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The Expansion of Muslim NGOs

One notable result of the societal crisis in
sub-Saharan Africa has been the expansion of
NGOs during the last few decades, including,
especially since the 1990s, Muslim ones.
Most regional Muslim NGOs often supported
by transnational NGOs, and, as one also has
to stress, by foreign Muslim governments,
particularly the Gulf States and Libya. Tracing
such links, the author argues that while these
connections are essential to their activities, the
dependency on external actors simultaneously
limits their effectiveness

In comparison with Western/non-faith
and Christian NGOs, the engagement
of Muslim NGOs was for a long time left
unnoticed by most observers, and if discussed,
their input was generally belittled.
However, especially after the traumatic
experiences in the West of radical
militant Islamic organizations, the
activities of Muslim NGOs have come
under close scrutiny, both in the West
and elsewhere in the world. Some Muslim
NGOs were believed to be potential
supporters of Al-Qaida, others of posing
a potential challenge, if not threat, to the Western secular state model.

The situation in Ghana as regards to Muslim NGOs and their relationship
to the secular state and their participation in civil society provide
an interesting test-case to examine the claim that the expansion and
activities of Muslim NGOs pose a potential threat to the stability of Ghanaian
society. As I will argue, this is not necessarily the case. Although
the Muslim population is a substantial minority—about 18 to 20 percent
of the total population of ca. 18 million—it does not consist of
a monolithic block but comprises many ethnic and doctrinal groups
that have little in common. Some Muslim NGOs are linked to individual
groups, such as the Tijaniyya, the Ahlu ’s-Sunna [Ahl al-Sunna wa
’l-Jamaa], or the Shia, while many others are not. While there was during
the 1990s, and before 9/11, a rising fear among some observers in
Northern Ghana that some local Muslim NGOs were branches of militant
organizations, these suspicions turned
out to be invalid. Instead, Muslim NGOs
have done their utmost to become accepted
partners in both the Ghanaian
NGO scene and civil society.

Visions and activities

One of the reasons for the upsurge of
Muslim NGOs in Ghana is the distrust
on the part of Muslim authorities, both
among those connected to the Ahlu
’s-Sunna and those connected to the
Tijaniyya, of the activities of Western
international donor agencies and Western NGOs. As an outcome, some
Muslim leaders have started to emphasize the importance of selfreliance
and the need to create a new discourse on the necessity of
mobilizing Muslim human resources. However, it is important to emphasize
the shift in government social welfare policies. Due to the various
economic recovery and privatization programmes, the role of the
state as the main provider of basic social welfare has increasingly been
eroded. Equally important is the active proliferation of international
Muslim organizations in promoting economic and social development
in sub-Saharan Africa as part of a counter-reaction against established
Western and Christian activities in the field. Thus, it could be argued
that the mushrooming of Muslim NGOs in Ghana is as much a philanthropic
enterprise as it is also part of a new attempt to “capture souls”
and present an Islamic alternative. [1]

As elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, some Ghanaian Muslim NGOs are
either branches of international Muslim NGOs or have close links to
such organizations. [2] Several local Ghanaian Muslim NGOs were established
by returning Muslims, who had studied in the Middle East and
had made contacts with and were inspired by local philanthropists.
Some international Muslim NGOs were invited to start activities in
Ghana as part of former president Jerry Rawlings’
attempts to establish economic cooperation
with the Gulf and other Arab states,
as was the case of Libyan and Iranian NGOs. [3]However, many local Muslim NGOs do not
have links to international Muslim NGOs nor
do they receive any assistance from Muslim
countries. As a result, these local NGOs have
an erratic range of activities and are working
only in a particular locality. The main
bulk of them are found in the south, in the
Greater Accra Region as well as in Kumasi;
a few of them are also active in the north,
mainly in Tamale and other centres with
Muslim populations. Although they try their
best to attract the attention of foreign donors,
few of them are in the end successful.
Consequently, many of these small NGOs exist but on paper.

Since the 1990s, many Muslim NGOs have commissioned projects
for the improvement of the spiritual and socio-economic conditions of
Muslims throughout the country. Such projects have first and foremost
been the construction of mosques and, to a lesser extent, decent and
modern educational infrastructure, community centres and orphanages
as well as basic social amenities such as libraries and hygienic
sources of potable water, and the sinking of wells in Muslim communities.
Charitable activities of various other local Muslim NGOs have been
of equal importance, for example, providing gifts to inmates in prisons,
assistance to hospitals, orphanages, and handicapped institutions or
the distribution of second-hand clothing to the poor and needy. Some
Muslim NGOs, such as the Iranian ARD, are engaged in the provision of
agricultural extension services in the north, including tractor services
and the distribution of fertilizers, sewing centres for training Muslim
girls, and financial assistance to women’s cooperatives and groups to
start small-scale businesses.

There are some highly influential local Muslim NGOs in Ghana, such
as the Islamic Council for Development and Humanitarian Services
(ICODEHS, established in 1991), Muslim Family Council Services (MFCS,
established in 1990), and the Muslim Relief Association of Ghana
(MURAG, established in 1986). They have gained a good reputation
both within and outside Ghana and have close links not only to international
Muslim donor organizations but also Western ones. Like the
MURAG, the MFCS has mainly been cooperating with Western donor
organizations, such as the UNFPA and the UNICEF, in family planning,
fertility management, prevention of female genital mutilation, childcare,
and HIV projects. Similar to the MURAG, the strength of the MFCS
lies in its community-oriented approach. Further, MURAG is included in
a list on “NGO’s in good standing” on the homepage of the Ministry of
Manpower, Youth, and Employment. [4] The ICODEHS, on the other hand,
is the only Ghanaian Muslim NGO that is a member of the Civil Society
Coordinating Council (CivisoC) of SAPRIN-Ghana. [5] The ICODEHS is also
a member of the Coalition of Domestic Observers (CODEO). [6]

Societal impact

Despite all their efforts, the activities of Muslim NGOs have received a
mixed response from the local people. Whereas educational, social, and
infrastructural development projects in general are regarded as having
a positive impact, other projects, such as the building of mosques, have
at times been criticized by local Muslim intellectuals for not responding
to the needs of the local population. A common argument by Muslim
authorities I spoke with both in Tamale and Accra was that foreign
Muslim donor agencies are very open-handed in providing resources
for the building of mosque complexes whereas it is much more difficult
for local Ghanaian Muslim NGOs to get funding from international/
foreign Muslim donor organizations for social welfare or infrastructural
projects, not to mention the provision of resources for staff salaries.
It seems as if international Muslim aid is usually received as a kind of
package: a Ghanaian Muslim NGO is able to get funding for an educational or social welfare project if it is tied to a mosque complex. Or, as
one Ghanaian activist explained to me: a project application will secure
funding if it is tied to the building of a mosque. Especially foreign
Muslim donor agencies that channel funds through Ghanaian Muslim
NGOs are criticized for being inflexible and only allowing the funds to
be earmarked for stylish or even mere propagandistic projects. In fact,
in comparison to various social welfare
projects and programmes, huge sums
are spent on mosque building projects
by foreign donors and their Ghanaian

Perhaps the biggest problem connected
with the activities and projects
of Muslim NGOs is their restricted societal
impact—although this certainly
does not apply to all Muslim NGOs.
Projects are usually designed to target
a particular group or to accomplish a
designed task, say an orphanage or a
school. Although the particular project
aims to remedy a certain problem, it is
usually not linked to or integrated into a
wider societal context. Not surprisingly,
therefore, some Ghanaian observers have become rather critical about
the concepts behind the promotion of development assistance. The
activities of the NGOs, be they Muslim or other, can do little to address
structural problems. It could be argued that the very nature of the
NGOs is part of the problem: although most of the Muslim NGOs are
run by Ghanaians, few, if any, are capable of financing their activities
by generating funds from the Ghanaian Muslim community. Instead,
most of them are financed by or are receiving
funds from international Muslim NGOs or wealthy
foreign Muslim states and philanthropists. Thus,
there exists the danger of becoming dependent
on outside money—a problem not too unfamiliar
to many African NGOs.

The dependence on outside investments puts a
Ghanaian Muslim NGO in a problematic situation:
it is always the foreign donor who decides what to
finance and what not. Thus, for the empowerment
of the local poor, other approaches have to be
sought, in particular initiatives that are designed
by the recipients, targeted towards a structural
change in the local community, and financed by
funds which the implementing organization is
fully capable of controlling. Such an approach will
need the mobilization of the Ghanaian Muslim
population to take collective responsibility not
only for the improvement of their livelihood but
also to engage in a fruitful debate about “Muslim”
solutions for poverty alleviation. Interestingly,
such a debate has already started among Muslim
intellectuals and leaders in Ghana. This debate is
itself part of an international debate among Muslim
scholars, namely on the ability and possibility
of Muslim societies and communities to make
use of one of the most central concept of Islam,
namely that of zakat or obligatory almsgiving.


[1See also H. Weiss, Between Accommodation
and Revivalism: Muslims, the State and
Society in Ghana from the Precolonial to the
Postcolonial Era (Helsinki: Finnish Oriental
Society, forthcoming).

[2International Muslim NGOs with branches
in Ghana are, amongst others, the Kuwaiti
African Muslim Association (renamed Direct
Aid in Ghana), the Saudi/Kuwaiti Al-Hudah
Islamic Society, the UK-based Muntada
Islamic Trust and the Muslim Aid, the
US-based Zakat Foundation of America, and
the Pakistani Ghana Tablighi Jamaat.

[3For example, the Imam Hasayn Foundation
and the Agriculture and Rural Development
(ARD) from Iran and the Libyan World Islamic
Call Service.

[4See http://www.mmde.gov.gh/gov_corp.
cfm?GovCorpID=11, accessed on 11 April

[5SAPRIN or Structural Adjustment
Participatory Review International Network
is a network encompassing virtually all
major NGOs, churches, and trade unions
in Ghana. Internationally, SAPRIN is a joint
project of the World Bank, governments, and
a global network of NGOs and civil society
organizations. See Lindsay Whitfield, Civil
Society as Idea and Civil Society as Process:
The Case of Ghana, Working Paper 92, Queen
Elizabeth House (Oxford University, 2002).

[6CODEO was first formed in 2000 to monitor
the general elections. It consist of 34 civil
society organizations, two of them Muslim,
namely the Federation of Muslim Councils in
Ghana and ICODEHS.

Las opiniones y conslusiones expresadas en el siguiente artículo son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del CETRI.