Outsider Social Service Provision

by ICP Blogger posted 9/9/2011 9:20:33 PM
Research on ethnic-minority organizations in the Middle East shows that those organizations that provide social services are also likely to use a range of tactics from electoral strategies to violence. These organizations are also more likely to experience strong repression from the state.

This seemingly odd pairing is not unique to ethnic-minority organizations, nor is it unique to that region of the world. In the United States, there are several similar and prominent examples. The Black Panther Party in Oakland, CA was known for providing social services, starting with a Free Breakfast for Children program and expanding from there. In Washington, DC, Rayful Edmond, a prominent drug dealer in NE Washington, DC, was also known for more informal social service provision (though it is suggested that this also came with a cost).

Why would these organizations do this? A common explanation is captured in terms of the battle for hearts and minds. Outsider and/or illegal organizations operating in poor neighborhoods will increase their own security by winning over community occupants (in effect, incentivizing not snitching to authorities). They are also presumably able to create support to their cause and as an extension make it easier to recruit new members. In this way, social service provision is a tactical choice by advocacy organizations to bolster their strength and cause.

But there’s another way to look at this service provision. From a broader perspective, the marriage of illegal, violent or radical organizations to social service provision may be indicative not just of an intentional tactical choice, but also of government failures. It is no accident that each of the examples mentioned above involve ethnic minorities in impoverished areas. In each case, the affected communities that end up being supported by what are described as “outsider” organizations have also been systematically ignored or oppressed by the ruling regime. These organizations, regardless of their primary mission, stand in the gap for a government unwilling to provide equitable support to part of its populace.

What does this mean for policy? The presence of this combination ought to serve as an indicator of policy failures, and these organizations should be seen as mechanisms for connecting with community members and building momentum for change. Further, these organizations should be supported in their attempts to provide services.

We have a model for how to do this at the state and national levels in the US: the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative. In this case, Bush used the power of executive order to exempt faith-based organizations from provisions of the Civil Rights Act, that would have disallowed them from receiving federal funding, and used an intermediary model to allow organizations to apply for and receive federal dollars outside of the normal application structure and without the normal organizational requirements (for example, one exemption was the typical requirement of having a 501(c)(3)).

The lesson of the current upheaval in North Africa and the Middle East is that governments must pay attention to these groups. Eventually even the most marginalized groups will push back, as evidenced by the actions of the Bedouin people in the Sinai Desert. The Bedouin youth were particularly important in this revolution, clashing with police, freeing people from prison, and peopling the mass demonstrations. Social service provision by outsider groups, instead of being an indicator of subversive activity, should serve as a reminder to governments of the potentially explosive gaps in their policy.


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