a place to help drug-addicted women, but also their children. The improvement of family relations destroyed by addiction turned out to be an important part of recovery. The centre covered more than six hundred female and child clients and provided methadone therapy to more than hundred female drug users daily. It also offered free social services such as counselling, social work, medicine, dentistry, psychiatry and education. The hope was to enable the women to return to normal life with the help of vocational training, possibility of employment, intellectual assistance, housing and shelter. The aim was to help increase women's dignity because drug addiction, they found, can be caused by humiliation, negligence, and stigma such as failure in making and running a family in the middle of economic hardship. Recovery, therefore, means not only to get rid of the conditions that the victims are trapped in, but to retain dignity as well.
The economic crisis in Iran aggravated the situation of the lower classes. The spread of addiction, homelessness, disease, and hunger reached an unprecedented level as inflation and sanctions pressure escalated. The outbreak of Covid-19 also worsened the situation, so much so that the House of Sun was forced to suspend its activities. It became legendary, however, and the stories of these women are now being told in a documentary called The Backyard of the House of Sun directed by the Iranian director, Rakhshan Bani Etemad.
The holistic view of the House of Sun and its long-term vision made it distinctive from most of the NGO activities in the Global South. Far from being trapped in stereotypical attitudes such as women's empowerment, they realized that addiction is not merely a behavioral problem or simply the result of taking the wrong choices. Addiction is an external symptom, a result or the manifestation, of the real problem: Unemployment, humiliation, family disintegration, hopelessness, depression, violence, illness, and even lack of identity and citizenship.
Even if a woman could temporarily put addiction aside, she wouldn't be able to return to normal life because the structural problems that drove her to addiction remain. Until the "cycle of injury" is stopped, addiction will not be overcome, and empowering addicted women is not successful unless the larger socioeconomic inequalities and discrimination in which women are often trapped, also improve.
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