While programmatic support and investment towards ‘digital solutions for the social good’ has not been a priority focus area for Arab philanthropy, the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdown effect has disrupted the status quo. During the most extreme phases of lockdown, non-profits and social enterprises, heavily reliant on philanthropic support, have witnessed major disruptions in their operations where responding to communities was only possible through digital means.
COVID-19 has triggered an array of digitally driven responses. For the most part, digital technology has served as a vital means – and sometimes the only means – for the continuation of existing activities for foundations and their grantees. For others, digital solutions have been deployed for new activities and as an emergency responseto lockdowns.
Strengths of Arab philanthropy during COVID-19
Areas where Arab philanthropy has stepped up support to digital solutions in the wake of COVID-19 have been seen in online learning, healthcare and income generation. Utilising mobile technologies and WhatsApp, the Makhzoumi Foundation provided their beneficiaries with awareness-raising and mental health support sessions. Community Jameel launched Fazaa.tech, an online platform supporting job creation in online sectors, as well as Mashora, an app connecting entrepreneurs with mentors. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning are being deployed to model the spread of COVID-19 by the Abdul-Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics (J-IDEA) at Imperial College London and towards the discovery of new antibiotics and anti-retrovirals to treat the virus by the Jameel Clinic at MIT.
An important effect of the COVID-19 pandemic has been its role in rethinking traditional models of service delivery. One example involves microfinance – in Egypt, with banks operating with shorter working hours and withdrawal limits imposed by the Central Bank, liquidity crunches have slowed the disbursement of micro-loans by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) working with women in the poorest areas of the country. Foundations are now turning their attention to e-finance tools to unlock opportunities for the poor.
The digital divide
COVID-19 has also brought to the fore the deep digital divides and inequities in access to technologies and telecommunication infrastructure. The biggest gap is experienced by disadvantaged and rural communities, students in the public education system, refugees, internally displaced persons and people with special needs, as well as CSOs working in low-income contexts. For grassroots CSOs, having no broadband connectivity or laptops for staff to work from home was more often the norm than the exception. These basic digital infrastructure and capacity gaps experienced by CSOs and communities are likely to unleash new funding support from philanthropy towards tackling these inequalities and digital divides. Or, at a minimum, they will move toward more comprehensive delivery modalities than can leverage digital solutions that reduce the ‘loss’ of pre-pandemic levels of philanthropic reach.
A framework for support
To support CSOs to deal with the challenges associated with lack of IT infrastructure, a new look at institutional support to CSOs is needed. The Ford Foundationis a leading example in this regard. According to Noha El-Mikawy, Regional Director, Middle East and North Africa: ‘Three years ago, the foundation started to allocate up to 20 per cent of each of its grants to institutional strengthening of the receiving grantee. Now around 70 per cent of all our grants have a strong component of support to institutional needs.’
A supporting policy environment is equally important. TheAgha Khan Development Network (AKDN) working in the Aswan Governorate in Egypt’s south are planning to launch an online virtual entrepreneurship incubator in the coming period. Rania Elkishawy, Entrepreneurship Managerat Network, points out that the fallout from COVID-19 has validated their direction, but also credits a supportive government policy that seeks to develop Aswan into a regional digital entrepreneurship hub.
The lessons learned from the COVID crisis may well have accorded a higher priority for exploring and adopting digital solutions for the social good. It has unveiled the cost and reality of embedded digital inequities gripping the region, which may, hopefully, drive more philanthropic support and technical assistance towards building the digital infrastructure and skills needed for a post-COVID-19 context.
This crisis and its responses may inspire Arab philanthropy to adopt new modalities of grant-making that allow CSOs to use more resources for their own organisational strengthening and growth, contributing both to their sustainability and their functional resilience when it is most acutely needed.
Heba Abou Shnief is philanthropy specialist focusing on emerging economies and the Founder of YDRA – an initiative that builds youth data and research capacities.