Dancing on the Dunes – an excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert

This piece is reprinted with thanks from the new book by my old friend and ICA International colleague John Burbidge, titled “More Than Halfway to Somewhere: Collected Gems of a World Traveler“.

As I wrote for the cover, in this book:

Burbidge leads you on a whistle-stop world tour of travelers’ tales rich with exotic locations, colourful characters and often extraordinary adventures. These are gems indeed, mined from a life lived as journey and sparkling with compassion and humour!

The book is now available, just in time for Christmas, from John’s site wordswallah.com.

I was not involved in the writing of this, but I was very much involved in the adventure. I first visited Bahariya probably in the first of my six years in Egypt with ICA MENA. After befriending Reda (aka ‘Desert Fox’) early on, we led a series of jeep trips together from 1993-95 for groups that I recruited from the lively social network of the Cairo Hash House Harriers

The ‘never-ending book’ that John was editing at the time of this, my last trip in 1996, was “Beyond Prince and Merchant: Citizen Participation and the Rise of Civil Society”. John and I had been corresponding extensively on this as I was writing my own masters dissertation at the time, “Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future Toward a Global Role for the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the UK”.


Do not take this trip…

  • if you prefer things to go according to plan
  • if you don’t like sand in your food, hair and underwear
  • if you object to going unwashed for days on end
  • if you’re overly sensitive to heat and sun or local food
  • if you’re not prepared to dig jeeps out of sand, or perhaps wait until dawn to do so
  • if being thrown around in the back of a moving vehicle is not your idea of fun
  • if you’ll be upset when, after three days in the desert, you get back to your oasis hotel to find there’s no water in the bathroom…

This was the disclaimer that trip organizer, Martin Gilbraith, offered those contemplating the five-day excursion in Egypt’s Western Desert following the ICA International 1996 international conference in Cairo. It was enough to turn away most conferees in favor of trips down the Nile or snorkeling in the Red Sea, but for 20 adventurous souls — young and old, men and women from 10 countries — it was just the turn-on we needed.

Were we disappointed? No way. Not only was the disclaimer fulfilled in detail, it was surpassed on several fronts. But the lure of the desert’s ever-changing landscapes, the warm and generous welcome of its inhabitants, and the unputdownable spirit of our Egypt guide team made the disclaimer fade into insignificance.

Before we headed out of Cairo in two minibuses we picked up our last but possibly most important passenger, Reda Abdel Rasoul.

“I am Reda, zee Desert Fox,” exclaimed this vibrant young Egyptian with the most engaging smile and thick black moustache. His exuberance masked the fact that he’d been in Cairo to visit his seriously ill brother and had only just decided to make the trip.

Reda was the local organizer of our desert safari. His slick, photographic business card described him as a ‘histary’ teacher but like a number of other educators in desert oases he turned to tour guiding to supplement his meager income. He lived in Bawiti, the largest town in the Bahariya Oasis with a population of 18,000.

Having a history teacher as our guide was an unexpected and valuable bonus. Egypt’s ancient roots as a land of pharaohs, pyramids and the fertile Nile Valley is well documented but the vast Western Desert that occupies much of the country is less well known. Its harsh terrain is not conducive to human settlement but people have managed to eke out a living there for eons. It’s a place where myth and history have intertwined, such as the puzzling disappearance of the 50,000-man Persian army under Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, in a sandstorm in the 6th century BC. No trace of this massive force has ever been found.

Throughout the 365-kilometer journey to Bahariya our minds were on more immediate things, as Reda patiently answered our endless questions. Why don’t those telegraph poles have wires connecting them? Why are there railway stations in what appears to be nowhere in particular? Where do all those vehicle tracks into the desert lead? What is the Arabic word for…? And more frequently as the hours progressed, how far is it to the nearest rest stop?

The answer to the latter was simple. There is only one stop between Cairo and Bahariya, almost half way. As we entered the cavernous refreshment room we were greeted with ecstatic cries of “Martin! Martin!” Recognizing our British expat leader from many previous trips, the operators of this lonely outpost were effusive in their welcome. Clearly we were in friendly territory. The cold drinks and snacks were delightful, the chance to stretch our legs most welcome, and the toilets were, well…better left to themselves.

Our first clue we were approaching landfall in this endless sea of sand and rock was the police checkpoint near the mining town of Managum, site of Egypt’s main source of iron ore, which is transported to Cairo by rail. Some ore never made it that far, given the number of damaged wagons that littered the tracks along the way. We saw our first vegetation in five hours at Managum when we entered an avenue of oleander bushes and eucalyptus trees so reminiscent of Australia. The entire landscape had a distinctive ‘outback’ feel to it, especially those parts of the land down under that are sandy desert. It increased the sense of connection I’d already begun to feel with this vast, seemingly empty terrain.

Shortly after Managum we drove through a gap in the escarpment and descended into an oasis. For the first time I began to understand what an oasis is. Far from the popularized Hollywood image of a cluster of date palms around a spring and a pond, oases are vast depressions in the desert plateau formed as a result of the combined action of wind, tectonics and water. They are near or at sea level where the massive reserves of underground water flowing north from central Africa come to the surface. The 2,000 square kilometer Bahariya depression is the smallest of the four major oases in the Western Desert. It is surrounded by several tiers of high escarpment which enclose a valley full of hills and mountains, some conical, some mesas, and others folded like the layers of an ancient garment.

One of the most dramatic parts of the Bahariya oasis is the White Desert near Farafara. Entering this area was like walking into a Salvador Dali painting. The numerous bleached, wind-eroded limestone sculptures gave the appearance of a bizarre collection of pieces on a gigantic chessboard. Arriving late afternoon, we were fortunate to experience the White Desert at three of its most enchanting moments — sunset, moonlight, and sunrise. Wandering among this surreal setting, I found a flat-topped piece about waist high and long enough to accommodate my body. I stripped to my underwear, hoisted myself atop the rock, and after checking for scorpions and other creatures, lay down on my towel. As the sun dipped below the horizon, the evening star appeared in a seamless transition. I wanted to capture and hold on to this precious moment but that was not to be. The air temperature quickly dropped, reminding me it was time to get dressed and rejoin the group.

While the days were a test of endurance with long drives in intense heat, the evenings were like a reward for our labors. Our first night in the desert we camped at Bir Ghaba, the Well in the Forest — ‘forest’ being a highly relative term. Situated on the old caravan route to Cairo, this popular well was shrouded in a grove of eucalyptus trees adjacent to a campsite operated by Bawiti’s ironically named Alpenblick (view of the Alps) Hotel. Later that evening when the buzz around the campfire had died down to hushed whispers, I grabbed my towel and swimsuit and headed to the well. It was empty and silent, except for the torrent of water gushing out of the massive pipe at the deep end of the pool. As I lowered myself into the 38°C water, the moon appeared over the horizon in the most star-studded sky I had ever seen. The desert breeze, an ever-present companion, wafted through the trees. As I floated in the highly mineralized water I unloaded the six-day conference I had just come from, the never-ending book I was editing, and the long drive from Cairo.

We had two other opportunities during our trip to explore desert springs and wells. Although there are hundreds scattered throughout the oases, most are known only to locals and used by them for bathing and washing. Although some springs have cool water, many are hot, often severely so. One spring in Dakhla Oasis is said to be able to boil eggs. We tried our own egg boiler in Bahariya Oasis on our last night in the desert. With water at 45°C, Bir Ramla is the hottest spring in the oasis. While most of our group decided to pass, a few daring souls put their toes in the water to test the temperature. Shrieks filled the air. It reminded me of the copper cauldron in which we cooked crabs in when I was a boy. I took a deep breath and sank into the steaming water. While I’ve always handled hot water better than cold, this pushed me to my limits. After the initial shock my body adjusted to the intense heat, but I soon joined the others on the sidelines. I didn’t want to become like the proverbial frog that boils itself to death while gradually adapting to the rising temperature.

Another spring captured my imagination in a totally different way. Known as the Magic Spring, it was identifiable by a lone clump of palm trees in an otherwise barren landscape. Our arrival at the Magic Spring came after a particularly harrowing ordeal. When we arrived at Bahariya, we transferred from our two minibuses into three Toyota jeeps to go on off-road excursions. A fourth jeep was our supply vehicle. On our second afternoon we were behind schedule and keen to arrive at our destination before sunset, so two of the drivers entered into a friendly race. The lead driver tried taking a short cut and strayed off course. As he started to descend a steep dune he lost control of the vehicle. It plummeted down the slope and rolled over before landing on its side. The other jeep arrived at the top of the dune seconds after, and seeing what had happened its driver managed to bring it to an abrupt halt.

A front-seat passenger, our oldest member, suffered cuts and abrasions to his head but others escaped injury. Built to withstand this kind of treatment, the jeeps came through in better shape. I was in the third vehicle, considerably behind the other two. We knew nothing about the accident, but when the faint sound of a horn kept repeating in the distance our driver sensed something was amiss. He entered into an intense discussion in Arabic with his companion but  didn’t divulge anything to the rest of us. When we joined the others and learned what had happened, a dramatic change of mood came over the whole group. After a brief discussion, the Egyptian crew decided to put 19 of us into two vehicles, while the supply truck went ahead to set up camp and the other jeep was retrieved from the bottom of the dune. By now it was pitch dark but remarkably the drivers managed to find the Magic Spring with nothing but headlights, their memory and instinct to guide them.

There was none of the usual singing and dancing that night, although a hearty meal of roast chicken and rice, along with an extra ration of beer, helped raise our spirits. The mood was subdued as we nursed our wounds and reflected on what we’d been through. We had just had a hard lesson in the dangers that lurk just beneath the surface of this beguiling place. As we huddled together under camelhair blankets beneath a blazing sky, the silence of the desert enveloped us. Conversation died away as the last embers of the campfire glowed in the dark. Fennec foxes, hedgehogs and other animals that frequent this place stayed away that night. The Magic Spring cast its spell over us and sleep became our welcome friend.

Most evenings weren’t so restrained. Reminiscent of scenes from the film The English Patient, we would gather after dinner around the campfire, sip mint tea or down a mildly warm beer, and let the show begin — the kind of show in which we were both audience and actor. To loosen us up, our Egyptian friends would ply us with rousing renditions of local folk tunes. The real act began when Mohammed, alias Baghdadi, took centre stage. With black, loose-fitting, drawstring pants and buttocks made for hard seats on long trips in fast-moving vehicles over rough terrain, he demonstrated the art of male belly dancing. Pounding the sand with his bare feet, he could move his middle body in gyrations that would rival those of many a professional female dancer.

Once Mohammed led the way, Reda and others followed. First among the foreigners to shed his European reticence was Cristian Nacht, who in his other life was the president of one of Brazil’s largest steel construction companies. Clad in a flowing gray galabiya, Cristian tossed propriety to the wind, and with his feet and hips in sync, shuffled around the campfire like an old pro. After he’d broken the ice there was barely room to move, as the more timid among us took to the sand and made it sing.

While some found a way to escape this public celebration-cum-humiliation, there was one occasion when this was not possible. It was our last night in the desert before returning to Cairo. We had traveled all afternoon, run out of fuel, and arrived at Bawiti tired, dirty and starving. After freshening up at the Hotel Alpenblick — where the water was running this time — we headed to the home of our host, Mohammed Ahmed el-Bayumi. El Bayumi was the proprietor of one of Bawiti’s most popular restaurants, El Ghash (the Little Donkey). El Bayumi’s reputation extended far beyond Bawiti or Bahariya Oasis. We had been warned that before entering the hallowed halls of his mud-floor establishment, we should be able to count to ten in Arabic or expect a clip over the ears. Should we master that feat we would be prime candidates to marry his sons or daughters, most of whom were in his employ.

But we had not been warned about El Bayumi’s habit of blowing a shrill whistle to command the attention of his customers, like a sergeant-major drilling new recruits. Was this some ancient Bedouin custom or El Bayumi’s way of asserting his dominance over this corralled band of foreigners? We first encountered this practice after our long drive from Cairo when we had lunch at El Ghash. Seated on the floor, we were eating and chatting among ourselves when El Bayumi strode into the room, let forth with his whistle, and asked in brusque Arabic, “Do you like my food?” Under the circumstances there seemed only one possible reply. We all agreed it was terrific.

Although we were now primed to expect the unexpected, none of us quite anticipated what El Bayumi had in store for us on this last night. The feast on the rooftop terrace of his sprawling home was a much grander affair than our earlier restaurant meal, with endless plates of barley soup, vegetable stew, roasted chicken, rice and hummus, along with plentiful supplies of beer. Our Egyptian guides decided it was their last chance to put their captive foreigners through the hoops. One by one, Baghdadi chose each of us to join him on the dance floor and get our bodies moving in time with the Bedouin music booming out of a ghetto blaster. Now and again a donkey would join in the festivities by braying loudly.

Next day as we contemplated our return to Cairo and our different countries, each of us reflected on this five-day excursion into what the Greek historian Herodotus called the ‘Islands of the Blest.’ Indeed, we had been blessed in a number of ways — the rich variety of time-tested landforms, the ever-welcome presence of water in the most surprising places, the engulfing silence of the starry desert nights. Most of all, we had been blessed by the effervescent spirit of our Egyptian colleagues. One experience captured this for me more than all others.

On our second day in the desert, after a quiet lunch in the shady palms of Ain el Ris (Spring of the Source), our convoy headed up the escarpment that marks the southern boundary of Bahariya Oasis. Although dunes cover 40 per cent of the Western Desert, they are not dominant in this oasis. This was our first encounter with these deceptively picturesque but potentially destructive desert landforms.

Of the four vehicles, the one I was in was the Cinderella of the group. Since it lacked a radiator cap, we had to stop frequently to let it cool and refill with water, which it consumed in endless quantities. On this occasion, the other three vehicles had reached the top of the dune and were watching us flail away in the sand. I couldn’t tell whether their intermittent cheers were urging us on or lording it over us. Mahmoud, our driver, would thrust the gears into four-wheel drive, stomp on the accelerator, and let it fly. In Sisyphean style, we would make it almost to the top of the dune, peter out, and roll back down, only to have to repeat it.

At our fourth attempt we made it. Without hesitating Reda grabbed his drum and Mohammed his flute and goaded this motley group of sunburned foreigners into action. “Dance? Did you say dance?” It was Zorba the Greek, Egyptian-style. It was time to rehearse that great Islamic expression, insha’ allah — if God wills it. Clearly, Allah was willing a little celebration.

Some say the people of the Western Desert have a greater sense of humor and a more light-hearted spirit than inhabitants of other parts of Egypt. Those we encountered during these five days certainly possessed that and more. Their willingness to embrace life’s mysteries and intrusions, its highs and lows, its blessings and curses was something to admire and emulate. It has, no doubt, enabled them to survive in unbelievably severe conditions for tens of thousands of years. It is not surprising, perhaps, that several of the world’s religions emerged from places like this. If only a little of their spirit rubbed off on us during our brief encounter with the Western Desert we were so much the richer for it.


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together. Please do not delay before contacting me – the earlier I hear from you, the more chance that I will be able to help and the more helpful I may be able to be.

Register now on Eventbrite also for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels, and now also online.

Climate Change

This article was written for ICAI Winds and Waves, December 2015 issue.W&W 1215-cover 1000x667Welcome to this December 2015 issue of Winds & Waves, the online magazine of ICA International, entitled “Climate Change”.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) was so named, when first separately incorporated in 1973, to reflect its social mission of ‘human development’. This was to restore balance to the social process by strengthening the weak cultural (meaning-giving) dynamic in society, relative to the dominant economic and allied political dynamics that provide sustenance and order.

The wider context for the social process, now as then, is the natural environment of our planet. As the environmental impacts of our still-unbalanced social process have escalated, and become more clearly understood, so ICAs have increasingly sought to broaden their global perspective to include the environmental as well as the social and the spirit dimensions of human development.  Reflecting this trend, former CEO of ICA USA Terry Bergdall describes ICA’s mission in his 2015 ICA Handbook as ‘to build a just and equitable society in harmony with Planet Earth’.

COP21: Thousands join London climate change march, November 29

This issue is published in the month that 196 parties to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference have negotiated a global agreement on the reduction of climate change at ‘COP21’ in Paris – an extraordinary achievement, and the result of an extra-ordinary process. The conference was preceded on 28-29 November by worldwide civil society actions, intended to ‘send a message to world leaders in Paris’, involving over 785,000 people and 2,300 events in over 175 countries according to 350.org.

Many have remarked on the radical transformation of our global economy, and therefore also of our politics and culture, that will be required for us to achieve even the goal of limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (°C) compared to pre-industrial levels, let alone the more ambitious target of 1.5 degrees that was also agreed in Paris. This certainly represents a daunting challenge. Like every crisis, however, climate change represents an opportunity as well. To paraphrase Naomi Klein in ‘This Changes Everything’, referenced here by Richard & Maria Maguire in Australia, climate change presents the clearest and most compelling case we could wish for that such a transformation of the social process is indeed required, and in the interests of all of us, urgently. With the Paris agreement of the world’s governments now in place, both the challenge and the opportunity for civil society is clear. As our own ICA mantra has it, “These are the times” and “We are the people”.

In this issue you will find stories of how ICAs and ICA colleagues participated in those climate actions in November, and how they are responding to climate change in their work more broadly, in Australia and the USA, and in Canada, DRC & Peru. You will also find stories of how the social process has unfolded over 40 years in communities that hosted some of ICA’s original Human Development Projects of the 1970s in Chile, Guatemala, and Indonesia & Malaysia.

As usual, this issue includes stories of a variety of methods and approaches to human development around the world.  These include facilitating conciliation in Ukraine, transformational action planning in Taiwan and facilitation learning labs in Hong Kong; story telling and oral history in the USA and the Torres Strait Islands of Australia; philanthropy in India and micro-enterprise in Chile; medical support in DRC and impact assessment in Kenya; Montessori pre-school education in Sri Lanka and youth volunteering in Tajikistan; and dialogues, book studies and reflective blogging online.

You will also find book reviews on personal transformation and sexuality in India, on social transformation and gender in Nepal and on dynamic ageing in the USA; plus reflections from Venezuela on ‘swimming with the current’ and social chaos, from Japan on the evolution of leadership styles and from Ukraine on culture and organisation development.

ICA International has been delighted to be able to support a upsurge of face-to-face regional gatherings of ICAs this year, first of East & Southern Africa in Tanzania May and then (reported in this issue) of West Africa in Cote D’Ivoire in September, Europe MENA  in the Netherlands in November and Asia Pacific in India in December. We are looking forward to a regional gathering of the Americas in Peru in April, and keen to support all the regions to expand and deepen their regional and inter-regional interchange next year.

We are delighted to welcome two new Associate members to ICA International, both approved unanimously by our online General Assembly this month.  SCR Kenya and NCOC Kenya were both nominated by ICA Kenya with the support of ICA Uganda and ICA Tanzania, and both are led by long-time colleagues of ICA in Kenya.

We are grateful to the 28 ICAs who have responded recently to our global survey on members’ usage of, capacity for and aspirations for ToP (Technology of Participation) facilitation methods, and to the ICAI Global ToP working group that is analysing the responses in order to make recommendations for peer-to-peer support and collaboration among ICAs in implementing our new global ToP policy.  We urge members that have not yet responded to continue to do so – please contact us to ask for a link to the online survey form.

We are also grateful to the ICAI Global Conference working group for its work with Initiatives of Change (IofC) exploring possibilities for a joint conference in Human Development at IofC Caux in Switzerland or elsewhere, now perhaps in 2017 or 2018.

We are grateful as ever to the tireless editorial team of Winds & Waves itself, who work so hard to enable us to share these stories and insights on human development  in this magazine three times each year.  I echo the appeal of Peter Ellins in this issue – please do contribute to the magazine next year, and please contact us if you may be interested in joining the team to support with commissioning, reporting, editing, layout and design, social media, or in any other way.

Thank you finally to our contributors and our readers, and to all our members, partners and colleagues ‘advancing human development worldwide’.  I wish a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all who are celebrating them.

Enjoy this issue, and please share it and encourage others to do so!

Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future

Toward a Global Role for the Institute of Cultural Affairs in the UK (1997).

The following piece ‘from the archive’ is excerpted from my masters dissertation of April 1997 to the the Institute of Development Policy and Management of the University of Manchester, for the degree of MA (Econ) Development Administration and Management. You can download the full dissertation Building Civil Society for a Humane and Sustainable Future (60 pages) in pdf. This has also been published by ICA:UK.

“The good life can only be lived in civil society…  The picture here is of people freely associating and communicating with one another, forming and reforming groups of all sorts, not for the sake of any particular formation – family, tribe, nation, religion, commune, brotherhood or sisterhood, interest group or ideological movement – but for the sake of sociability itself.  For we are by nature social, before we are political or economic beings” (Walzer 1992, 97).

1.1  Context

The idea of ‘civil society’ is experiencing a renaissance in debates on development and democracy, as ‘third sector’ organizations and grassroots movements demand, and are often granted, greater space in which to contribute to the development and democratization of our societies at local, national and global levels.

As we approach the turn of the millennium, and the end of a century that has witnessed radical and often devastating socio-economic and environmental change, the need has never been greater, nor the time riper, for humankind to plan and act strategically in search of radical solutions to address the great global crises of our times – Korten (1990) has identified these as the crises of poverty, environment and social integration.  There are innumerable indications of positive change in many spheres, perhaps evidence of an emerging paradigmatic shift to a dawning ‘solar age’ (Henderson 1993).  Yet, the challenge remains for us all to participate effectively in the shaping of a more humane and sustainable future for all.

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) is a global network of private, not-for-profit organizations and networks concerned ‘with the human factor in world development’, and working actively to foster such participation by facilitating personal, organizational and social transformation in a variety of contexts.  ICA:UK is a network of families and individuals sharing these concerns, most of whom have participated as volunteers in grassroots community development work overseas, and who now live and work in a diverse range of settings in Britain.  ICA adopted ‘Participating in the Rise of Civil Society’ as the theme of its recent quadrennial global conference, held in Cairo in September 1996, and is now publishing an edited volume on the same theme (Beyond Prince and Merchant, Burbidge forthcoming).

1.2  Aim and structure of work

By drawing on relevant literature and documentary sources, as well as on the author’s personal experience of working with ICA over 11 years in India, Egypt and the UK, this study explores the evolving idea of civil society and the debates surrounding it, with reference to the Institute of Cultural Affairs and ICA:UK.

The aims of the study are two-fold.  Firstly, for those enthused by the idea of civil society and the sector’s role in democracy and development, it aims to highlight some of the important dimensions of that role, in theory and in practice, and the practical approach of ICA that is not only working in building and strengthening civil society for such a role, but that is also uniquely appropriate to address to the great crises of our times as viewed from a civil society perspective.  Secondly, for those involved with ICA or familiar with its approach, it aims to highlight the relevance and utility of the idea of civil society as an insightful (and newly fashionable) conceptual framework by which to understand and appreciate the work in which ICA has been engaged for over 25 years.

Chapter 2 introduces the idea of civil society in its historical context, and reviews its re-emergence and current place in contemporary debates on democracy and development.

Chapter 3 explores how such a civil society perspective may offer insight into the dangers and opportunities of the global crises demanding our attention in the late-1990s, and into their implications for the role of civil society, and for all those concerned with acting, and catalyzing action, for positive change.

Chapter 4 demonstrates the particular relevance of the idea of civil society to the Institute of Cultural Affairs and ICA:UK and, conversely, of ICA and its practical approach to the rising civil society and the challenges it faces.

The study concludes, in Chapter 5, by reaffirming the high level of ‘fit’ apparent from a civil society perspective between ICA, its practical approach and the challenges of the contemporary global crisis of governance; and by calling for a dynamic learning approach to a renewal of civic engagement from all those who share ICA’s ‘concern with the human factor in world development’.

5.   Conclusion – a call for participation

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world;  indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” (Margaret Mead)

This study has explored, in chapter 2, the philosophical roots and some of the contemporary interpretations of the idea of civil society that has in the 1990s emerged with such resonance in current discourse on democracy and development.  Adopting the popular contemporary notion of civil society as one of a trinity of social sectors, and adopting norms of community co-operation, structures of voluntary association and networks of public communication as its three defining characteristics, the study has reviewed in chapter 3 how the idea of civil society has been applied to explain, and to seek ways to address, the great crisis of governance facing our global society as we approach the turn of the millennium. For local and global systems of governance to be effective, it concluded, civil society must be afforded a central role – and its restitution to such a role must be central to any strategy for creating a more humane and sustainable future for us all.  It showed, moreover, that civil society is already on the rise worldwide, offering insight and strength to all those ready to take their responsibility as citizens to act for positive social change.   As Darcy de Oliveira and Tandon have written,

“Citizens are at the centre of the global drama unfolding today.  They are the lead actresses and actors in building global democratic governance and human development.  The state and the market, and their related institutions, must serve the citizens, not the other way rounds. The security of our common future lies in the hands of a informed, inspired, committed and engaged citizenry” (Darcy de Oliveira and Tandon 1994, 16)

Adopting the same analytical framework, the study has in chapter 4 examined the case of the Institute of Cultural Affairs and ICA:UK, and found them to have for over 25 years embodied the principles of the contemporary idea of civil society, and intentionally contributed to the building and strengthening of the sector.  It concluded that the idea of civil society is not only of particular relevance and utility to ICA and its work, but that ICA in general, and ICA:UK in particular, may be seen from a civil society perspective to display a particularly high degree of ‘fit’ between their organization, their programmatic work and the urgent challenges facing global society.  They may therefore be considered particularly well placed and well qualified to contribute effectively to further efforts to restore the social balance, toward meeting the challenges of the contemporary crisis of governance.

Ward has observed: “The most important change that people can make is to change their way of looking at the world.  We can change studies, jobs, neighbourhoods, even countries and continents and still remain much as we were.  But change our fundamental angle of vision and everything changes – our priorities, our values, our judgments, our pursuits…  a turning of the heart, a ‘metanoia’, by which men [sic] see with new eyes and understand with new minds and turn their energies to new ways of living” (Ward 1971 cited in Commission for Global Governance 1995, 47).

Of course the idea of civil society, while increasingly found to be insightful at this point in history, is only one lens through which to look at the world and ask, ‘what is to be done?’ and ‘what shall we do?’.  Perhaps less important than the lens used is that we do look, and that we do ask – and, most of all, that we do.  Moreover, the world is increasingly understood to be ‘more like a river than a rock’  (Uphoff 1992), such that no one static perspective, however insightful, may substitute for a constant and dynamic search for new insights and new approaches.

Far from being distinguished only by its affinity with the civil society perspective, as explored in this study, the Institute of Cultural Affairs has been described as being uniquely characterized by its stance of constant searching and questioning.  In an influential address to ICA’s Global Order Council of 1986, the then Programme Director of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, Van Arendonk, remarked:

“If you say you are going to develop man, then you have to know what he is or what he stands for…  That is, I think, where you can make a enormous contribution.  I have simply not seen any other organization, and I know many, who can make that contribution because of one reason…  You are a question mark.  You are saying ‘we really don’t know’…  You are searching.  You are looking for what it is that we are here for.  That is the essence of development” (Van Arendonk 1986, 10).

ICA has shown the courage to raise the most fundamental of questions in development, and has demonstrated the capacity and potential to serve effectively to empower individuals, organizations and communities to address these questions in actively creating their own futures.  The Institute of Cultural Affairs, and ICA:UK in particular, represent both a powerful resource and an important avenue for the active participation of citizens in building civil society for a more humane and sustainable future, in the UK and globally.

In the light of the high degree of ‘fit’ revealed in this study, and in the light of ICA’s defining culture of participation, it behoves ICA:UK, it’s members and all those who share its concerns, to take advantage of their unique position and potential, to embrace their critical role as citizens of the rising global civil society, and to participate together to create and implement a new strategic agenda for action as we approach the turn of the millennium.

My first 416 days as a freelance facilitator

National Freelancers DayToday is National Freelancers Day here in the UK, and so a good day I think to reflect on my own first year and a bit as a freelancer.  I did think that twice before, but on my anniversary on October 1st I was too busy with client work, and during International Facilitation Week (October 21-27) I was too busy with International Facilitation Week.  At 7am this morning I was working with Orla Cronin to facilitate an online workshop for worldwide contributors to a collaborative writing process taking place in South Africa this week, ‘Exploring the Real Work of Social Change‘, but apart from that I am happy to be having a relatively quiet week. So here goes. I have even updated my profile photo to mark the occasion – a new look for a new year.

London Mayor Boris Johnson is quoted as saying in support for National Freelancers Day that “taking the plunge as a freelancer is an immense decision that in many ways can appear daunting but it’s also a choice that’s brave, ambitious, fulfilling and rewarding“. My own decision initially was to work freelance to earn an income and keep my options open for a while, while deciding what to do next after stepping down as Chief Executive of ICA:UK after 16 years. I thought of it more as a sabbatical at first than as a new career, and after delivering facilitation, training and consulting services to ICA:UK clients all those years it did not seem particularly brave or ambitious. The immense part had been deciding to step down from my previous role. It was indeed rewarding and fulfilling, however, and soon enough I had decided that this was how I wanted to continue to work.

In that sense the process has been a little like the way my career as a whole began and then continued. I took a ‘year out’ after my undergraduate degree to volunteer with ICA in India in 1986, and 27 years later I am still with ICA and serving as volunteer President of ICA International. Working freelance is enabling me to do that now, and whatever other paid or unpaid work I want to take on, with maximum flexibility and minimum administration and overheads.  What’s not to like?

In my first year as a freelancer I have had the opportunity to deliver facilitation and facilitation training contracts in Dublin, Geneva, Moscow, Ramallah, Zurich and online, as well as around the UK and even within walking distance from my home base in London. The groups I have worked with have ranged from local community-based organisations to UN-mandated international agencies, and from global corporations to small consultancies and social enterprise start-ups (see also who I work with and how I work). This diversity is a major attraction for me – always stimulating, mostly challenging and never dull.

Having worked for years as well with public sector clients in the UK, these have been notable for me by their absence this past year. Notwithstanding David Cameron’s enthusiasm for freelancers (and entrepreneurs) ‘as the engine of our economy and economic revival’, it has certainly been a good year not to be reliant on UK clients, and especially not on UK public sector clients. Many years of international involvement and Board service with my professional association the International Association of Facilitators has been very helpful there, as well as long-standing relationships with ICA colleagues worldwide. I have Brussels, Geneva and New York to look forward to in December & January, and a number of mostly European prospects in the pipeline for after that, so I am happy to say an over-reliance on UK work does not seem to be a problem as yet. I would welcome more gigs that I can walk to as well though!

On deciding to establish myself in business as a freelancer I also joined PCG: the Freelancers Association (the people behind National Freelancers Day), and have found this invaluable.  I have experience of non-profit management and governance, including registering and preparing SORP-compliant accounts for a UK charitable company, but it has been a relief to be able to learn quickly and easily the particularities of company and tax law etc. as they apply to me now as a freelancer – and to discover just how less onerous it is to establish and run a private company with one shareholder, one Director and one employee.  For someone whose stock in trade is participatory decision making, it’s nothing short of revolutionary for me that I get to decide everything by myself, without consultation, and within much lesser constraints than I am used to.  I am proud to say that Martin Gilbraith Associates Ltd is now well and truly in business, and even has its new cloud-based Crunch accounting system up to date (quote ‘mg15641m’ if you join too, and we both get free vouchers).

Throughout this past year I have particularly enjoyed and appreciated the extra time I have been able to find for professional development, reflection, reading and writing.  I am pleased to have accumulated over 40 posts and 6,000 site views on this blog, and to have read many books (and many more than each of the previous years) and attended numerous events with IAF, at the RSA and elsewhere. I still aspire to make more connection between the professional development, reflection and reading and the writing, but happy for that to be a goal.

In the meantime, I enjoyed so much the opportunity to use my Arabic again on my recent trips to Palestine that I have joined an Arabic conversation meet-up group in London. That experience has also got me wondering more about the reality and prospects for participation and facilitative leadership in the Arab world generally, almost 20 years on from my own six years with ICA Egypt and my masters research on civil society and democtratisation, and with the revolutions of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ continuing to unfold.

Thank you for following, and please feel free to share your own reflections and comments as well.


See also about mehow I workwho I work with and recommendations & case studies, and please contact me about how we might work together.

Register now on Eventbrite for my free facilitation webinars, and for my regularly scheduled ToP facilitation training courses in London and Brussels.

Civil society, the promise and peril of democratization and prospects for the Arab world

Welcome to the first of what may become an occasional series, of writing ‘from the archive’. This essay was first written in 1996 for my MA in Development Adminstration and Management at Manchester University. It was published in the magazine of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre in Cairo, Civil Society (October 1996), and in the journal Representation (Volume 34, Issue 3-4, 1997).  Almost 20 years on, with so much and yet so little having changed in the Arab world and worldwide, it is ever clearer that Ibrahim was right at least about the “painfully long journey”…

Civil Society (October 1996)Introduction

“The end of 1995 and the beginning of 1996 are witnessing the promise and the peril of democratization in the Arab world.  …the Arab world is joining, albeit reluctantly, what Samuel Huntingdon calls the third wave of democracy.” (Ibrahim 1996, 4)

Although he cites important elections in Algeria, Egypt and Palestine to support his view, Ibrahim accepts that these represent only “a few steps taken on the road of a painfully long journey” (Ibrahim 1995, 4) and that the path of Arab democratization will likely be neither smooth nor fast.  This paper will argue that the prospect of  joining the third wave of democracy may in fact be considered one of the perils of the road ahead, and that realizing the full promise of democratization for the people of the region will depend crucially on the extent to which Arab civil society is able to broaden the agenda for change to embrace a more substantive conception of democracy.  With particular reference to the central role of civil society, this paper will seek to assess the prospects for substantive democratic transformation in the Arab world.

The concept of civil society will be introduced and defined in terms of its essential characteristics and an analytical framework presented by which to interpret a process of democratization in terms of the extent to which it conforms to the prevalent ‘transitional’ model of the third wave scholars, or to a broader ‘transformative’ model.  Inherent perils of the transitional model will be discussed, and the central role of civil society identified as a distinguishing feature of the transformative model.  Accounts of civil society in the Arab world will then be related to its defining characteristics and central role in transformative democratization to assess the prospects of the Arab world for realizing the full promise of its emerging democratization.

Civil society

The idea of civil society has its roots in the writings of philosophers of the eighteenth century ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, but the concept has re-entered contemporary debates with the spectacular popular uprisings against totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe (Walzer 1995), and to capture “the emergence of an unprecedented worldwide phenomenon – men and women, groups and individuals, getting together to do things by themselves in order to change the societies they live in” (de Oliveira & Tandon 1995, 1).

Although a variety of definitions of civil society have appeared in recent literature, encompassing some differences as to what the concept may include and exclude, there is broad consensus over its essential characteristics.  Diamond has defined it as “the realm of organized social life that is voluntary, self-generating, (largely) self-supporting, autonomous from the state, and bound by a legal order or set of shared rules” (Diamond 1994, 5).  These ‘shared rules’ he regards as the “irreducible condition” of the dimension of civility, even in the absence of an effective legal order (ibid.), a view characteristic of the broad consensus that may be termed the “modern, liberal conception of civil society” (Schwedler 1995, 6).  Going to the roots of those shared rules, Hyden’s interpretation emphasizes the place of ‘social capital’, the “normative values and beliefs that citizens share in their everyday dealings”, upon which basis acceptance of the legal order rests (Hyden forthcoming, 1).  He views civil society as “the forum in which [these values and beliefs] are nurtured and developed” (ibid.).  This paper will adopt Bratton’s concise but comprehensive definition, drawing on a range of contemporary theory:

“Civil society is defined… as a sphere of social interaction between the household and the state which is manifest in norms of community co-operation, structures of voluntary association, and networks of public communication”  (Bratton 1994, 2).

It is pertinent to ask whether it is even appropriate to apply such a historically specific and essentially Western concept outside its cultural context?  Wickham has argued that “efforts to locate civil society… reveal more about the preoccupations of  Western scholars than they do about new social configurations in the Middle East today” (Wickham 1994, 509).  Nevertheless, as Norton writes, “a categorical rejection of the idea of civil society in the Middle East is unwarranted, not least because the idea of civil society is fast becoming part of the indigenous intellectual and policy dialogues” (Norton 1993, 213).  The extent to which the idea has gained currency  in the region is described by Bellin:

“State officials in the Middle East use the term ‘civil society’ to promote their projects of mobilization and ‘modernization’; Islamists use it to angle for a greater legal share of public space; and independent activists and intellectuals use it to expand the boundaries of individual liberty” (Bellin 1994, 509).

This paper is based on the premise that, by focusing on its essential characteristics and role rather than its particular institutional manifestations, civil society remains a valid tool of analysis for the Arab world.

‘Transitional’ and ‘transformative’ models of democratization

The table below presents a framework by which to interpret a process of democratic change in terms of two theoretical poles designated here ‘transitional’ and ‘transformative’ models of democratization:

key features  ‘transitional’ democratization ‘transformative’ democratization
goal transition to, and eventual consolidation of, procedural democracy substantive democracy embracing sustainable and equitable development
arenas political multiple – political, social, economic
levels national multiple – local to global
key actors strategic elites citizens, organized in civil society
relation of civil society to state “watchful but respectful of state authority” – third sector demanding of state accountability: first sector
key challenge political institutionalization state & corporate accountability to civil society

The two models need not be considered to be in opposition to each other.  Transition may be a means to the end of transformation, and the prospect of transformation may serve as motivation for pursuing transition.  However, while a process of transformation is likely to give rise to some form of procedural democracy, a process of transition is unlikely in and of itself to result in a substantive democratic transformation.

The Promise and Peril of Democratization

According to Huntington, “the current era of democratic transitions constitutes the third wave of democratization in the history of the modern world” (Huntington 1991, 12).  Since 1972, the ‘third wave’ has seen democracies more than double in number from 44 to 107, representing more than half of all countries, and reaching every region of the world (Shin 1994, 136).  The notion of democracy has thus gained sufficient popularity among peoples and leaders worldwide to occasion triumphalist declarations in the West of the ‘end of history’, as the great competing ideologies are said to have been discredited, leaving democracy “the only model of government with any broad ideological legitimacy and appeal in the world today” (Diamond, Linz & Lipset 1989, x).

The body of literature that has emerged around this third wave may be distinguished from earlier scholarship by, inter alia, its optimism that democracy can be ‘manufactured’, and its often explicit aim to “provide advice for would-be democrats from an operational perspective” (Allison & Beschel, cited Shin 1994, 141).  Certainly, few today would reject outright the principles of democratic governance, but how and to what extent they could, or should, be operationalized generates increasing controversy.

In his review of recent theory and research on the third wave of democratization, Shin 1994, 141) reports that a ‘procedural’ or minimalist conception of democracy is generally favoured over a more ‘substantive’ or maximalist conception that stipulates socio-economic advances as defining criteria.  Diamond, Linz & Lipset further clarify that they consider democracy “a political system, separate and apart from the economic and social system to which it is joined” (Diamond, Linz & Lipset 1989, xvi).

Shin cites Karl’s explanation of this approach on the grounds that, were they not to adopt it, scholars would be “hard pressed to find ‘actual’ democratic regimes to study”, they would be unable to identify important, if incomplete, moves toward democracy in the political sphere, and they would also be unable to examine hypothesized links between different regime types and socioeconomic outcomes (Shin 1994, 141).  Methodological justifications notwithstanding, can the “social agents” seeking “theoretical tools for understanding and altering conditions of oppression” that the third wave scholars seek to advise (Shin 1994, 141) justify such a procedural focus?

White asserts that “democracy, even in a limited procedural form, is a valuable developmental end in itself, because of the rights and freedoms it attempts to guarantee [although] it is widely recognized that fledgling democracies face a number of basic constraints which limit their capacity to deal with the deep-rooted intractable developmental problems” (White 1995, 79).  Even if a procedural democracy could actually guarantee these rights, still there is a trade-off here that requires an ordering of priorities.  In fact White’s remarks reflect an all too common logical weakness and fail to address powerful arguments against universal applicability of  the procedural approach, such as those invoking cultural relativism (Blunt 1995) and ‘fundamental illiberalism’.

Those advocating a procedural democracy on explicitly instrumental grounds, however, face mounting evidence to contradict the implied causal relationships (as White has appreciated).  Shin notes that “many of the countries of the third wave of democratization are now engulfed in grave political crises because democracy is not delivering economic prosperity, honest and efficient government, protection for human rights, peace and security” (Shin 1994, 166).  Similarly, in the light of intractable social and economic problems, there is increasing public disillusionment with the democratic procedures of consolidated Western democracies.

Osaghae, in contrast, considers democracy to be “not simply about form or means; it is also about ends, which have to do with its inherent capacity to enhance development” (Osaghae 1995, 189).  Since “development is a total  and all-inclusive process whose political, economic and social aspects are concomitant and mutually reinforcing” he asks, “can any aspect of it be meaningfully studied in isolation?” (ibid., 185).  As states are ‘rolled back’ to transfer ever more decision-making power to markets, the value of a democracy defined in terms of political procedures becomes ever more ambiguous, and the need for democratic accountability to extend also to the economic sphere becomes ever clearer.

Similarly, processes of globalization bring into question the value of a democracy defined in terms of the nation state. Even in consolidated democracies, increasing regional and global connectedness of states and markets means that national governments no longer enjoy exclusive political and economic sovereignty in their own territory, and that their decisions and policies may affect the decision-making capacity of other states beyond their borders.  Moreover, democratic procedures at national level become increasingly meaningless in a context where transnational economic and political power grows ever stronger, free from democratic accountability.  As Held writes, “democracy at [regional and global] levels is an important condition for the development of democracy within national and local communities” (Held 1993, 14).

A product of the procedural approach is that democracy may be regarded as primarily a “product of strategic interactions and arrangements among political elites (Shin 1994, 139).  As Osaghae remarks, however, “by hinging the success of the entire transition process on the whims and caprices of the elite, [Diamond] unwittingly undermines the whole purpose of democratic transition” (Osaghae 1995, 191).  A democracy in which the citizens are not the key actors is surely not worthy of the name.

Conflicting interests are at stake in determining the key actors.  In the wake of the much heralded ‘triumph’ of western liberal (and capitalist) democracy over its competitors, wealthy industrialized nations and international financial institutions have felt justified to pursue a project of democratization abroad, by even coercive means ranging from aid and trade conditionality to military intervention.  Thus choices of political, economic and social organization, paths of democratization, are intimately linked to international as well as domestic power relations.  Those international and domestic elites that enjoy political and economic power tend to perceive their interests to be best served by pursuing a limited procedural and capitalist democracy.  Indeed, in the conventional economic wisdom of a zero-sum game in which actors aim to maximize a narrow conception of their individual utility, pursuing a more transformative democratization (or no democratization at all) may be irrational.  From the point of view of the politically and economically disempowered, however, and those who reject the conventional economic wisdom, such a procedural democracy may be seen to be at best irrelevant, if not actually against their interests.

With the developmental problems characterized by Korten (1990) as the three great crises of poverty, environment and social integration becoming ever more pressing, globally and in the Arab world, in spite of the rapid advances of democratic procedures worldwide, an exclusive operational focus on limited procedural democracy may be seen to be perilous indeed.

The role of civil society

Schwedler writes “Although the existence of civil society in the Middle East (or anywhere) does not mean that countries are on the verge of democratization, it does illustrate that citizens are both willing and able to play a role in shaping the state policies that govern their lives” (Schwedler 1995, 2).  As Diamond observes, however, “most transitions have been… negotiated (if not largely controlled from above by the existing authoritarians)” (Diamond 1994, 4).  Thus, civil society is regarded among third wave scholars as a facilitating, though not necessary, factor in transition to a procedural democracy.

The functions of civil society do not differ between the transitional and transformative models, but the extent to which civil society is able to effectively perform those functions will be critical in determining the path of democratization followed.  Diamond has identified ten unique democracy-building functions of civil society, and five features of the internal character and structure of civil society affecting its capacity to perform those functions (Diamond 1994, 7-11).  These functions and features may be as valid for either model of democratization, but it is among Diamond’s four caveats that his preference for the transitional may be distinguished.  He stresses that “societal autonomy can go too far…  the state itself must have sufficient autonomy, legitimacy, capacity and support” (ibid., 14); and that “civil society must be watchful but respectful of state authority” (ibid., 15).

These caveats must be understood in the context of a transitional process with the end goal of consolidated procedural democracy.  Thus, when the transition in the political arena is accomplished, the onus is on civil society to temper its claims and legitimate the new democratic regime.  In the context, however, of “the growing realization that neither the market nor the state alone can meet the challenges of equitable and sustainable development” (de Oliveira & Tandon 1995, 3), a strong and autonomous civil society must be a necessary and central condition for transformative democratization. Rather than the ‘third sector’, civil society is considered the only legitimate ‘first sector’ (Tandon 1992, 38), and  “the appropriate role of the state is to create enabling conditions for civil society to ‘manage’ the public affairs of the community” (ibid., 39).  To achieve a transformative democratization, therefore, civil society will need to make its legitimization conditional on full state and corporate accountability to civil society, and the extension of democratic transformation throughout economic and social as well as political spheres, and at all levels, local to global.  The strength and autonomy with which it performs its functions may therefore be considered primary indicators of the potential for such a democratic transformation.    

Civil Society and Democratization in the Arab world

Adopting Bratton’s definition, we may identify civil society by its essential characteristics of structures of voluntary association, networks of public communication and norms of community co-operation.

As Norton has observed, “the region is replete with voluntary organizations, trade unions, human rights groups, women’s associations, minority rights groups and various other social organizations” (cited Schwedler 1995, 10).  He notes in particular the women’s movements of Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen and the Palestinians; the businessmen’s groups and professional associations of Jordan and Egypt; the diwanayat (meeting groups) of Kuwait; and the peace movement, labour unions and election-monitoring organizations of Lebanon (Norton 1993, 209).  Numbers of associations are increasing, for example Lone writes that Arab NGOs have increased from 20,000 in the 1960s to 70,000 in the 1980s (Lone 1995, 20).  According to Ibrahim, Egyptian civil society alone comprises over 22,000 organizations including 23 professional syndicates, 3,000 clubs, 4,000 co-operatives and 14,000 NGOs, having been invigorated by participation in successive international events, particularly Cairo’s 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (Ibrahim 1995, 5).

Networks of public communication within and across states are expanding in their reach and their capacity to elude state control, as new technologies such as fax, satellite television and the internet are rapidly gaining ground in the Arab world, as elsewhere.  Also, as Norton observes, “hundreds of thousands of labour migrants, moving back and forth across the region, carry powerful images of change and dissent” (Norton 1993, 206).  Although domestic radio, television and print media are still subject to extensive state interference and control, independent views are increasingly heard from growing ranks of autonomous research organizations and ‘think-tanks’.  Egypt’s Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Development Studies, for example, produces a monthly bilingual newsletter ‘Civil Society and Democratic Transformation in the Arab World’, and has been sponsoring a weekly prime time spot on national television (Khalifa 1995, 160).

Norms of community co-operation are more elusive in attempts to identify civil society in the Arab world, and raise considerable controversy over where to draw its boundary, in particular in relation to Islamist organizations.  While arguably “it is individual movements, and not Islam itself, that are the obstacles” to democracy (Schwedler 1995, 24), authors such as Ibrahim categorically exclude Islamist organizations from civil society, although they may often use its channels to pursue their goals (ibid., 12).  The question essentially is whether to include as legitimate actors within civil society all those organizations that adhere to the ‘rules of the game’, or whether to exclude those that seek to change the rules when they have gained sufficient power.  In terms of the functions of civil society, certainly Islamist organizations have been “among the most effective means of challenging government authority and responding to citizens’ needs and concerns” (Schwedler 1995, 14), as highlighted in Egypt by their uniquely swift and effective response to the 1992 earthquake.

Regardless of where the boundary of civil society is drawn, to what extent may religious or secular associations, and their relations between themselves and with the state, be considered to display the essential norms of civility?  Certainly the violence of some groups, notably in Algeria and to a much lesser extent Egypt, lies well beyond the bounds of civility.  Non-violent intolerance is also endemic, however, as illustrated in Egypt for example by the campaign against Nasr Hamed Abu-Zeid resulting in a 1995 court ruling to divorce him from his wife on the grounds of apostasy (CHRLA 1996, 19).  Even secular grassroots community development associations in Egypt have been accused of being based on “a strict hierarchy of intolerance and oppression”, reflecting a culture of deference in which it is improper (aib) to question or criticize (Rifaat 1993, 17).  As Norton observes, in the region “civil society is often undermined by a deficit in political toleration” (Norton 1995, 33).  Tolerance and civility are by no means absent, however, and if social capital can be nurtured and developed through participation in voluntary associations and networks of communication (Hyden forthcoming, 1), increasing participation in many parts of the region offers reason for optimism that such norms of community co-operation will become more the norm.

Although authoritarian Arab regimes are suffering deepening crises of legitimacy as citizen and international pressure for democratic accountability mounts, civil society remains severely constrained by the state across the Arab world..  In some cases civil society has effectively been totally repressed or co-opted, for example in Sudan (Lesch 1995, 71) and Ba’athist Iraq (Humadi 1995, 51).  Even in Egypt’s relatively free and vibrant civil society, most NGOs are subject to the stifling Law 32 of 1964 which requires them to refrain from ‘political’ activity, and empowers the Ministry of Social Affairs to replace their elected councils (Al-Sayyid 1993, 236).  Furthermore, the new Press Law 93 of 1995 represents “the most repressive in two centuries of Egyptian press history” (Ragab 1995, 593) and has been interpreted as a further manifestation of “the state’s tendency to reign in the democratic margin it grants and impose more restrictions on active civic institutions” (EOHR 1996, 16).  Civil society remains resistant and resourceful, however, as illustrated by the growing number of Egyptian NGOs now functioning with relative autonomy as non-profit limited liability firms under the Companies Law.  It is also becoming increasingly politicized, as illustrated in Egypt by the domination of elections of the medical, engineering and lawyers associations by the Muslim Brotherhood (Ibrahim 1993, 304).

In spite of the reluctance of the Arab regimes to grant greater individual and associational freedoms to their citizens the domestic and international forces for liberalization, in particular the economic imperatives (Richards 1995, 39), are showing no signs of abating.  Although time-honoured measures of repression are still routinely adopted against dissenters, “the scope of failure is so broad that few rulers today have pockets deep enough or jails large enough to cope with the problem in traditional ways (Norton 1993, 206).  Even in the desperate case of Iraq, the variety of independent associations that have sprung up in the imposed ‘safe haven’ in the north, and the growing Iraqi civil society of the diaspora, particularly in London, indicates that civil society will take every opportunity it can to assert itself.

Conclusion

In the context of ever mounting pressures worldwide for truly accountable democratic governance by which to address the major social, economic and environmental crises of the times, a transitional model of democratization based on a narrow procedural conception of democracy may be seen to be not only an inadequate response to the demands of the rising civil society, but a perilous distraction from the real democratic transformation that is required.

A democracy of  elites, restricted to the political sphere of the nation state, is not only a poor shadow of the democratic principles that have been fought and struggled for by citizens around the world, such a democracy that does not allow a central role to civil society is inherently unable to meet the needs of society.  US Senator Bill Bradley has, with regard to America, likened society to:

“a three legged stool that is fundamentally out of balance because two of the legs – the capitalist marketplace and the government – have dominated our public life at the expense of the third leg: civil society.  The cost of this neglect… has been the proliferation of social problems that neither government nor business is fully equipped to address” (Lampe 1995, 91)

His analysis is as valid for society globally, and for nations and local communities of the Arab world and elsewhere, as it is for the United States.

Certainly, in the Arab world we are witnessing just the first few steps on what is likely to be a long and hard road of democratization.  As a vital strategic region in the yet pre-democratic international arena, the role of civil society in the Arab world and globally will be especially important in holding state and market sectors, domestic and international, accountable to local citizenry.  Arab civil society, although still severely constrained by state regulation and sorely lacking in the key norms of tolerance and civility, is significantly expanding and strengthening in terms of its associational structures and its local, national and international networks of communication.

Only time will tell the path that the emerging Arab democratization will take and, perhaps more than that of any region, Arab civil society will rely on global forces of citizen solidarity to broaden the agenda for change to bring about a truly substantive democratic transformation.  It is thus incumbent on true democrats everywhere to play their essential role as fellow citizens in building a truly democratic system of global governance within which substantive local democracy may thrive in the Arab world, and worldwide.

References

Al-Sayyid, MK (1993) “A Civil Society in Egypt?” in Middle East Journal 47/2, 228-242

Bellin, E (1994) “Civil Society: Effective Tool of Analysis for Middle East Politics?” in PS September 1994, 509-10

Blunt, P (1995) “Cultural Relativism, ‘Good’ Governance and Sustainable Human Development” in Public Administration and Development 15, 1-9

Bratton, M (1994) “Civil Society and Political Transition in Africa” in IDR Reports 11/6 (Institute for Development Research, Boston MA)

British Council (1994) Development priorities: guidelines – Good government

Chomsky, N (1994) World Orders, Old and New, Pluto Press, London

CHRLA – Centre for Human Rights Legal Aid  (1996) “Hisba: Is Egypt a Civil or Religious State?” in Civil Society: Democratic Transformation in the Arab World March 1996, 18-21

Diamond, L (1994) “Rethinking Civil Society: Toward Democratic Consolidation” in Journal of Democracy 5 (July 1994),  4-17

Diamond, L, Linz, JJ & Lipset, SM (1989) “Preface” in Diamond, L, Linz, JJ & Lipset, SM  (Eds.) Democracy in Developing Countries, Adamantine Press, London

EOHR – Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (1996) “Acting to Defend Civil Society” in Civil Society: Democratic Transformation in the Arab World March 1996, 16-17

Held, D (1993) “Democracy: From City States to a Cosmopolitan Order?” in Held, D (Ed.) Prospects for Democracy: North, South, East, West, Polity Press, Cambridge

Humadi, Z (1995) “Civil Society under the Ba’th in Iraq” in Schwedler, J (Ed.) Toward Civil Society in the Middle East: A Primer, Lynne Rienner, London

Huntingdon, SP (1991) “Democracy’s Third Wave” in Journal of Democracy 2/2, 12-34

Hyden, G (forthcoming) “Building Civil Society at the Turn of the Millennium” in Burbidge, J Participating in the Rise of Civil Society

Ibrahim, SE (1996) “A Year of Wavering Democracy” in Civil Society: Democratic Transformation in the Arab World, January 1996, 4

Ibrahim, SE (1995) “Civil Society and Electoral Politics in Egypt” in Civil Society: Democratic Transformation in the Arab World, December 1995, 4-6

Ibrahim, SE (1993) “Crises, Elites and Democratization in the Arab World” in Middle East Journal 47/2, 292-305

Jacobs, M (1996) The Politics of the Real World, Earthscan, London

Khalifa, A (1995) “Reviving Civil Society in Egypt” in , Journal of Democracy 6/3, 155-163

Korten, D (1990) Getting to the 21st Century: Global Action and the Voluntary Agenda, Kumarian Press, Connecticut

Lampe, D (1995) “Introduction” in National Civic Review 84/2, 91-93

Lesch, AM (1995) “The Destruction of Civil Society in the Sudan” in Schwedler, J (Ed.) Toward Civil Society in the Middle East: A Primer, Lynne Rienner, London

Lone, S (1995) “Civil Society in the Middle East” in Civil Society: Democratic Transformation in the Arab World, June 1995, 18-21

Norton, AR (1993) “The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East” in Middle East Journal 47/2, 205-216;

Norton, AR (1995) “The Future of Civil Society in the Middle East” in Schwedler, J (Ed.) Toward Civil Society in the Middle East: A Primer, Lynne Rienner, London

de Oliveira, MD & Tandon, R (1995) “An Emerging Global Civil Society” in Oliveira, M D & Tandon, R, Citizens Strengthening Global Civil Society; CIVICUS

Osaghae, EE (1995) “The Study of Political Transitions in Africa” in Review of African Political Economy 64, 183-197

Ragab, H (1995) “Egypt’s New Draconian Press Law: A Tale of Two Sons” in Review of African Political Economy 66, 592-595

Richards, A (1995) “Economic Pressures for Accountable Governance in the Middle East and North Africa” in  Toward Civil Society in the Middle East: A Primer Lynne Rienner, London

Rifaat, N (1993) “Grassroots Development: Is it Working?” in Ru’ya/Vision (The Institute of Cultural Affairs, Cairo) Winter 1993, 16-17

Schwedler, J (1995) “Introduction” in Schwedler, J (Ed.) Toward Civil Society in the Middle East: A Primer Lynne Rienner, London

Shin, DC (1994) “On the Third Wave of Democratization” in World Politics  47/1, 135-170

Tandon, R (1992) “Civil Society is the First Sector” in Development 1992/3, 38-39

Walzer, M (1995) “Introduction” in Walzer, M (Ed.) Toward a Global Civil Society, Berghahn Books

White, G (1995) “Civil Society, Democratization and Development II: Two Country Cases” in Democratization 2/2, 56-84

Whitehead, L (1993) “Introduction: Some Insights from Western Social Theory” in World Development 21/8, 1245-1261

Wickham, CR (1994) “Beyond Democratization: Political Change in The Arab World” in PS September 1994, 507-509

Changing Lives Changing Societies

Changing Lives Changing SocietiesICA’s experience in Nepal and in the world

ISBN 993725358-1 – Edited by Tatwa P. Timsina and Dasareth Neupane

[June 2013: now available online via Amazon and other retailers]

The Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) is a global network of non-profit organisations advancing human development worldwide. This new book, published by ICA Nepal, was launched at ICA’s 8th Global Conference on Human Development in Kathmandu in October.  The book and the conference were among a series of initiatives celebrating ICA’s 50th anniversary in 2012. The Table of Contents and Preface may be downloaded here.

Editor Tatwa Timsina is Chair of ICA Nepal and former President of ICA International, and an Associate Professor of Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu. Tatwa and his co-editor Dasareth Neupane, and the many ICA colleagues from around the world who have contributed as authors, have done a great service to ICA’s global mission with this book.  It should be required reading for all those involved with ICA worldwide, as we seek to renew and strengthen our global network and extend our global impact through peer-to-peer collaboration.  It should be required reading also for all those who share ICA’s concern ‘for the human factor in world development’.  Facilitators, development practitioners and policy makers alike may benefit from the 50 years of collective experience that have contributed to these inspiring stories – stories of practical approaches that work in changing lives and changing societies, through facilitating change with people, in communities and in organisations.

Bill Staples of ICA Associates in Canada opens the book with an overview of those 50 years of ICA experience in human development worldwide. In doing so he traces the roots of ICA’s ‘Technology of Participation’ (ToP).  This powerful suite of facilitation methods and tools is perhaps the most visible manifestation of ICA’s shared philosophy, values and approach, in what has become a diverse global network with an equally diverse range of programmes and activities.

Robertson Work, former global policy advisor with the UN Development Programme in New York and keynote speaker at the Nepal conference, draws on social philosophy, systems analysis and many years of worldwide experience.  He shares an approach to transformative leadership and innovative governance that builds on Ken Wilber’s integral theory, Jean Houston’s Social Artistry and ICA’s ToP facilitation methodology.

Larry Philbrook, Director of ICA Taiwan and also former President of ICA International, describes awakenment, engagement and formation as three core strategies for human development at the individual level – about living a disciplined life of choice.  He describes facilitation as a pathway to such individual transformation, as well as to organisational and social transformation. Bill Staples goes on to outline perhaps the most powerful of the suite of ToP methods, known as Participatory Strategic Planning, and its human developmental impact at both the individual and social level*.

Following chapters describe the practical experience and profound impact of facilitation and human development around the world, in a variety of contexts representing the diversity of ICA’s global network.  Among these, Ana Maria Urrutia tells the story of ICA Chile’s Participative Leaders Training Programme with young people with and without disabilities in Santiago. Catalina Quiroz and Luz Marina Aponte relate ICA Spain’s experience of virtual facilitation with worldwide religious groups to promote more collaborative planning and working practices. Terry Bergdall of ICA USA draws on experience in Africa and elsewhere to describe ICA’s participatory approach within the contextual framework of Asset Based Community Development.  Jonathan Dudding draws on worldwide experience to reflect on the potential and limitations of ICA’s ToP facilitation methods in addressing conflict, and how this has contributed to the work of ICA:UK and partners in developing the innovative new Kumi method for conflict transformation in the Middle East.  Jan Sanders, Tatwa Timsina et al share the experience of ICA Nepal’s Decentralised Transformative Approach to HIV & AIDS in partnership with UNDP, UNAIDS and others.  Mohammad Azizur Rahman and Md Mohsin Ali of ICA Bangladesh reflect on the experience and implications of ToP methods in learning and research in Bangladesh. Tatwa Timsina and Kushendra Mahat reflect on ICA Nepal’s experience of the Civil Society Index action research project in Nepal, and its role in development and democratisation. Wayne Ellsworth describes ICA Japan’s approach to awareness, education and transformation in humanitarian emergency situations in Chile, Haiti, Cote D’Ivoire, Aceh, Japan and elsewhere.

Even after reading regularly of many of these initiatives in recent years in ICAI’s monthly bulletin the Global Buzz and quarterly magazine Winds and Waves, and after learning of them directly from colleagues at the Nepal conference and otherwise, I was profoundly impacted by reading this book.  After 25 years of involvement with ICA worldwide, I found myself almost as excited by these stories as I was by the stories of ICA’s worldwide network of Human Development Projects that I first encountered as an international volunteer in the 1980s. Certainly the same philosophy, values and approach shine through, although the practicalities of implementation may have changed as much as the world around us has changed since then.  The internet is a case in point. Although there have been numerous books authored by ICA colleagues in recent years*, I think there has been no such global compendium to illustrate the scope and depth of ICA’s experience and approach since Beyond Prince and Merchant – launched at ICA’s 4th Global Conference on Human Development in Cairo in 1996, ‘the Rise of Civil Society in the 21st Century’.  I hope to make it a responsibility of the new ICAI Board to help to ensure that this one is widely read.

That being said, readers should be forewarned that the structure and style of the 20 chapters are almost as diverse as the authors and the contexts of their experience.  The quality of reproduction of the photographs, and some minor typos particularly in the opening chapters, might I hope be addressed in a second edition for worldwide distribution by a print-on-demand service such as Lightning Source.

Read the book yourself, and please let us know what you think!

* Transformational Strategy: Facilitation of ToP Participatory Planning by Bill Staples is also recently published and now available from Amazon, and directly from ICA Associates.