A Brief Look at the Funder/Grantee Relations in Organizations Working on Gender and Sexuality in Lebanon

A Brief Look at the Funder/Grantee Relations in Organizations Working on Gender and Sexuality in Lebanon

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In this article, we briefly explore the funder-grantee relationship and examine some of the implications of donor priorities and agendas on the queer justice movement in Lebanon. We note the precarity of organizations focused on matters of gender and sexuality, whether self-identified as LGBT or feminist organizations, relying on international funding and the reduction of their political spaces by way of their turn into service provisioning due to NGOization.

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A 2016 protest against the detainment of LHBT individuals under Article 534, across from a police detention center in Beirut. Source: Helem’s Facebook page

‘The term “NGOization” is commonly used among many social movements, activist networks and academics to refer to the institutionalization, professionalization, depoliticization and demobilization of movements for social and environmental change,’ as noted by researchers Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor.[1] In Arabic-speaking countries, the NGO-ization of queer activism over the past decade has led to the proliferation of LGBT-focused NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). It is argued that the work of these organizations has resulted in the mainstreaming of LGBT identity categories, a legacy of the Global North trends, and in some instances, to the sidelining of other forms of grassroots organizing, feminist and community-based.[2]   

To produce this short article, we relied on our experiences as feminist campaigners and workers at Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research. We have also consulted the minutes of a conference we organized in summer 2019 in continuity with our issue on ‘Organizing against the Tide: Alternative Economies and Gendered Labor,’[3] where we have devoted a panel to grassroots organizers to share their experiences on the sustainability of funds. In addition to our collective experiences, we conducted semi-structured interviews with representatives of two leading LGBT non-governmental organizations, Helem and Mosaic. Reportedly the first LGBTQ organization in the region, Helem was founded by a group of activists in 2004 in Beirut, Lebanon.[4] Today it bases its work on service provisioning, community building, and advocacy, with an outlook towards abolishing Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which stipulates that ‘unnatural sexual intercourse’ is punishable by law. The organization provides legal services for LGBTQ individuals, and documents cases of human rights violations perpetrated by the Lebanese state. It also welcomes individuals to a community center where many community-based activities and events take place. Like Helem, Mosaic fights human rights violations and promotes the coexistence of marginalized LGBTQ groups with their societies.[5] The organization runs a holistic program of service-provision, advocacy, research, and capacity building focused on LGBTQ groups in the Middle East and North Africa. We chose these two organizations because of the position they occupy in relation to funders and civil society, primarily their hybridity, meaning that in their work, they do not necessarily rely entirely on donor funding. Mosaic and Helem have a flexible model of operation driven by paid staff and volunteers. 

State governance of sexual citizenship and reproductive injustice
Relying on a sectarian system, the Lebanese state sustains its governance through what they call the ‘sectarian balance’, which relies on the creation and maintenance of reproductive injustice. It determines the boundaries of sexual citizenship, not only based on parameters of nationality and heteronormative marriage, but also through questions of confession or the belonging to one of the sixteen sects recognized by the state, women passing their nationality to their children, their ability to marry, divorce, and even vote, which is reliant upon their dependence on a male counterpart, father or husband.[6] As the country has witnessed a civil war among different religiously aligned parties, the Taif Agreement ending the war was reached through the distribution of state authority across sects based on the demographic size of each denomination. As no census has been conducted in the country since 1932, the government relies on controlling the demographic growth to preserve the imaginary sectarian balance. Talking about justice in relation to gender and sexuality in Lebanon therefore takes multiple forms, which do not solely focus on matters of queerness. They include lobbying for a unified personal status code, litigating for women's right to pass their nationality to their children, supporting refugees in accessing health and maternity services, and in general, making the country a little more livable for those who are not Lebanese heterosexual men.

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Announcement of a lecture in Helem’s community center. Source: Helem’s Facebook page

The multitudes of groups in Lebanon working on social issues around gender and sexuality define themselves in relation to their focus areas, and at times in opposition to one another. Grassroots collectives find their legitimacy in their informality and ability to bypass the state and bypass funding. Smaller feminist organizations, whether registered or unregistered, contribute to the bridging of discursive gaps, dismantling of myths, and production of knowledge. They usually have restricted access to resources, due to the monopolization of access to funds meant for gender and sexuality-related work by NGOs, who brand themselves as LGBT oriented, using language that makes a direct connection between genders, sexualities, and identities.[7] These bigger NGOs, who often have privileged access to funding, in turn focus on service provision and campaigning, working on establishing access points to health and legal services that have long been restricted for queer people. As multiple forms of organizing are lumped together under ‘civil society’, tensions exist within the context of operation on various levels. The main one is the lack of agreement on what the terminology ‘civil society’ itself entails, be it a reference to social organisms and individuals who have not participated in the civil war, or non-governmental organizations working on reformist plans, or a myriad of diverse institutions that are not the state.[8] Tensions between these different groups we just enumerated may arise due to difference in approach to organizing and knowledge production, in addition to the lack of consensus about accountability mechanisms within the movement. However, it is imperative not to oversimplify the tensions and diversity within the NGO sector: local and international complexities influence both the vision and the capabilities of these organizations.  

Depending on how organizations working on gender and sexuality align themselves, they acquire a focus: some work on the abolishment of the Article 534 of the Lebanese Penal Code, which criminalizes ‘non-natural sexual acts’, resulting in a men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM) focus. Others work on service provision in health and legal support for refugees, and queer refugees in particular, and others on a reproductive justicethat does not envision queerness as the sole marker of exclusion by an inherently hostile system. The term has been coined to refer to a holistic approach to sexual, bodily, and reproductive justice. Although having a gendered focus, organizations adopting this approach focus on multiple layers of the production of injustice. In a Lebanese context, it would challenge sectarianism, xenophobia, racism, nepotism and ableism as much as it would challenge restrictive gender norms. What different organizations might find in common is their need for sustainability, often dependent on foreign funding. As the stream of NGO funding produces a ‘contemporary capitalist (re)colonization’, the relationship between the funder and grantee is scrutinized to the extent that the financing of the social endeavor influences its progression and the trajectory of the work.[9]  

Donor agendas
To be eligible to receive funding, organizations working on LGBT issues in Lebanon must become accountable to funders. To Helem, eligibility looked like professionalization as the NGO struggled to stay afoot in 2014. Genwa Samhat, former director of Helem, joined in 2014 to help rebuild the organization so that it could regain the trust and support of international donors and the local community. These donors are large international organizations headquartered in the Global North, furnishing Global South organizations working on LGBT rights, such as Helem and many other NGOs based in Lebanon, with financial sponsorship.

Samhat spoke of the existential need during this ‘transitional phase’ for restructuring, which was tied to the expectations of donors: ‘The doubts or reasons that made them hesitate to build relations with us, or to re-establish a relationship with us, were matters related to [Helem’s] internal management structure. (…) According to what they expressed in certain moments, they considered that Helem needed more administrative and structural empowerment.’[10] In the first six months of Samhat’s directorship, the organization closed off its communal space, turning it from a community center into an administrative spot.

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Mosaic logo. Source:

From a small office, the former director handled managerial and administrative work and ran Helem’s protection department that deals with LGBT legal cases. Gradually, Samhat and some volunteers introduced open activities. Helem also designed short-term projects: pilots to test the readiness of the organization. Finally, a new strategy and managerial structure for Helem was put in place. These actions proved to be key in reattracting international funds, turning short-term and pilot partnerships with donors into long-term partnerships and securing funding to re-open Helem’s community center. 

To be sure, expending all organizational energies on professional and bureaucratic requisites established by international donors, essential as they are, meant the reduction of political space due to the lack of funding for operating expenditure. Restructuring – the internal reordering of the organization to meet international donor criteria and regain trust – led to the total removal of political space in Helem: a physical, safe space where activists and supporters convened to organize. Only in 2017, the organization’s community center was fully established and functional again. Today, it is considered by Helem’s former director as an ‘activism space’ and a space for ‘capacity building’. There is continued concern over the possible reduction of funding at any moment, which would lead to the community center’s closure, and consequently the loss of the space’s political and social functions.

Many organizations like Helem are locked in a similar dilemma. Mosaic similarly has witnessed a period of severe lack of funding, which required the organization to rely on consultancy work to maintain the services they provide. While the organization did not compromise on key services, working pro-bono inhibited its capacity to service large numbers of beneficiaries. The lack of funding was related to a focus change of the donor organization, a struggle echoed in the experience of NGOs across the board.

Navigating the restrictions of eligibility for funding, many organizations find themselves pushed towards reframing their work and focus, in a language more cohesive with that of the donor. Developmental language often focuses on a teleology of progress: countries and peoples should be fast in modernizing or assimilating into modes of organizing celebrated in the West. It is reminiscent of power dynamics related to the democratization of countries in the Global South through the soft power of donor influence within civil society, which makes its way into the reports. While some changes are only superficial rebranding that does not affect the quality of work, some donor requirements directly contradict with the purpose of NGOs they are attempting to fund. One of our interviewees, for example, shared that their organization was asked to entirely reframe a funding proposal originally meant for LGBT oriented service provision to a mental health-focused text, as the funder’s area of interest had changed. Although the organization had long worked with the funder, they refused to rebrand the struggle within mental health language, despite having a mental health service provision component: they did not want to make blanket statements inductive of the interchangeability of LGBT people with those who have mental health concerns. The organization did not receive funding.

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Illustration: Arjan Reinders 

The humanitarian goals of particular funds presuppose a conclusiveness to the hardships the fund is seeking to relieve that assigns a fictional temporality to multitudes of struggles under the pretext that once a conflict is alleviated, there is no need to channel funding towards the needs of refugees and migrants in Lebanon, simply because they would seize to exist in large numbers in the country. It follows that NGOs working on service provision face another branding issue when their work is associated with crisis alleviation within a humanitarian framework. An organization working with trans refugees coming to Lebanon as a host country from which they seek resettlement and refuge elsewhere, risks the unavailability of funds for their casework and socio-legal support, in particular in relation to the geopolitical push towards ‘rebuilding Syria’. One of our interviewees expressed their struggle explaining to donors that – apart from the unethicality of working towards the ‘return of the refugees to their home countries’ – the the presence of individuals seeking refuge in Lebanon is historically antecedent to the so-called ‘migration crisis’ international organizations are trying to alleviate. People of non-normative gender and sexual expressions and identities have long been fleeing to Lebanon in hopes of a better life and social conditions, prompted by the hope that the country is less hostile than their home environments to such sexual diversity.

With the Syrian crisis leading to the redirection of donor funds and change of international donors’ priorities in Lebanon, a ratio of refugee/host has been set to ensure that Mosaic services are delivered within a humanitarian framework. Money has been reallocated, instead of there being a much-needed additional availability of funds to respond to the necessities of working on discourse making as well as service provision in a context riddled by a loaded refugee/host community dynamic. The organization’s advocacy character has been inverted. Ribal, program manager at Mosaic, says: ‘Our current donor, considers us to be in the humanitarian phase still. So, they want our services to be directed to humanitarian purposes or the crisis. We tried to include a component of advocacy, but they did not accept it. So, they are forgetting that we are an LGBT organization before being a humanitarian one and that we need to be working on advocacy.’ This leads to various issues. For one, LGBT advocacy, determined by the organization as a deliverable priority, is relegated to secondary importance. Secondly, donor conditions are seen by the host community’s clients as hindering their community’s access to services, because the donors define who is vulnerable and who is not. These differentiating requirements undermine the organization’s ability to bring the two communities – host and refugee – together, as Ribal says. 

Smaller feminist NGOs take a preventative stance by not seeking funding that would be restrictive. We struggle with how to make ourselves sustainable without relying on a lot of funding, especially in issues of gender. For instance, reliance on US government funding is problematic: in addition to the imperialist reasons and our unwillingness to work with government associated funds, there are the implications of the Global Gag Rule (GGR), stances in regard to planned parenthood, as well as policies in regards to sex work.[11] We thus selectively choose a limited pool of feminist donors, that look like us, talk like us, and have a similar political framework. This makes negotiation and addressing discomfort possible. By virtue of understanding the intersectionality of different causes, feminist funders do not control what issues we work on, as they understand our inability to ignore one aspect of the work while focusing on another.

However, feminist organizations experience similar restrictions in terms of access to resources, as it is governmental and state department funders that have larger grants. One of our interviewees shared the frustration of being at the receiving end of training on gender and sexuality-related issues from international organizations and funders that do not have a foothold in the contextualized knowledge we acquire through our work and presence in the field. As we work from our particular localities, we can benefit from the bird’s eye view offered by funders on regional situations, but only when we require that overview. Otherwise, taking the upper hand in deciding the priorities and focal areas for our work by virtue of materially contributing, makes social organizing less effective and a mercantile endeavor.

With the changing of funder priorities, the lack and the ensuing competition for funds, LGBT organizations responded by either decreasing activity or relying on unpaid labor. Helem, for example, with only three paid staff members providing administrative services, relies more than ever on individual volunteers. Helem has three self-funded committees doing the bulk work of its advocacy and community building activities. Earlier, Helem relied on a rotation system, in which many volunteers delivered its services following a schedule. But this is not an indicator of resilience and self-sustainability. Ultimately, as Samhat stressed, donor funding is what gets these organizations going. When funding is short, many organizations rely on volunteers to decrease costs. Mosaic, in turn, has decreased the size of its staff, simultaneously increasing the job description of those who remained at the organization and redistributed the responsibilities. Volunteering is one of the most popular ways of participating in political or social work in Lebanon, as, unfortunately, capitalism requires the offering of free labor at all times – whether through domestic work, care and affective work, or within the NGO and humanitarian sectors, as the expectation of wages is seen as mercantile. To increase the probability of access to resources, NGOs have to prove that their activities continue despite a lack of funding, which leads to a vicious circle. It is almost as if the donor conditions contribute to the capitalist push for using up individual resources as a standard of legitimacy. It is as if they say that, in the words of feminist activist Sarah Kaddoura, who spoke at Kohl’s ‘Alternative Economies’ conference in June 2019: ‘One needs to bring a lot of free labor to their organization before they become sellable or worthy of the value of their wage.’ All of these restrictions contribute to the compartmentalization of the work within the civil society sector, as targeted funding leaves strongly felt gaps by shifting focus and catering to single-issue organizing. Activists often attempt to fill these gaps with their resources through fundraising.

In emergencies, however, what is frequently needed is in-kind support, as access to services to people from vulnerable populations is not covered by the state, in particular when it has to do with sexuality. Donor organizations that allocate resources for emergency funding only consider instances that fit their parameters to be an emergency, without tying them to the economic situations suppressing our autonomy over our bodies and choices. As most of the funding we receive is for activities or pre-planned projects, emergent needs pertaining to moments of crisis that are outside of donors’ parameters remain unattended, and we have to rely on people’s endeavors and fundraisers, which ends up exhausting our resources. The sustainability of our work does not only rely on the consistency of funds but also on their flexibility.

Roula Seghaier is feminist activist. Safa Hamzeh is the community manager at Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research

[1] Aziz Choudry and Dip Kapoor, NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects (London: Zed Books, 2013), 1.

[2] Nour Abu-Assab, Nof Nasser-Eddin and Roula Seghaier, “Activism and the Economy of Victimhood: A Close Look into NGO-ization in Arabic-Speaking Countries,” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies (2020), accessible via doi.org/10.1080/1369801X.2020.1749704.

[3] See the themed issue entitled "Organizing against the Tide: Alternative Economies and Gendered Labor”. Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research 5:2 (2019), via kohljournal.press/issue-5-2

[4] HELEM stands for Himaya Lubnaniya li-l-Mithliyyin wa-l-Mithliyyat, literally ‘Lebanese protection for gays and lesbians’. For a brief history of Helem, see Ghassan Makarem, “The Story of HELEM,” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 7:3 (2011): 98-112. 

[5] See www.mosaicmena.org

[6] Maya Mikdashi, “Sex and Sectarianism: The Legal Architecture of Lebanese Citizenship,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 34:2 (2014): 279-293.

[7] See Abu-Assab, Nasser-Eddin and Seghaier, “Activism”. 

[8] Joumana Talhouk, “Parliamentary Elections, Civil Society, and the Barriers to Political Change.” Kohl 4: 1 (2018), retrievable via kohljournal.press/parliamentary-elections.

[9] Choudry and Kapoor. NGOization.

[10] Interview with Genwa Samhat, 27 January 2020.

[11] The ‘Global Gag Rule’ is the name given by critics to the effects of the US Mexico City Policy (1984) that prohibits all agencies receiving US federal health funding from discussing or servicing abortion to their clients. Initially covering domestic health agencies, this policy was expanded under the Donald J. Trump presidency in 2017 to cover US federal global funding. See Arianne Shahvisi, “‘Women’s empowerment’, Imperialism, and the Global Gag Rule,” Kohl 4:2 (2018), via kohljournal.press/womens-empowerment