The Myth of Libya’s Civil Society

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A parade in Benghazi organized by local community groups (2013)

In almost every single project proposal written by local and international organization on Libyan civil society, the first thing you’ll read is “Libya’s civil society was born after 2011, it is still a new sector” or some variation on this line. Hell, I’ve written this countless times when seeking funding for projects.

The problem is, it’s not entirely true.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. What is civil society, anyways? The official definition is that it’s the ‘third sector’ following public and private in any nation state, and it’s definitely a popular buzzword with the EU and UN. But the exact meaning is a bit murky, and ranges from any type of volunteerism up to professional income-generating institutions. There’s also a tangle of acronyms; CSO, CBO, I/NGO, NPO, etc, the common letter being the ‘O’ for organization. The contemporary definition of civil society seems to revolve around organizations, official registered bodies who normally don’t make a profit.

Jumping back to Libya, Gadhafi had initially quashed any type of civil society movements, along with banning political parties and arresting student protest organizers. The image of students being hanged on university campus was enough to stop any activism in the country for a long time. The only non-state movement that was begrudgingly allowed to operate was the Scouts, although with heavy oversight.

As Libya opened up following the lifting of international sanctions, there were renewed efforts to organize social movements. Careful not to catch the attention of the regime, these organizations were mainly focused on issues such as cancer awareness, the rights of people with disabilities, environmentalism and charity collectives. But even if the focus of the organization was benign enough for the regime, you still had to go through a draconian registration process that included 70 founding members acting as signatories.

Fast-forward to 2011, and the civil society ‘explosion’ happened. Suddenly, there were no rules and no limit to what you could do. Young people came together and started radio stations, training centers, political movements, book clubs, everything and anything that had collective interest. Half finished buildings or donated office spaces became headquarters and it was easy to find business owners willing to contribute anything to help fund projects. It was an amazing time to be alive, when we were fueled by revolutionary fervor and felt invincible. Until reality caught up and it all came crashing around us.

But this post is not about the rise and fall of Libya’s civil society. It’s about what we’re calling civil society. Whether before or after the revolution, the discourse is always on the formal or semi-formal organizations; as long as you had a name, a logo and at least two members, you were a civil society thing of some sort. The aspiration was always towards organization status, and many of those movements institutionalized, registering with the newly created Civil Society Commission and developing an administrative hierarchy. Part of this reason was the experience being gained over time, but the bigger and most compelling reasons was – drumroll please – international funding.

The international community, operating on the multiple acronym-formal bureaucracy-do-you-have-a-finance-officer definition of civil society, would only grant funding to CSOs who were a) officially registered with any government entity and b) had a bank account. In the face of these constraints, organizations and movements picked up the tricks relatively quickly, and many people saw the opportunity of making money by setting up organizations just to get funding.

BUT – and here comes the Whole Point of the Post – what about the non-official, ‘informal’ civil society?

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An art gallery in Benghazi, organized by Facebook group of art lovers (2015)

Libya has always had a civil society, and not just the charity aunts type. You see, civil society is more than just acronyms and logos. Anything outside of the government or private sector structure that organizes and mobilizes people is civil society, and Libyan society has a very long tradition of managing itself. Tribes have been mediating conflicts for centuries, and tribal land trusts are an efficient mechanism of ensuring housing. “Jam’iyat”, a form of community financing in which people collect and distribute monthly savings, has been very popular especially among Libyan women. Entire cities are the protectors of ancient heritage sites like in Leptis Magna or Shahat or Acacus. Neighbourhood watch groups, online forum communities, the zakat system, academic circles, the list goes on and on.

In our country’s legacy of state weakness, Libyans have had to figure out their own way of meeting their needs, bending the official procedures around their own self-made system. It’s a process that is constantly negotiated and renegotiated, but I believe that it’s one of the reasons why Libya has not completely collapsed at this point.

But international organizations don’t fund tribal land trusts or mosque groups that meet every week to teach illiterate women how to read and write. The development system has been configured in a way where informality is not recognized. If you don’t have a government stamp of some kind then you don’t have any claim to ‘legitimacy’, and it’s incredibly problematic for the international development sector to impart their version of legitimacy onto Libya. I worked in an organization where we had dozens of grants to give to ‘civil society’, but a list of regulations and guidelines on eligibility that excluded almost anyone who didn’t know the international development jargon, and who didn’t mold their organization to fit our vision of what civil society was, rather than the other way around. I can’t count the number of times I’ve begged local movements to get any type of registration so we could fund their work, because it was easier to convince them than to tell the EU or UN that their system was bullshit.

The institutionalization of civil society does not work well in countries where communities are held together by networks of trust and reciprocal benefits rather than paperclips and rubber stamps. The reason why civil society thrived in 2011 was because there was no formal funding, everyone contributed what they could and it was led by collective efforts, in the spirit that has kept Libyan society together until this day. This is a huge missed opportunity for any kind of development work.

I’m not against formal organizations, and I’m so proud that in the space of only eight years and in difficult circumstances we’ve witnessed the rise of truly remarkable civil society institutions in Libya. But this institutionalization should happen on our own terms, away from the exclusionary language of ‘legitimacy’. If international organizations want to work better in Libya then they should work within the system in place. And please, for goodness’ sake, let’s stop saying that Libya never had a real civil society.

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