Local traditions and global context: understanding Arab philanthropy


Atallah Kuttab

Atallah Kuttab

Atallah Kuttab

Studies on global philanthropy indicate that cultural traditions, religious norms, political histories, and the economic strength of individual countries have profoundly shaped giving in individual countries and geographical regions, creating a rich and diverse global philanthropic landscape. However, some commonalities emerge from the various studies, including:

•    The unique philanthropic heritage for each region needs to be acknowledged. Also, it is important to link new institutionalized forms of philanthropy with long-standing practices and traditions, and to support efforts to ensure that philanthropy is effectively organized and sustainable without destroying traditional giving motivations and practices.
•    There is movement, albeit relatively slow, away from traditional charitable giving to more strategic giving aimed at achieving significant social change.  There is a growing focus on the causes of social ills, and not merely on their symptoms. Also, there is an admission that solutions will not be found by the philanthropic sector alone and that collaborative efforts including government and private sector are needed for greater effectiveness.

Historically in the Arab region, endowments for much-needed social services like education and health services provided a sustainable approach to giving. However, more recently giving has been mainly charity-oriented, mostly state-sponsored, ill-studied and patronizing. The philanthropy thrust in recent years has been guided mainly by an Anglo-Saxon discourse not rooted in the local culture. When reading about the development of contemporary philanthropy, examples from the 1800s onward are cited, mostly from the UK or US, with no mention, for example, of experiences from other parts of the world like endowments or waqf set up in places like Jerusalem or Cairo to support schools, hospitals and poor and needy people. These have been active for more than 2,000 years with rudimentary documentation, with better records dating from the year 1200. The waqf of Hasseki Sultan, founded in 1552 in support of the needy in Jerusalem, with an endowment including agriculture land, shopping areas and rented properties that created revenue to support its mission, is one example of such rich past that we tend to overlook.

To take another example, at a recent global philanthropy meeting a session on networking indicated that the art of networking dated back a couple of hundred years in the US when railways where built. Again networking along trading routes in other continents that existed over 2,000 years ago were never mentioned (trade links along the Silk Road is just one example). One can only blame oneself for failing to document the rich experience from one’s own region.

Many efforts are now under way in various regions to document local practices, learn from other regions, redevelop the local discourse, and reinvigorate local traditions and practices to enable the local philanthropy sector to find sustainable solutions to chronic problems such as the lack of relevant education, high youth unemployment, the absence of democracy and the lack of space for citizens to express themselves, etc. Writing an article on emerging practices in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Alliance, March 2014), it was heartening to see that old practices are still living (markets, storehouses, housing and other facilities for commerce and light industry are among the assets set up by foundations as waqf dedicated to support and finance education and social welfare projects, just like waqf set up in old times) but with the added perspective of social justice and sustainable development.

Of specific relevance to global philanthropy in general and Arab philanthropy specifically is the increased consciousness that the cultural and social problems that societies face and philanthropy needs to address are complex and global. As a result, there is more awareness that solutions must be multidisciplinary and rooted in the local culture and values rather than copied blindly from other regions. The Arab Spring brought to the forefront terms like social justice, integrity, accountability and transparency in all aspects of life.

The main purpose of this blog is to create a platform to share the development of philanthropy in various regions and how it relates to its rich past while interacting with the global discourse. Hopefully it will encourage philanthropy leaders around the globe to reveal trends and document stories, old and new, from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa.  The dream will be to see these stories quoted in the philanthropy literature, creating a truly global philanthropy enriched with its diversity.

Atallah Kuttab is chairman of SAANED for Philanthropy Advisory and is a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow hosted by Robert Bosch Stiftung. The purpose of his fellowship is to identify the emerging new Arab philanthropy discourse, anchored in its rich past of giving and linking with contemporary philanthropy in other regions.

Tagged in: arab philanthropy

Comments (8)

Jason Franklin

Ah, so many thoughts bouncing around after reading this thoughtful and sadly accurate post. At Bolder Giving we have begun working on an increasingly global scale, I have seen the critical and unmet need for a better understanding of the history and cultural traditions of giving in different geographies. To take just one example, we have been working the Bulgarian Donors Forum which is working to build a culture of philanthropy in their country...or perhaps more accurately one should say rebuild and expand. I say rebuild because BDF just completed last year an amazing historical encyclopedia of Bulgaria's pre-Communist philanthropic history showing roots going back centuries that are easily overlooked and ignored. Expanding our historical and contemporary understanding of philanthropic traditions, structures and activities will not be quick but it is critical for us to truly appreciate the generosity present in cultures across the globe and thoughtfully work together to support that impulse to give that lies in all of us.

Christopher Harris

Atallah has put down a very important marker and has raised two critically important issues for the field of philanthropy. First, he reminds us of a principle that is often spoken and then ignored--that context matters. The unique and rich history of philanthropy in the Arab region (which of course predates Andrew Carnegie by hundreds of years)--has allowed numerous philanthropic forms to evolve that mainstream discourse within the field usually ignores--and that may well offer more appropriate solutions to local problems. This difficulty occurs in other regions as well. The second issue is the need to help/push/lead/encourage more philanthropy to support work at changing the rules--changing the hidden structures in communities that allow and maintain unfair advantage by one group over another. As he says, philanthropy should help "find sustainable solutions to chronic problems" and address social and economic injustice. Perhaps what the field needs is a set of networked, regionally-based spaces where serious and rigorous conversations could occur that foster tough discussions about how foundations can/could operate--both in terms of local context and history, and in terms of how to redress unjust and hurtful social, economic and educational conditions. These "spaces" should focus on foundation practice (hence, likely not an academic center) and be comfortable with open and exploratory critique (hence, not at an association of grant makers). They need not be expensive and heavily staffed--on the contrary, they should have a lite physical footprint, offer virtual discussions, but allow key practitioners some time off to focus on important issues (e.g., How should funders best support peace building?). Linked together, they could offer access to region-specific solutions for learning by others and create a platform for assembling and making accessible new knowledge about funding development that is socially just. That is an idea for some of the larger, international foundations interested in philanthropic "infrastructure." Well done, Ata!

Atallah Kuttab

Heba, you are raising important issues. Maybe a way to go around the lack of transparency in giving (you called it informal sector) due to lack of conducive legal structure and/or traditions (the famous traditional saying: your right hand should not know what your left hand gave), is to track the programs and impact of such giving. However, the question will be: can traditional research techniques be able to identify such outcomes or the stories will need to be identified and documented by the practitioners implementing programs? Once we look for outcomes we might find more richness out there than if we look solely for how presently Arab foundations are using their funds as you rightfully mention than the foundations that can be tracked are not that many. The other challenge is how we track civil endowments that existed for so many years and managed to avoid being confiscated by governments especially during the last hundred years or so. Two examples here: 1) I discovered that family trusts for education in Jerusalem exists for more than 300 ýears and still operating. It is private and targeting certain families but after three hundred years their catchment is significant. Family members need to be mobilized to tell the story to allow us to analyze it. 2) Najeeb Mahfouz in his famous novel "Awlad Haritna" talks about a whole neighborhood in old Cairo that was a family Waqf (Jablawi Family - probably fictitious name). Can we track such cases and what has become of them (what lessons learned). In his novel Mahfouz talks about lots of good practices (and in our present language they could easily pass as poverty alleviation, social investment, social justice, anti-corruption, equity, etc.).

Atallah Kuttab

Cannot agree more with Noha. A key point being raised here, to overcome the difficulty in documentation and data collection in that philanthropists might be hesitant to talk about their giving, is to track the outcomes of such giving. The cases cited here of Taha Hussein and education of women not only leads to ways philanthropy and giving have been practiced but also to ways of measuring impact of such giving. This will serve us in many ways: learn from our history of what works (and what did not work), define measures for social justice impact derived from our historical context, be able to create learning in our field based on these local experiences rather than aim to be a copy of philanthropists that function in different environment than ours, contribute to the complex fabric of global philanthropy while learning from other global experiences.

Heba Abou Shnief

Couldn’t agree more with the article that research has not kept abreast of developments in the philanthropic sector. While one is not in a position to comment about how the relationship between research and philanthropy played out historically. But regarding this contemporary relation, I think the picture is more complicated than simply research not bridging practice. There is a confluence of factors that work on the supply side of research that limit its outreach. One of them being that while we do have generous giving, a lot of it has taken place in the informal sector. For instance, taking the example of endowments ("Waqf" in Arabic), there are initiatives that have aimed to circumvent state control over endowment creation like major Islamic banks setting up bank accounts for investment in endowments. Since these endowments are not registered, it becomes quite challenging to identify them. Another challenge being that there is only a handful of philanthropy support organizations in the Arab region, that work in a cultural environment where there is limited transparency. On funding of research, donors in the region tend to have a preference towards funding philanthropic initiatives or development causes, as opposed to research on philanthropy. More buy-in on the importance of spreading practices and promoting peer-to-peer learning is a pre-requisite for improved data and knowledge.

noha el-mikawy

I cannot agree more with the author's regrets about lack of enough documentation of stories of giving in non-western contexts. The Arab region, which I know better than others, is indeed rich with centuries of giving in support of educational and health institutions, giving that is backed by locally embedded models of financing/managing endowments. Documentation of local models will allow for healthy debates around regional and global drivers of sustainable management of philanthropies, both financially and administratively. The Arab region is rich with models of how philanthropy was managed and how that impacted on philanthropy's financial and political autonomy. Furthermore, with good documentation of some of the educational and health institutions that were supported by local philanthropy over the centuries, one will surly land on success stories and one will be able to analyze pathways to scalable impact. Afterall, it is such philanthropy funded institutions that allowed in the early 20th century for a blind Egyptian scholar to make it up to the highest orders of excellence in academic posts and national ministerial responsibilities; I am talking of Taha Hussein. Despite of this early victory for social justice, the region and many of its countries are still struggling to pass and impliment laws in favor of the rights of the disabled. Had we documented and celebrated this and similar stories of philanthropy supported institions, we would be in possession of local stories of human achievement, advancement of rights and justice. Same goes for philanthropy based institutions that provided women early on in the 20th century with opportunities to study medicine, law and engineerng at a time when we are still struggle to combat child marriage. Documenting stories of Arab philanthropy's role in social change is highly pivotal, especially as we face a historical juncture where advancing rights is competing with other important national priorities and such competition could weaken philanthropists' resolve to help advance rights . Philanthropy in the Arab region has a history to be proud of and to share. Yet it also has a challenging present and it needs to build strategies for partnership to advance Arab inclusive and accountable development. In sharing and learning from one's own history and that of others in the Global South, informed social philanthropy could be a likely outcome.

Atallah Kuttab

I thought it is relevant and appropriate to post here the letter to the editor on page 16 -The Economist May 31st 2014, about the importance of (in this letter author talks about the pray for) highlighting stories from the various regions (in this case Chinese Philanthropy): Although there is truth to the assertion that the ultra-wealthy Chinese fear the political repercussions from the glare of the Gates-Buffet giving pledge, it also goes against the traditional ethic of giving generously but quietly. Furthermore, the pledge was doomed to failure in any Chinese society as it does not resonate with the cultural value of one's responsibility first to family and heirs. We can only hope that Jack Ma will become the "Carnegie of China" in deeds as well as in words. But he will soon find out as Carnegie did in his day that "it is harder to give your money away wisely than to make it". I pray that one day, my children will say "Bill Gates? Oh yes, he was the Jack Ma of America". (James Chen, Chen Yet Sen Family Foundation, Hong Kong).

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