While growing in number and scope with each passing year, environmental NGOs in Jordan are striving to become a model in civil society participation, collaborative governance and social impact. They are demonstrating how green advocates can lead by example and become a role model for other development leaders. Those non-for-profits are challenged to not only be the watchdogs and outreach arms but also act as community organizers and change agents that our country and region aspire for.
In harmony with the overall awakening of social entrepreneurship and youth movement within MENA region, green startups and community-based initiatives are climbing to the top as platforms for youth to express their views and take action. Jordan might be an exception in that it specifically enjoys the presence of a large educated young population coupled with a huge pressure on infrastructure and resources magnified by the influx of refugees from neighboring countries. Such circumstances while being a tremendous challenge also form an opportunity to advance innovation and entrepreneurship especially for urban water, energy and environmental solutions.
Recent statistics show that an average of 48 Jordanian NGOs is established each month mounting up to around 3800 in 2014. Out of those, ninety-two are already registered as environmental societies with over half of them located outside the capital Amman. Eight NGOs sharing common environmental goals formed together the first Federation for Environmental NGOs and hope to be more impactful when united. Whether all of this is enabled by the supportive legal and regulatory framework or powered by increased awareness among the population of the role of civil society in sustainable development; it is an evolution that calls for some reflection! Does this figure reflect a real grass-roots movement towards a sustainable way of living? Are these green NGOs a representation of a stronger public-private-community dialogue on environmental issues? And can we – as Jordanians and environmentalists – sense/measure the impact of real change on the ground?
While no one might have the evidence-based answer to all of those questions, there is no doubt that the green civil society experience in Jordan forms a unique model across the country and the MENA region. It is led mostly by Jordanian professionals and activists with shared inclination to making a difference. Younger generations are more conscious and action oriented when it comes to sustainable development. In and outside Amman, volunteerism and community-based activities are becoming more innovative and inclusive providing hope for a better future. Nevertheless, NGOs still struggle with their institutional and financial sustainability and mostly fall behind in finding innovative ways to survive the increased competition.
The Beginning and The Evolution
Back in the 60s, the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) was established as the first entity focusing on wildlife protection and nature management in Jordan, prior to the existence of any environmental authority. RSCN continues to perform its functions via a legal mandate and delegation from the Government of Jordan in the areas of hunting regulation and protected areas management forming an excellent partnership model with the public sector. Today, RSCN deploys sustainable development principles in the protected areas demonstrating job creation and community development in their good standards. Dana natural reserve is an international eco-tourism destination because of those successful partnerships. Nature protection is no longer a hurdle to development but rather a pillar to ensure its sustainability. Aiming to bridge the skill and knowledge gap in nature protection and eco-tourism, RSCN established the international-standard "Royal Academy for Nature Conservation".
With the first environmental protection law that was issued in 1995 and the further institutional development through the establishment of the Ministry of Environment in 2003; it became inevitable for civil society organizations to be part of the evolution. Introducing environmental management tools such as environmental impact assessment (EIA) required public participation and consultation. Several NGOs were established and trained to take part in those consultations and ensure new projects take both the environment and society into consideration from as early as the planning stage.
Triggered by its scarce natural resources and commitment to international environmental treaties, Jordan went as far as integrating environment into its trade agreements. The US-Jordan Free Trade Agreement was the first to include an environmental chapter. Further bilateral and multilateral agreements such as the EU-Jordan Association Agreement included sustainability and environment as a pillar and as a cross-cutting issue that should safeguard cooperation in various development sectors. NGOs needed to cope with all of that and raise the bar for more synergy between environment, community and economic development.
The New Language
For a long time, the core focus of the environmental community has been on protection and conservation. Jordanians still recall the advocacy breakthrough of 2006 when the environmental NGOs exerted exceptional pressure on the legislative and executive bodies to prevent the approval of the Agriculture Law amendments that was foreseen to jeopardize the important forest areas by opening them for purchase by investors.
Today, Jordan is aggressively pursuing green economy targets as the first country in the Region to conduct a scoping study and prepare a strategy for green growth. The ninety-two environmental NGOs would need to be well prepared for a completely different argument. Away from green, the socio-economic dimension will be the winner with more demand for jobs, local economic development and innovation. Environmental mainstreaming into development sectors would be the new strategic planning tool to ensure sustainability. Concepts of smart cities and green infrastructure should start to show on pilot and large scales how quality investment is attracted and high paying jobs are created.
For the first time, green businesses are coming together to establish business associations that advocate for better enabling environment and fuel green economy. Such private sector led organizations work to provide needed platforms and tools to equip green labor force and organize dialogue with the public sector and international community. The progress made by the private sector to become more organized through business association should be leveraged and further expanded to incorporate more companies especially startups and SMEs.
In May 2014 and as a marked step towards a stronger impact, eight environmental NGOs decided to formalize their partnership through establishing the "Jordanian Federation for Environmental NGOs", commencing a new era of green social impact, policy advocacy and good governance. The eight founding NGOs are: Jordan Environment Society (JES), Royal Society for Conservation of Nature (RSCN), Jordan Royal Marine conservation Society (JREDS), Energy Conservation and Environmental Sustainability Society, Arab Group for the Protection of Nature, Jordan Society for Combating Desertification, Organic Farming Society, and the Jordan Green Building Council. They bring a mix of the old and new united by their shared concerns, passion and vision.
The federation's internal bylaw stipulates the goals of the "Jordanian Federation for Environmental NGOs" to cover the following areas: policy and legal advocacy, awareness raising and capacity building, coordination and collaboration among members and across the sector, data and information dissemination, and members support. While many are unaware of the existence of the federation, it is only by action that it will prove vital for Jordan and sustainable development as a whole.
A Meaningful Impact
Throughout the years, the relationship between the green sector players had its ups and downs especially in how the public sector managed the engagement with the private sector and civil society. It is evident that this relationship has grown in the past few years triggered mainly by the need for stronger positions towards the huge challenges facing environment in Jordan and the realization of the important role that each party can play in achieving sustainable development goals. NGOs were the main advocate to stop a government decision to merge the Ministries of Environment and Municipal Affairs in 2012.
As mature as it would prove to be, the Federation for Environmental NGOs bears the responsibility of the whole sector's maturity especially when it comes to improved dialogue and coordination. The visionary leaders who realized the value of uniting for a cause are those who need to cascade such vision to the other sectors. Shifting from reactive to proactive, NGOs are obliged to change mindset of their boards and staff to be able to change communities. The world is more convinced that the private sector holds the promise for green economy, green jobs and better future. However, very little synergy is found with the educational, research and innovation institutions which are crucial to develop the brains and change the mindset. Innovation in green is not kicking off as it should be in MENA. Research, science and technology continue to be disconnected from market needs. The NGOs and business associations need to step up as drivers for a well integrated change process that assures people as well as the green enterprises of their safe and flourishing future.
Let's not wait and see but let's join the movement and make it happen!
Photo Credits: Jordan Green Building Council http://www.jordangbc.org