Bread, freedom and social justice

Barry Knight

Philanthropy in the Arab world can never be the same again. No longer will it be possible to smooch up to authoritarian governments by performing charitable acts. Foundations will have to play their full part in the transitions to peace and democracy by supporting civil society and governance reform. That was the central message of the Alliance Breakfast Club, held to follow up the December issue of Alliance on ‘Responding to the hopes of the Arab Spring’.

A three-person panel composed of Atallah Kuttab, guest editor of the December special issue and founder chairman of SAANED, Zina Jardaneh, a board member of the Welfare Association, and Salah Khalil, an Egyptian businessman and founder of the Alexandria Trust, were united in their optimism that the transitions will take root. Although they acknowledged risks, such as the potential for prolonged civil conflict and the rise of radical Islam under leaders unwilling to share power with secular political parties, the panel felt that democracy and peace will eventually prevail, and Arab states will join a community of enlightened peers.

Speakers were in no doubt that philanthropy has a vital role to play. At the same time, it will have to raise its game to realize its full potential. People from the audience cited difficulties in the way that philanthropy had performed in earlier transitions in Central and Eastern Europe. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall, foundations had typically rushed in, funded initiatives without understanding local culture, and rushed out again leaving their grantees high and dry. There is now much experience of grantmaking that suggests that success is delivered by building local capacity. In the Arab region, however, there is little respect for foreign funders, because they have typically pursued their own political agendas, got too close to repressive regimes, and ignored the wishes of local people.

People at the meeting felt that foundations should strengthen the hand of local people. Salah Khalil explained how the Alexandria Trust is developing a new generation of citizens who can act as informed citizens. This is a good model for foundations to support because, rather than developing off-the-shelf solutions, local people can develop their own solutions based on their perceptions of need.

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