Across the Middle East and North Africaregion, various studies on giving suggest that nearly eight or nine out of 10 people in GCC countries make donations, more than half are spontaneous donations, and two-thirds usually go to charities rather than social investment. This indicates that, although there is a strong culture of giving, philanthropy in the region, whether by individuals, foundations, or corporations, often lacks strategy, depth, and efficiency.
The concept of philanthropy has deep ancient cultural roots in the region. Generosity, hospitality, and compassion are core values woven into the very fabric of societies in MENA countries. Anyone who visits will surely experience firsthand the generosity and hospitality it has to offer its guests. The Bedouin ‘three-day guest law’ mandates that anyone who arrives at your door, even unannounced strangers, or foreigners, must be treated as family and shown utmost hospitality – offered coffee upon their arrival and given shelter, food, water, and clothes without question until the third day of their stay.
Beyond this basic concept of generosity & hospitality, the prevailing three monotheistic religions in the MENA region emphasize the duty we have to one another, to promote and contribute to human welfare. From the ‘Tithe’ in Judaism and some Christian denominations) to its analogues in Islam (Al-Zakat, Al-Khums, Al-Sadaqa), the concept of endowed charitable trust (waqf), as well as the multiple injunctions in the Bible (i.e. the good Samaritan), believers are encouraged, even obliged in some cases, to dedicate a share of their income in pursuit of the public good.
Philanthropy in the MENA region has been shaped by the various protracted conflicts unfolding in the region in recent decades such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iran-Iraq war followed by the post-2003 turbulences in Iraq as well as civil wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and Libya. As violent conflict in the region increases the need for humanitarian support, the Arab philanthropic sector has strived to meet the need, providing food, shelter, medical services, and psychosocial support to vulnerable populations such as women and children, refugees and internally displaced people across the region.
On the other hand, these same conflicts, as well as political repression in general, impeded the emergence of a strategic and proactive philanthropy in the MENA region. Many philanthropic actors continue to be vilified and targeted by governments who accuse them of supporting political opponents or ‘enemies of the states’. Political polarization played a role as well in dissuading potential philanthropists from undertaking strategic investments for the fear of being either instrumentalized or scapegoated by authoritarian regimes. Last but not least, Western sanctions on some MENA countries, such as Syria makes it highly complicated and sometimes virtually impossible to mobilize resources for humanitarian aid. This was a devastating reality that played out in the aftermath of the February 2023 earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
Despite the many challenges that philanthropic organizations face in the MENA region due to the region’s mayhem, there are in fact many opportunities for the sector to play key roles in stabilizing the region and, by moving beyond simply the ‘do no harm’ principle, actually gearing the region up to be more peaceful and hence generate dividends for most actors, especially the private sector.
According to the 2022 World Inequality Report, the MENA region experiences the highest rate of inequality of any other region in the world. Inequality, economic disparity, and high youth unemployment levels create a sense of desperation and humiliation in the region that make it especially susceptible to social unrest. Even societies from the region that do not make headlines for being engulfed in violent conflict are still often on the cusp of social uprising because of these underlying exacerbating factors. In most Arab countries, social contracts between the state and the citizen has been degraded due to repression, corruption and incompetence. In general, there is a sense that young people do not have pathways for upward social mobility which leads to irregular migration, human trafficking, violence, crime, unrest, and extremism. These factors, in turn, intensify fragility further, creating vicious cycles that perpetuate inequality.
Harnessing this cultural predisposition and channelling it into more effective and strategic philanthropic behaviour would serve the region well and could even reduce some of the factors that keep the region in a state of fragility and instability, thus improving the business environment, a precondition for smoother and profitable business operations.
For example, in addition to providing the essential immediate-term needs such as food, water, shelter, etc., philanthropic endeavours can also invest in more transformative social initiatives, including by supporting local organizations that promote social cohesion, strengthen local governance and endue conflict resolution processes and platforms. Moreover, by creating opportunities for infrastructure development and economic opportunities for marginalized communities, the philanthropic sector can contribute to stability. Financial inclusion, entrepreneurship, and projects aiming at bridging the skills gap promote an inclusive economic growth and upward social mobility which are key factors in the stability and resilience of the region.
The region’s open-handed philanthropic actors such as large corporations and high net worth families should seek to move beyond mere charity and instead adopt data-driven, evidence-based philanthropic agendas that focus less on the dollar value of a donation and more on the impact and long-term outcomes of their generous gestures.
Conventional knowledge in the MENA region highlights the benefits of corporate philanthropy as being a form of public relations, focused on promoting the company’s image, leveraging the passions and interests of employees. The key question that corporations based in the region need to ask is whether they can aim for a more strategic value of their donations, including how such philanthropy can actually address the main elements of fragility in a given country and how this can actually enhance the competitive edge of the corporations, improve social and economic conditions, and enhance the business – and profitability- prospects. For example, strategic investment in the education sector will lead, in the mid to long term, to a lesser dependence on expatriate labor and hence reduce the payroll cost of the company.
Some larger more internationally focused corporations in the region have progressive Corporate Social Responsibility agendas that emphasize a wide range of social investments. To avoid potential fallout from Middle Eastern and North African governments, companies in general tend not to address sensitive political or social issues, however there are some successful models whereby companies partner with civil society organizations or partner with the government itself to ensure its buy-in from the outset.
By modernizing giving agendas to be more strategic, sustainable, conflict-sensitive, and better founded in evidence that the initiatives could in fact address the drivers of tension and fragility at the local, national or regional level, the MENA region countries will be a much better place to nurture business opportunities and corporations could be better equipped to absorb shocks from crises of all natures – political, economic, environmental, social, etc. and avoid unnecessary suffering.
Dr Elie Abouaoun is the Director of North Africa Programs and the Regional Office at the U.S. Institute of Peace, based in Tunisia. Molly Gallagher is a MENA Specialist at the U.S. Institute of Peace, based in Tunisia.