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Why Charity Reform in Kuwait is So Vital

Over 70 percent of Kuwait’s population consists of migrant workers, primarily from Southeast Asia and the Arab world. While migrant workers are crucial to all aspects of economic and social life in Kuwait, they have marginal labor rights, leaving them open to a litany of abuses. Despite advances in human rights over the past decade, migrants continue to be exploited via the kafala system, which attaches them to a national sponsor who has considerable power to affect their livelihood. Unfortunately, there is no real help from Kuwait’s prominent Civil Society Organizations (CSO), which are mostly either too politicized, or corrupt to be effective.

CSOs in Kuwait and Migrant Rights

The first issue is structural. Applying to start a charity is a long and complicated process. Most Kuwaitis who want to start new charities are unfamiliar with the state’s legal framework for charities. In addition, long processing times often make it untenable to wait for a decision on acceptance or rejection; a would-be charity can wait years for any kind of response – even a simple rejection – breaking up the best of plans.

Like many other sectors in Kuwait, charities are also dominated by old-guard families that jealously guard their monopolies. Censorship, misappropriation of other groups’ ideas, and a general lack of integrity and ethics permeate the sector as it exists today. The generational gap between official charities’ staff, often in their late fifties or sixties, is a significant source of hostility towards newcomers to the sector. Youth often see the older generation as out of touch and conservative, while established charities view youth as upstarts who cannot be trusted with humanitarian work.

Official charities are also heavily monitored by the state, making it difficult to operate. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL) regulates and requires strict approvals for fundraising, the use of funds, and relationships with foreign organizations. While cumbersome and prohibitive for new charities, these restrictions exist for good reasons; money laundering, graft, and corruption in Kuwait’s charity sector are genuine concerns for authorities.

When taken together, these issues have caused Kuwaiti charities to become barely functional. By any objective standard, there are not enough CSOs in the country, and many of the existing ones have shown themselves to be broadly incapable of dealing with crises. For example, Kuwait’s Red Crescent struggled to formulate a plan to deal with the COVID-19 crisis and the lockdowns in various expatriate areas. They had no planning about delivering food to neighborhoods, and their attempts at food deliveries in the Mahboula and Jleeb Al Shouykh neighborhoods almost turned into full-fledged riots. They also had highly restrictive volunteer policies, relying only on Kuwaiti nationals to provide support, failing to make use of volunteers from all nationalities and limiting their effectiveness.

Problems and Challenges within the Community

Another reason for the absence of CSOs in Kuwait is the various misconceptions about how to set up a nonprofit organization. It is often easy to confuse nonprofits with the official charity sector in Kuwait. Nonprofit businesses are supervised by the Ministry of Commerce, unlike charities, which fall under the umbrella of MOSAL. Under Kuwaiti commercial law, nonprofits are subject to the same regulations as for-profit businesses, with a few minor distinctions. Nonprofits are forbidden from investing or using revenues for profit, and they must submit their financials yearly instead of on a three or four-year cycle, the standard for-profit company registration. Other than these distinctions, nonprofits operate as any other commercial enterprise. The Kuwaiti government does not block or impede the creation of nonprofits, nor is there comprehensive surveillance or draconian oversight of nonprofit work. The authors of this article have three licensed nonprofits, and they are relatively easy to set up following a detailed study of the rules. Nonprofits cost less than $1,000 to establish and take roughly six to eight weeks to formalize.

Gatekeeping elites exacerbate these challenges. The most common stumbling block for nonprofits is that they need to be majority-owned by a Kuwaiti partner. As a result, major churches, regional organizations, and charities have been bereft of opportunities because they cannot find citizens to partner with. The foreign staff for these organizations are often cycled in and out every two years, meaning they never stay long enough to retain any information, understand the culture, or even understand what to do to formalize their activities. This hurts the overall sector because it limits the ability of external donors and organizations to establish a foothold in the country, as well as making long-lasting connections.

Due to this bottleneck, there is a lack of diversity in the population of civil society actors. Kuwait’s current CSOs are dominated by women from upper socio-economic backgrounds; as a rule, they are not equipped with the skill set or capacities to develop deep connections to migrant communities, due in large part to their failure to connect with them. While Kuwaiti women have long been recognized as pioneering voices in the country’s long march towards equal rights, women’s rights for Kuwaiti citizens and migrant rights are usually separated into two different categories. Progress in the first area has been far more pronounced than progress in the second. The main CSO participants are usually fashionably grouped people, often the scions of affluent merchant families or English-educated youth. Where there are connections, often promoted by the ILO, they are primarily tokenistic and shallow or trend-based collaborations that peter out within weeks or months.

This is all very unfortunate, as CSOs in Kuwait could learn from the successes for women’s rights from migrant communities. Few countries have such a storied early twentieth-century history on the topic of women’s suffrage than the Philippines, which had one of the world’s first women’s rights movements and make roughly 8% (241,000) of Kuwait’s migrant workers. Various suffrage bills in 1907, 1921, 1916, and 1918 solidified the women’s movement in that country, and by 1937, the Philippines had become one of the first countries in Asia to allow women to vote. Within the Philippines, women are deeply involved in politics at all levels, and there have been two female presidents. Similarly, Sri Lanka had the world’s first female Prime Minister, Sirima Bandaranaike, in 1960. A key factor in both nations’ successes was substantive intersectional relations between women of all classes.

Many other solutions come from the migrant community, who have more advanced historical experiences with civil rights, organizing, and managing CSOs. For example, India’s labor law, inspired and derived from the country’s independence movement, highlights critical forms of passive resistance to oppressive structures like kafala sponsorship. The Indian Constitution of 1950 codifies the country’s worker-friendly labor law, giving the right to join and act in unions, decent work conditions, and the right to establish a decent living wage. In Nepal, a plethora of workers’ rights campaigns and trade unions were organized beginning in the late 1940s, and Nepal today enjoys some of the best-organized trade unions in the world.

The way CSOs in Kuwait use their resources has often rested on the superficial belief that publicly proclaiming their support of human rights is enough to bring about change. Yet, if there is no will to push ahead past statements, the conversation itself is mainly useless, acting only as a virtue-signaling device.

Therefore, honest conversations about the brutal realities for migrant workers and their marginalization with CSOs are not often present in Kuwait. ILO programs are only facsimiles of reform. So far, partnership between international organization and CSO are simply to keep up the pretense of action. In many ways, Kuwait’s CSO scene and work plans are outdated on migrant’s current problems.

Little Capacity

CSOs also lack vital capacities. The biggest issue is a financial problem. Charity staff are rarely paid, and investments in the organization’s infrastructure are virtually nonexistent. Budgets are often wasted on sedentary staff, while marketing, logistics, and policy are left by the wayside. Due to this wastage, initiatives are constantly challenged by inertia, which is why campaigns peter out so quickly.

This issue relates to the poor state of leadership, management skills, and qualifications required to run CSOs. In many cases, the people in control of a given charity are Kuwait’s political and economic elites, who founded the organization as a self-promotion device rather than out of a pure desire to improve conditions. Given their participation in Kuwait’s elite circles, some of these leaders usually have conflicting interests, working for various government agencies or family businesses connected to abuse against migrants. Even the most effective of these organizational structures exist solely because an individual glued it together; by definition, such an organization will inevitably collapse and die within or after that person’s lifetime.

Recruitment is probably the biggest issue that ensures that Kuwait’s civil society organizations are a one-person show. Intrinsically, there is a common concept that CSOs need to be run by Kuwaitis, leaving qualified migrant workers out of leadership positions.

Unfortunately, the realities about the CSO are very hard to change, and openly speaking out about these failures never leads to retrospective conversations on improving the sector, or critically looking at its challenges. On the contrary, it usually engenders derision. Sadly, more effort is spent on protecting CSO’s status quo rather than actually doing the real substantive work of activists resetting the self-destructive cycle again and again.

The future of Kuwait’s civil society needs to move away from the current status quo in the CSO sector. There should be a focus on improving capacity by bridging divides between migrant workers and citizens, as well as making initiatives legal to build capacity and help support longer-term humanitarian goals. In the third decade of the twenty-first century, there is no longer any real excuse for not knowing about the issues or what is needed to be done.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Khalid al Saif is an entrepreneur with a bachelor’s in Cultural and Behavioral Sciences and Anthropology from the American University of Kuwait. He is a co-founder of Kuwait Aid Network, a non-profit that focuses on supporting migrant workers in Kuwait. He also is General Manager of Value Enterprise Consulting, a consulting company in Kuwait that specializes in licensing businesses. In general, Khalid aims to educate and implement strategies to improving Kuwait’s development. Kuwait Aid Network’s Instagram can be found at kan.kuwait. Geoffrey Martin is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Toronto, entrepreneur and economic analyst in Kuwait. His focus is on political economy, food logistics, and labor law in Kuwait and the wider GCC. He is a co-founder of Kuwait Aid Network and Value Enterprise Consulting. He tweets @bartybartin.

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