Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Iran, the youth, and NGOs

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Non Governmental Organizations in Iran and Iranian youth are closely knitted. Youth are an important part of today’s world, technology has empowered us to stand up, tackle projects and ideas and have ourselves heard. As in all countries, the youth in Iran are quick to excel in this regard. Numerous youth societies are on the ground in Iran along with many international NGOs that help young people to build a better society through volunteer work and social service projects. There are also numerous individuals who are trying to present the truth about what happens in Iran, the injustices and unfair practices when the government denies human rights to its own citizens, stoning people to death for sex outside of marriage and murderous fundamentalists are allowed to walk free. And yet these freedom writer’s views and opinions are misrepresented and ignored and censored in an effort to present a more flattering picture of the country to the world.

There are over 2500 NGOs in Iran and these are mostly run by enthusiastic youth. However, they lack government support and the right kind of expertise to help them achieve their goals properly. The biggest obstacle, however, is the conservative government which has placed such tight restrictions on NGOs that many of them are now leaving the country.

Nevertheless, many local youth organizations like Mehr and Mehak are empowering women in Iran’s male dominated society. Women are stepping up and making sure that the neglected widows and children and the only breadwinners of their families are not ignored by society and the government. They initiate fund raisers, bazaars and social programs that help to educate women while Mehak together with the Banam Daheshpur charitable organization pays for cancer treatment for neglected kids and the elderly. The government provides them with no funding or facilities but these young women still strive on their own to contribute to society without expecting anything in return.

Then there are the Mothers of Peace, who speak out and demonstrate against the war and the cruel action of governments in Gaza. No doubt women are stepping up but when I was browsing the internet, I found a post from a Jadi, very talented and quite famous blogger in Iran who argued that organizations such as these were not telling both sides of the story. He said that all is not well in Iran which is failing to take note of the human rights violations inside its own territory where many of its own citizens are subjected to cruel and harsh punishments and people were not speaking up against the unjust government.  He further talks about how the government has infiltrated NGOs and is putting on a show of complete hypocrisy. Most NGOs in Iran are not allowed to have their own websites or are banned from international events and many bloggers are constantly threatened and their articles and blogs are constantly censored.

Local student organizations like Students for Equality and Freedom also work independently and nationally to counter the conservative agenda of the government along with the United Student Front which called for protests after the controversial 2009 elections. Officials have shut down their websites and forced them underground but they have not given up on their basic right to freedom. Other youth organizations like The Basij work for the mobilization of the oppressed on voluntary terms, and then there are the youth who follow the extremist party Ansar-e-Hezbollah misguided by religious leaders who constantly brew poison against the so-called “western agenda”.  On the other hand we have the students in the Committee of Human Rights Reporters who record human rights violations in the country. Many of their members have been jailed repeatedly on charges of openly accusing the government of violations of international human rights.

The Iranian government may well condemn the use of force against rioters in England, but they themselves have no clean slate. They condemn freedom, they condemn anything that could stand against them or their state and its social norms  – and then they act like they were the best nation on earth when it comes to championing such issues.

International organizations like Oxfam, UNHCR, Unicef, Red Crescent and many others are also on the gtround in Iran but many conservative Iranians view these institutions as evil western organizations working against the norms of a religious country. Khatemi, the Iranian supreme leader, allocated funds for NGOs to improve the social sector but this move was met with widespread opposition from religious political parties, and the Iranian president Ahmedinijad increased funding for religious institutions rather than helping those organizations working in the social sector to educate the Iranian people. Setting up and registering a NGO is also a very complicated business because of the widespread oppression and opposition to freedom and education in the country strengthened by the popular belief of western infiltration in the form of NGOs.

Recently the Iranian government invited organizations to help them deal with the refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq. Many NGOs have left the country due to the difficulties they have working there but many are reconsidering coming back after Tehran’s appeal for cooperation and help. This will be a long road, however, as many organizations have left the country for good.

The whole situation in Iran is full of irony. Iran wants organizations to work there especially in these hard financial times, but it is not willing to compromise on their demands. The government wants full control of their funding and activities yet organizations prefer to leave the country rather than surrender their independence and work under such tight control. The youth are helpless too. Their actions and activities are constantly monitored; they are banned from the internet and many of them are jailed for speaking out against the government. The only successful organizations are those that are working for the benefit of the people but these are  limited only to raising funds from inside Iran. International collaboration is restricted and many organizations are infiltrated by agents who act as government spies.

Iran needs to give NGOs more freedom to act autonomously or else it will see more and more international NGOs packing up and leaving the country while home grown organizations shut down due to to inadequate support and funding. It is for Iran to decide yet the international community must make Iran realize that it needs these organizations if it is to progress as a productive and prosperous nation.


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Muhammad Bilal Khalid Twitter: BilalKhalidi

Muhammad Bilal Khalid is from Lahore, Pakistan. He is currently working as a volunteer and youth activist at various organisations including YES Alumni Pakistan and DFID empowering the nation and the youth of Pakistan through different projects and opportunities. Muhammad Bilal has been actively participating in climate workshops. He also has been a Student Ambassador to England and the United States on two exchange programs representing the culture and norms of the Pakistani Society and exchanging ideas to bring about a better change in Pakistan. Bilal also takes part in Model United Nations to keep up with international events and he keeps on working to empower the youth and help them reach their maximum potential in Pakistan.