Last week, during a Global Convening of Philanthropies at the COP28 climate summit, the Arab Foundations Forum, a non-profit membership-based association of philanthropic organizations based or working in the Arab region, announced an Arab Regional Philanthropy Commitment on Climate Change as part of the global #PhilanthropyForClimate movement led by WINGS.
Building on the global momentum around localization in climate action and shifting power to local and regional actors, this commitment is clearly a good step in the right direction. Arab philanthropic capital is significant – in Muslim majority countries alone, between 250 billion to 1 trillion dollars is deployed in Zakat and Sadaqah respectively each year. The implementation of the commitment, however, is yet to be worked out. Can an Arab philanthropy for climate movement emerge within the region? In this blog, and drawing on our collective experience researching and working closely with philanthropists in the region and internationally for over two decades, we reflect on the significant opportunities and challenges facing the emergence of this movement.
An Arab philanthropy movement for and from within the region is necessary and long overdue.
This commitment is critical because the MENA region is one of the world’s regions hardest hit by climate change, and one of the least equipped to cope with it. About 60 percent of the population in the region lack access to drinkable water and over 70 percent of the region’s GDP is exposed to high or very high-water stress. People’s livelihoods are highly reliant on climate-sensitive agriculture and flood-prone coastal zones. Evidence shows that climate change is expected to act as a multiplier for the pressures already manifested in the region since it deepens existing crises such as food insecurity, conflict, and inequality. In a country like Yemen, for example, environmental mismanagement is worsening the impacts of climate change. The region, however, is far from a monolith and the experience of climate change is different in each country. Rich Arab states are better positioned to absorb climate shocks while resource-poor states will continue to lack appropriate capacities to adapt to the impact of climate change.
‘There is an opportunity for a coalition of Arab philanthropists to consolidate multi-stakeholder efforts (philanthropists, businesses, charities, governments and communities) from within the region to address a regional problem in a wholistic and effective way. Addressing data gaps on climate variability will be a key priority as climate intersects with social, economic and political fragility in the region.’
It is important to note that the commitment is a critical development for Arab philanthropic space. It shows that Arab philanthropy has indeed grown and evolved from simple handouts to more strategic giving focused on addressing the socioeconomic realities of Arab societies. Arab philanthropy stands to fill an important funding gap. Seventy-one percent of international climate finance to the region from 2003 to 2021 went to mitigation projects despite the region’s pressing adaptation needs and the funds are not equally distributed among recipient countries. Arab philanthropists can transform the adaptive capacities of the region at a time when international funding streams are failing.
While the links between climate change and migration are contested, more than 80 percent of refugees find themselves in developing and low-income neighbouring countries. Presently, the Arab region is witnessing a substantial and escalating influx of refugees and internally displaced populations. Amidst the pre-existing instabilities and conflicts in the region, the expanding strain on resources triggered by climate shocks, particularly in water and agricultural sectors, may lead to heightened economic pressure and further instabilities. The anticipation of increased internal and cross-border movements within the region is a sobering reality given the interconnected dynamics of climate change, political instability, and human displacement.
For Arab philanthropy to become a transformative climate actor, a holistic approach is needed, and structural challenges need to be boldly addressed.
The Arab philanthropic space has shifted towards strategic and long-term impact. So much progress has been made but for it to become a game changer in climate action, a more holistic approach that takes into account historical, contextual and structural challenges is necessary. First, strengthening political will nationally and regionally is still needed as the region continues to grapple with conflicts within many of its countries as well as internationally. Climate action in the Arab region, like the rest of the world, is political especially as its economically powerful nations are also the ones that are fossil fuel-dependent. Second, high quality data on the impacts of climate change in the region is very limited especially intersectional data that takes into account the vulnerability of various groups. Third, the regulatory environment does not allow organizations focused on climate change to raise funding easily (such as existing tax structures) and the adoption of global counter-terrorism and anti-money laundering regulations has made it very difficult for philanthropists to be able to fund programmes across borders in other Arab states. Finally, our experience has shown that the philanthropic landscape is a crowded space with several competing causes to fund.
To translate the commitment to action, a coalition of Arab philanthropists is needed to champion climate priorities nationally and regionally.
Building on the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2023 in the UAE, there is an opportunity for a coalition of Arab philanthropists to consolidate multi-stakeholder efforts (philanthropists, businesses, charities, governments and communities) from within the region to address a regional problem in a wholistic and effective way. Addressing data gaps on climate variability will be a key priority as climate intersects with social, economic and political fragility in the region. There is a need to drive original and robust research on the impacts of climate change in the Arab region, coping strategies (at community, subnational, national and regional levels) and opportunities for engagement. This is now more important than ever as discussions on climate finance in the region continue to expand and as there is more of an appetite for risk.
Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy is the Director of NatCen International, the National Centre for Social Research
Houssam Chahine is the Head of Climate Action Financing Hub, UNHCR
Anh Vu is the Research Director at NatCen International