On Keeping the Nasawiya Cafe Independent and Self-Funded
As Nasawiya’s membership gets wider, the need for debate and conversation within the collective remains as important as ever. This is why it is crucial to define clearly what Nasawiya stands for, and why certain directions and choices are taken and made by the movement. More particularly, discussions have arose with regards to the Nasawiya Cafe, with certain members raising the possibility of asking for a grant to make sure the space does not close down and to enable a permanent staff member to man the cafe and keep it tidier and generally more effective.
While it may appear that the approach taken by Nasawiya is not the most efficient now in terms of running a business, it is paramount that we remind ourselves of the core values we stand for. We are not running a business. We are not an NGO. To me, Nasawiya is a loose network within the women’s movement that has made the conscious choice to avoid NGO-isation and professionalisation in order to allow the maximum of independence to its members within their initiatives, thus enabling a wider independence for the organisation as a whole. Professionalisation of NGOs, of which following donors is a huge part, kills activism and direct militant action: this is why Nasawiya has made the choice to distance itself from this model.
Still confused? Let me then explain very concisely why the Nasawiya Cafe shall remain a self funded space:
It’s an Independence thing
Have you ever dealt with donors? Yes? Then you probably know that grants come with strings attached. Many donors do not simply allocate financial resources on a principled basis: the contract you sign with them carries out a series of conditions in terms of reporting, what you can buy or cannot buy with the money of the grant, what you can or can not do, or who the money should go to.
These conditions are coupled with a wider, even more threatening to the independence of an an organization agenda. Aid is more often than not the unarmed arm of imperialist powers: in other words, some State donor agencies pass on political messages along with the money they bring to you. It might be obvious, like USAID under the Bush era refusing to fund HIV programs that included condom programming, or it can be more subtle, like a footnote indicating the money that is being given to your organization shall not go to certain sections of the population. Donors bring about their own vision of YOUR society: to remain independent and avoid cooptation of what we’re doing, being self-sufficient and self-funded allows us to decide our own directions, in the most collaborative and participative way.
Thinking ahead: Sustainability vs Ad Hoc projects
Members who have raised the question of getting grants have the future of the cafe at heart, for if we don’t manage to take shifts and bring in money to fund ourselves, we might very well have to close it down. Grants might give us the illusion of sustainability when in fact it is exactly the opposite that would happen: driven by certain political agendas, donor agencies tend to work by “trends”. For a cycle it might be women’s rights in the Middle East. Then political powers in the donor country might change, and with it the focus of aid policies, making the next trend marine turtles, which is all fine and dandy, but what will we do when the focus is shifted and a new trend arises? How many projects do we know that have closed shop because the funding decreased, withered and died? If we’re to have a strong, long lasting impact, then we can’t rely and become dependent on donor funding.
Practicing what we preach
Nasawiya is a space where mainstream socio-economic models are questioned and where alternative ones are created.
In an over-capitalistic Lebanon where neo-liberal policies are applied without thinking of their impact on the population, thus putting profit rather than human beings at the heart of all endeavours, where the State has cheerfully resigned from its social and welfare role, where everything is outrageously expensive, exclusive and where most things are private (even most schools), Nasawiya advocates for reclaiming public spaces and for social justice. Given this context and this stance, the Nasawiya Cafe needs to reflect our beliefs.
The Nasawiya Cafe offers a way out from this logic by being self-managed, public, open to all, self-funded and not for profit. Getting a grant for it would contradict the very point of its existence: donor trends are part of the wider neo-liberal logic that encourage NGOs to step in and perform welfare and social tasks the State ought to be doing. They therefore do not question this economic model but rather completely feed into it and are in fact a by product of liberalism that preconizes the demise of the state from social services. Becoming part of that system would not only be paradoxical, it would render our efforts for self-funding null and void.
Together Not Against One Another
By putting civil society organisations against one another for access to grants and resources the donor funding system weakens rather than strengthens the activists/civil society fabric. In that sense, Nasawiya can not condone a system that undermines the health of the main force of change in Lebanon. It is time we put back collaboration before competition.
Some things still require our volunteer input and time: we can’t just throw money at everything and ask for a grant to pay someone to take care of the Cafe. Nasawiya is a collective where each of us takes responsibility for the sustainability of the network and to ensure all is running well. It can be through a shift at the cafe, or through cooking something for it, or through distributing flyers, helping with an interview, or an article, or a training, or whatever is needed. This is how we’re all part of Nasawiya, and this is through our efforts that it becomes what it is: utterly ours.