Document Sample
Article Powered By Docstoc
					The Journal of Women’s Studies and Research in Iran and Muslim Countries.

Vol 5,No.10,Winter 2000
Title: Traditional Community Organizations in Iran: A Brief Riview
By: Nahid Motiee

In the course of this study, the team involved was able to reflect on the role of
traditional Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) in Iran. Though these
groupings were not explicitly included in the study programme, as information
collection and literature review work proceeded, it became increasingly apparent
that the traditional social and community organisations were Iran's genuine
NGOs. As in other countries, Iranian researchers, policy-makers and
development agents tend to neglect the vast potentials of traditional institutions,
particularly those that have survived the test of time and adapted to new
.Iran has along, rich history of community organisations created through the
cooperative effort of people in coping with economic needs and the delivery of
basic services. Motiee attributes the survival and sustainability of the
community and people-centred organisations to constraints such as limitation
of water supply or the land, the long rule of despotic regimes and the invasion
of Iran by different tribes.
These difficulties contributed to the spirit of collectivity and cooperation among
the people, particularly the rural population. "In reality every Iranian villager
is imbued with the spirit of collective work, self help and social cooperation.
This ensures collective responsibility for sustaining community livelihood and
protection of the cooperative spirit."
This attitude of collaboration existed as a universal phenomenon in all rural
areas of Iran, before the era of modemisation and urbanisation emerged.
Collective social action was one of the key features of traditional societies.
These social and community attitudes helped societies cope with social
problems. "The well considered and constructive response to the problems of
production and natural disasters and to other social challenges encouraged
creation of a wide range of social organisations and traditional co-operatives
in Iranian society." These diverse organisations can be broadly categorised as
production, trade and service groups.
Categories of Traditional Community Organisations
1. Production Organisations:
The production cooperative structures derive their revenue from three significant
-Fruit-growing; and
As limitation of water resources has been one of the major problems of the
agricultural sector, community collaboration has manifested itself in the
wide variety of cooperative systems for efficient use and management of
scarce water resources in agricultural and livestock development:
A) Cooperation in water management:
-These water management co-operatives cover dredging of waterways,
repair of water channels, ponds, construction of darns, forming common
water groups and organising traditional water systems management.
Additionally, in some regions of Iran these groups and traditional
co-operatives undertake joint activities during plantation, sowing and
harvesting and determine water-sharing timetables. To deal with more
complicated water supply management problems, requiring advanced skills,
special groups and organisations with numerous workers have been fonned
and are actively engaged in rural and urban areas. A number of these
co-operatives and CBOs are engaged in improving and maintaining water
points and developing new water resources. Some are responsible for
maintaining accounts and supervising the proper distribution of water and
collecting payments.
B) Co-operatives for cultivation with quick gestation periods:
Co-operatives formed to deal with work related to cultivation, seed
plantation, especially wheat, rice and cotton, are other types of joint work.
Besides harvesting, there are co-operatives for maintaining and protecting
the fields and rural women co-operatives exist for threshing wheat and
baking bread. ' Balak Kari' is another type of co-operative mainly found in
parts of Khorassan.
Under the Balak Kari system, a group of farmers associate by consensus
and work on apiece of land which belongs to landowners who lack the
human power necessary for cultivating it. Owners include village headmen,
mullas, teachers, and others. Before land reform, the consent of the landlord
was necessary. At times, this type of work was done for the gendarmerie or
the landlord. Depending on relations with the farm hands, this type of
work could be voluntary or involuntary. Balak Kari was, at times,
undertaken for widows and orphans and for village community affairs and
events, especially for the mourning period of the month of Moharram.
C)' Boneh ' cooperatives:
Bonehs are village collective organisations that were formed throughout
Iran prior to land reform. In these collective units, a group of villagers
~] holding specific social positions with defined roles, based on economic
~~ privileges and social status, cultivate certain plots of land using given
9 quantities of water and farm inputs. This type of traditional cooperative
I was the most popular and universal form of collective organisation. Until:;;
~ half a century ago, at least one million Iranian rural dwellers were members
of bonehs.
Traditional cooperatives are based on the trade and exchange of 'milk'. Inc
the traditional Iranian Society, cooperation through "work for work" and,
"water for water" has been widely practised and is still prevalent. It includes
working together on seed plantation, harvesting, etc. The economic,
necessity of 'vareh ' relates to the quantity and the supply of the milk of the
rural and tribal communities. The most important foundation of vareh is ,
the pooling of milk produced by individual families, into the unit of size
that is economically viable. In this way, the limited production activity of
subsistence and non-subsistence economies becomes economically feasible.
D) Cooperatives for fruit-growers:
Group work has been constantly needed in the activities carried out by
fruit growers, such as digging, fencing, land levelling, harvesting fruits
and packaging, especially for products such as raisins, tomato paste and
I others. The burden of work for this part of the process, from picking to the
packaging of products for the market has been basically placed on the
shoulders of women.
E)Live stock cooperatives:
" The vareh system is another form of collective and women cooperatives
that is very popular throughout the country. Before land reform was
launched, there were according to Farhadi, 400,000 milk cooperatives (Shir
Vareh) in the country, with 2 million members, which collected at least
one million litres of milk every day and processed the same into dairy
products. Even today, the vareh cooperatives can be found in some villages
and small cities.
2. Trade and Credit Organisations:
'Sandogh-e Qarz-ol-Hassaneh' or interest-free loan funds based on goodwill,
and weekly bazaars are two types of traditional trade and credit organisations.
Qarz-ol-Hassaneh funds have become very popular, especially after the
Islamic Revolution. The funds were initially used as effective vehicles to
create safety nets for those that became unemployed or lost their income as a
result of the movement against the monarchy, which culminated in the Islamic
The declared objectives of these funds are more social and ethical, rather than
economic and financial. It is to "prevent usury and usurious practices". There
is a strong Islamic religious basis to these institutions. Advocates of the funds
quote religious pieties, such as, "providing interest free loans is a more virtuous
deed than giving alms, as they promote self-reliance instead of dependency
and stimulate positive attitudes towards hard work". Meeting the financial
needs of the more deprived people was a key objective. The funds are basically
created through grassroots initiatives that are led by local leaders with the
support of mosques.
Prior to the Islamic Revolution, the funds were set up through small informal
family and community activities. According to the documents of the Islamic
Economic Organisation (previously the Islamic Bank), which is the main
supporter of the funds, the first fund, Sandooq Amanate Javid, in the new
sense of the term, was created in the poor southern parts of Tehran in 1970. It
was based in the local mosque and served both as a charity association and an
interest free credit centre. The institution in general, supported through an
alliance of the bazaar and religious people, began to grow.
By 1979, when the Islamic Revolution took place, 200 funds had become
operative in many cities, including Tehran, Sabzevar, Hamedan, Tabriz and
Shiraz. The funds played an active part in supporting the anti-Shah movement.
They distributed Imam Khomeini' s pamphlets, supported families of political
prisoners and helped rehabilitate men and women who had been involved in
"sinful activities".
Following the success of the revolution in 1979, the funds mushroomed, particularly
in poor urban areas. By 1988 they reached 3,000. It is estimated that there are
now 10,000 registered funds (though this figure is not reliable).
The institution has acted more or less independent of the government. The
growth was encouraged by the Islamic government's efforts to introduce (some
think without much success) Islamic banking and simple community-religious
based procedures. As the so-called Islamic financial institutions began to wield
political clout and disregarded the government's fiscal and monetary policies,
they fell out of government grace. Many of them were closed. The interest
free funds survived the crisis with the government. Post-1979, some of the
bigger funds operated more independently of government, some of them were
created outside the mosques and placed in the heart of the bazaar.
The funds provide short term, interest-free (or very low-interest) loans to
members of the community and are guaranteed by local leaders. Loans are
advanced for relief needs, education of children, marriage, dowries and for
certain productive activities. There is not much information on these funds, as
they mostly work as informal credit institutions.
While visiting poor areas of Mashad in May 1999, two researchers working
with the Population Council were amazed by the extent of coverage provided
by the Qarz-ol-Hassaneh funds. The formal and informal networks of these
funds covered all poor communities. They had been set up in all the poor
communities, ranging from family initiated funds, groups with common
interests, such as teachers, the staff of cooperatives and social service
organisations, etc., to community funds attached to local mosques. These were
informal networks that linked the community level fund to bigger funds
organised with support of the bazaar, philanthropists and business people. The
bigger funds operated like a local bank and had a number of trained full time
staff. A small interest-rate was charged to cover overhead costs and modest
bonuses were paid to those who opened a savings account. Through informal
networks and interventions of popular local leaders, a poor client could access
bigger funds to fulfil business needs.
Government planners and policy-makers are giving attention to micro-credit
as a means of poverty alleviation. Many are looking to successful models,
such as the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh. However, few have focused on the
potential of these indigenous funds. Unfortunately, intellectuals and government
planners do not share the enthusiasm of people with regard to these funds. This
lack of eagerness can be attributed to insufficient knowledge and appreciation
of the role played by this institution, as well as to the old and traditional
accounting systems and the non-banking approach of the fund managers. For
this institution, the social needs of the poor have priority over traditional
economic banking considerations. Nevertheless, these funds need to be studied
in greater depth. It should also be noted that some of the managers of bigger
funds are eager to become familiar with more advanced and efficient systems
of credit supply management.
In the first years of the new regime, there were considerable discussions on
the place of the funds in the country's economic system. With the support of
the Islamic Economic Organisation in 1991, a seminar was held by some of the
leading figures involved in the funds. The objective of the gathering was to
gain Islamic legitimacy. The concluding statement of the seminar stressed that
the funds "would actively curb greedy, anti-Islamic profiteering activities" by
setting up cooperative stores, creating productive institutions for industrial,
farming and livestock activities and importing essentials goods. The funds
also began publishing a newsletter, which not only gave news and information
on activities of the funds, but also provided information on similar activities in
other parts of the world.
Criticisms against the more formal funds were that they served the interests of
its founders, family ties were overriding consideration in granting loans, the
profit motive was gaining ground and too much control was being exercised
by the Islamic Economic Organisation. There were justifiable fears of political
manipulation by managers of the larger funds. According to Faribah Adelkhah's
study in 1988, these funds had a liquidity of 500 billion rials or 5 percent of the
country's liquid cash.
Service delivery cooperative units form one of the oldest types of community
organisations. With support of the rich and various other groups, charities and
philanthropic associations have been active in Iran since ancient times. These
institutions have been formed to provide care for all walks of life, irrespective
of their social status, show remarkable solidarity and demonstrate a
commendable spirit of community cooperation. Old and young, rich and poor,
women and men, traditional and modern and even small children participate in
organising Ashura ceremonies. People from every neighbourhood participate I
in cooking and distributing food and supplying sharbat (sweet drinks) to the
mourners. The community is organised on the most egalitarian lines to mark
Ashura. This event, which is still commemorated until this day, is perhaps one
of the most effective means of social mobilisation and community solidarity,
which brings all social groups together.
Characteristics of Traditional Community Organisations
Motiee attributes a number of special characteristics to the traditional
community-based organisations referred to earlier. This includes the fact that
they are numerous and diverse in the type of work they do. It shows that the
culture of collective community action in Iran is very popular and universal. It
is, therefore, not too difficult to rehabilitate and sustain these institutions. They
are basically imbued with an egalitarian spirit of participation. In other words,
the members of these community institutions act and feel as equals in planning
and decision-making.
Hierarchies are formed merely to organise work and allocate responsibilities
and get the task at hand done. They are primarily temporary and seasonal. The
social organisations are formed to cope with a given problem or need. When
these special community needs are fulfilled, the organisations are disbanded
and regroup when a new challenge arises. They are people-centred. These
community-based structures not only strive to fulfil the needs of their members,
but they also cooperate in addressing the needs and problems of vulnerable
and marginal groups. Organised community social action to deal with the
requirements of the community at harvesting time, collective efforts to provide
shelter to the poor and needy families and social organisation to set up charities,
are cases in point. They are set up on a voluntary basis. Community participation
is the hallmark of their planning, decision making and action. Members of the
group are managers and mobilisers of all segments of the society. The principles
of transparency, simplicity and integrity are other key features that ensure
credibility with the people and earn them the respect and support of the
communities they serve.
General Observations on Traditional Community Organisations
in Iran
Traditio~al community organisations have been created throughout Iran to cope
with natural and m;ln-made disasters. As a result of modernisation and
urbanisation and transformation of the subsistence economy, these social
institutions have been weakened over time and some have even perished, at
least in their traditional forms, in some regions. However, restructured forms
of the community organisations can still be found in different parts of Iran. For
instance, the weekly bazaars are still active in northern Iran and different types
of bonehs can be found in the south. Women 's groups are still involved in
supplementary livestock and farm activities, such as raisin production, and
processing of food products, like tomato paste. Sometimes the activities of
these women's groups are conducted to cope with new needs and special
circumstances. Logistical support of rural and urban women's groups to Iran's
fighting force during the Iran-Iraq war is a case in point. Women groups
supported the war front by activities such as making clothes and baking bread
for soldiers.
It is important to recognise the long history and tradition of voluntary work
and co-operative social action in Iran. Even now, whenever and wherever there
is a need for community collaboration, people respond. Another factor to
consider is that along with the modernisation process and incorporation of
western technology into Iran, there are signs of some movements reconciling
modern instruments of production with traditional methods of social
cooperation. As an example, the introduction of the tractor weakened, and in
some instances destroyed, old forms of co-operative and joint farming. Yet,
new forms of co-operation emerged around the use of tractors.
It must be added that women perform a vital role in these tradional community
organizations. As mentioned before, vareh or milk proccessing co-operatives
are one of the most important types of production organization, which have ,
been very popular and even today are a basic part of rural communities.
Woman have also been the bulwark of charitable organizations. Here they act
as managers or clients. This means that in practice charity activities extend to
Iranian families through female members in the kinship system. They are also
active in managing and preparing the weekly bazaars in which majority of
consumers are woman. Hence, women are the focal points of these weekly
bazaars as they serve as managers, producers, sellers and enstomers.
The long history of voluntary work and co-operative social action in Iran and
the positive achievments demonstrated by these organisations during the past
years has provided a favourable framework for the development of non-
governmental organisations. Social mobilization in Iran has led to significant oc
advancements in the cultural, economic and even political fields.


Shared By: