Giving in the Arab region: from ‘giving for God’ to ‘giving for good’


Caroline Hartnell


This blog is the last in a series of four drawing on the initial findings of a new study of philanthropy initiated by the Working Group on Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace. These will be published in the run-up to next week’s WINGS Forum in Mexico City, where Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace will be hosting a breakfast session on the study. For more information about the study see Saturday’s blog, which focuses on individual giving in Russia, while Sunday’s blog looks at giving in Brazil and Monday’s at giving in India .

Middle-class giving in the Arab region
There can be few places where the gap between the potential for giving by individuals for social causes and the reality is greater than in the Arab region. ‘There is a very rich history of philanthropy across the region,’ says Naila Farouky of the Arab Foundations Forum, ‘embedded within religious tradition and duty in the forms of zakat (Islam), sadaqa (Islam) and oshour (Christianity), to name a few.’ No one gives less than 2 per cent of their income, says Atallah Kuttab of SAANED. ‘Giving less incurs “eternal shame”.’ Yet giving for the public good is not at all widespread.

Fundraising in the Arab region can be extraordinarily easy, says Kuttab. In 2009 he wanted to withdraw money from the Welfare Association (WA) endowment to pay for dialysis for 70 Palestinians living in Lebanon; the cost was $3,000 per person per year. It took just 10 minutes to raise money from the WA board. Admittedly this was philanthropy by wealthy individuals, but there is no reason to think that people of more modest means will be less generous.

‘Tunisians are very supportive to each other’, says Hania Aswad of Oxfam Novib. ‘They share crops, give each other personal loans, etc – something that is very close to community philanthropy but usually between families and individuals.’

And this tradition of giving appears to remain strong among the younger generation. Khalid Alkhubair of Glowork in Saudi Arabia told me how his father paid zakat on behalf of him and his sister until they started working. ‘Many who aren’t working give their own time, volunteering. Now I pay my own amount.’

But giving motivated by religion is fragmented, says Kuttab, going to religious entities, family, neighbourhoods and individual contacts.

What is the potential to channel traditional giving to social causes?
As in many other emerging market countries, lack of trust in NGOs is inhibiting all kinds of fundraising throughout the region. Moreover, says Farouky, the ideal of anonymity in religious giving – the more anonymous the giving, the higher the value placed on that giving – stands in the way of encouraging greater transparency and accountability. ‘Beyond God, there is little to incentivise the average citizen to give,’ she says. ‘Many people give without considering the impact of the giving,’ says Alkhubair.

Nevertheless the potential is there. To give one example, Masr El Kheir is an Egyptian organization based on the zakat spending of millions of Egyptians. Its work ranges from relief-like projects to microfinance and support of micro businesses as well as scholarships and grants in the social sciences to support policy and empirically relevant research.

Abdallah Absi, founder of GivingLoop, a crowdfunding website specially designed for people to make regular monthly donations to non-profits, also hopes to tap into zakat giving. ‘While giving is obligatory in Islam for those who are capable, not many people put a lot of thought into how effective their giving is. GivingLoop will make it easy to compare non-profits based on their impact data.’

The GivingLoop website.

Could strong traditions of giving to neighbours and communities lead to giving for the wider public good? Kuttab thinks so – in particular, he thinks more people could come to contribute to what he calls family funds. ‘Sometimes at village level there’s a local family fund, with diaspora in the Gulf, Latin America and elsewhere contributing. It has no legal structure, but this works because of the level of trust. Even without legal changes, family donors could push families to make family funds more transparent and structured with clearer strategies. And if funds are more efficient and structured, they could attract more contributions – and even evolve into more formalized community philanthropy organizations.’

What about online giving and crowdfunding?
There seems to be general agreement that not much online giving is happening at the moment. Despite this, Abdallah Absi is optimistic about the prospects for GivingLoop. Technology can make it really easy to discover non-profits, he says, and the younger generation are comfortable with credit cards and technology aware.

But they are also harder to please. If they are going to give monthly donations, they want to see regular monthly reports; they want to be convinced that the organizations they support are having an impact. ‘It’s all about creating trust between non-profits and donors, which is now lacking,’ says Absi. GivingLoop was announced only last November so it remains to be seen how successful it will be.

Another interesting phenomenon is what could be called crowdfunding for waqf – endowed foundations. NGOs in Saudi Arabia utilize crowdfunding to fund housing for the underprivileged. So a charity might set the value of a share at $10. Individual donors can buy one or more shares and contribute to the acquisition of an asset such as a building.

What about organizations working on complex social issues like human rights, violence and poverty?
If it’s difficult to attract funding for NGOs, it will inevitably be harder for NGOs working on human rights and social justice issues. But not impossible. Kuttab cites a successful campaign by young activists in Lebanon in 2013/14 to shame the government over its inaction in dealing with collection of garbage. This was funded purely by crowdfunding. The campaign managed to lobby people to stand behind their rights and put pressure on government to deal with the issue – and it was hard for government to clamp down on it as it involved so many people.

As always, Absi sounds an optimistic note. Usually services are more easily funded because they appeal more to the emotions, he says, and thus to impulse givers. But if people are making donations every month through GivingLoop, they will be more conscious of which organizations are creating long-term impact.

To find out more about the study, go to the Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace breakfast session at next week’s WINGS Forum.

Caroline Hartnell is a consultant for Philanthropy for Social Justice and Peace and for Alliance magazine. Email

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