Encountering discomfort at the Arab Foundations Forum

Kit Muirhead

It is said that philanthropy evolved from the Arab region. The practice of ‘Waqf’, under Sharia Law, for example, has existed for centuries, supporting social justice in education, healthcare, and beyond. The Arab Foundations Forum (AFF), held in Cairo in early September set out to revive and reclaim this longstanding reputation and tradition.

Alongside re-thinking philanthropy as a ‘western’ concept, came a sobering acknowledgement of the many challenges facing philanthropy in the region. With youth and women’s unemployment at an all-time high, poverty continues to grow. Political unrest threatens to undo the many wins and civil rights struggles of the Arab Springs, and despite being the richest region in the world for natural resources, the MENA region (Middle East and Northern Africa) is set to be one of the hardest hit by the looming climate crisis.

To address these challenges, speakers touched on topics of data sovereignty, development justice, philanthropic freedom, and localisation. Overall, there was an overwhelming agreement that outdated, western traditions of development and philanthropy have always, and continue to cause more harm than good to communities across the region. Hence, attempts to improve Arab philanthropy must commit to ‘Arabisation’ and consider the need to ‘professionalise’ the sector.

But how can the AFF extend this work further? To not only challenge global power structures that impact upon Arab philanthropy but to also question and critique the power structures embedded within Arab philanthropy?

Promoting ‘Arabisation’:

Firstly, let’s consider how the AFF promoted ‘Arabisation’ to reclaim local narratives for philanthropy and social and economic development.

Part of this process lies in the pockets of discomfort that I encountered over the three days, particularly as one of the only white, non-Arabic-speaking attendees in the room.

And yet, this was precisely what made the forum so good – the AFF refused to be dumbed down for a white, western audience.

There were the times I sat, pen poised and ready, but my notebook blank, as plenary members spoke passionately in intersecting Arabic dialects (thank you to my neighbours who kindly translated the speaker’s key points). There were bursts of laughter from jokes I didn’t get and complex regional discussions that produced familiar nods from the audience and left me frantically googling recent Arab history or a newly enacted law dropped briefly in conversation.

For a lot of the forum, I was mildly confused, felt slightly left out and often a little embarrassed and uncomfortable by my minimal knowledge of this complex, vibrant and powerful region.

And yet, this was precisely what made the forum so good – the AFF refused to be dumbed down for a white, western audience.

Because of this, there was an excitable sense of relief from delegates who spend too much of their workdays describing the cultural and political complexities of the region to their Global North colleagues (who really, should learn to do their own research). There was a celebration in the ‘revival’ of the Arabic language – a measure that came to represent the rejection of western norms and the promotion of Arab-centred knowledge. The shared food, jokes and language strengthened the sense of community and gathered momentum for collective, uniquely Arab, solutions to some of the region’s most pressing challenges.

It was through creating a space of familiarity, comfort, and community that attendees were able to counteract dominant narratives in philanthropy and development. Saba Almubaslat, Regional Director (MENA) of the Ford Foundation, for example, argued that to confront the challenges of the region, the sector must ask “how we can re-claim “our” identity of giving rather than insist on westernising this identity”.

In doing so, Saba, and other speakers critiqued the tendency of ‘traditional’ development approaches to paint progress as a linear trajectory, where Global North states are positioned at the “pinnacle” of social, economic, and political development.

Rather than insist that MENA nations dutifully follow the often misguided footsteps of their ‘more advanced’ western siblings, attendees and speakers highlighted that the answer to social equality and poverty is, and always has been, deeply embedded within local ways of knowing, doing and being.

Beware! The dangers of ‘professionalism’:

Alongside promoting localisation agendas and Arabisation, the AFF underscored the need to ‘professionalise’ philanthropy in the MENA region. According to many speakers at the forum, ‘professionalisation’ entails a movement away from haphazard individual giving to more strategic and collective forms of philanthropy. It involves abiding by appropriate monitoring and evaluation frameworks and demands greater trust in and reliance on evidence-based approaches, such as unrestricted and long-term funding models.

Although these recommendations are commendable, it did seem at times like the goal to ‘professionalise’ blocked more critical voices from making it onto the stage. Whilst the speakers on the main panels were well-respected and brought an air of legitimacy to the discussion, there seemed to be a lack of representation from more community-based and grassroots social change makers, particularly in discussions of power, trust-based philanthropy, and localisation.

Despite this, it was deeply refreshing to watch audience members rise and question some of the assumptions and language being used by plenary members. In a discussion of ‘Building Lasting Impact through Trust-based philanthropy’, one attendee asked plenary members and funders to re-consider the term “implementing partners” to describe grantees:

“You frame local MGOs as ‘implementing partners’, despite the fact that they have the design, and they have the solutions.” 

The attendee urged the room to consider alternative terms that recognise the extensive expertise of local grantees and to position these groups as equals, rather than inferiors, to philanthropists and foundations.

This comment was striking to me. It contextualised how efforts to professionalise can draw a line between certain voices who are considered ‘legitimate’ and ‘illegitimate’. Often, those who are considered ‘professional’ or ‘legitimate’ enough to speak on certain topics include people who are willing to align themselves with the agendas of those in power. This means that informal, community and dissenting voices – those who reject accepted ‘professional’ behaviours or norms – can cause discomfort and as such, are dismissed as ‘illegitimate’.

This is not an uncommon trend in philanthropy or the international system. In 2011, for example, two Iraqi peace activists who were invited to speak at the UN, condemned the US and the UK, (two permanent Security Council members), for their “imperialistic invasion” of Iraq and critiqued the UN for its lack of support. Despite their extensive local peacekeeping experience, the two women were framed as ‘unprofessional’ and quickly dismissed by the UN for their failure to “speak positively” about the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. Examples like these demonstrate how an agenda to ‘professionalise’ philanthropy may risk de-legitimising, and therefore, eliminating necessary critical voices from discussions of local and global inequality.

In devising new narratives and platforming new voices, the AFF can reject dominant, western, trends in philanthropy that allow elite groups to bolster their own agendas at the expense of broader social transformation.

The attendee’s comment made me question what it would take for more community and dissenting voices to be centred on the main plenary stages, alongside the prestigious voices.

As outlined by Rania Fazah, Managing Partner of Elephas Consulting, to be wholly transformative, Arab Philanthropy must engage and fund the “unseen, unsuspecting subjects”.

Activists, social movement makers and people from marginalised communities are at the forefront of the most disruptive, and therefore transformative, change. In centring these voices, we can all begin to better unpack structures of power and oppression that are embedded within the practice of philanthropy, such as neo-colonialism, capitalism, and hetero-patriarchy. This process is essential for improving philanthropy and devising uniquely Arab ways of ameliorating inequalities across the region.

As with all actions that contest deep power structures – this is no easy feat. What local activist, for example, will be willing to stand up in a room full of potential funders and criticise their funding practices? More specifically, with many governments around the MENA region actively persecuting peaceful protestors and grassroots civil society actors, what risk would this pose for the AFF and its mission for Arab philanthropy?

However, if able to be overcome, this struggle also provides an opportunity for the AFF to construct itself as a radically safe space for these voices to be platformed. In devising new narratives and platforming new voices, the AFF can reject dominant, western, trends in philanthropy that allow elite groups to bolster their own agendas at the expense of broader social transformation.

Prioritising ‘human benefit’ over ‘mutual benefit’:

Another example of important audience engagement took place on day three, during the highly collaborative Knowledge Co-creation and Community Building Workshop. Amongst the excited buzz of a day focussed on attendee interaction and teamwork, one participant rose to challenge the room’s reliance on the term ‘mutual benefit’ when referring to philanthropic collaboration:

“Mutual benefit isn’t the appealing thing, it’s the human benefit, the importance of building trust as friends. We need platforms that allow for this kind of collaboration.” 

Alongside this comment, the attendee highlighted the importance of ‘altruistic listening’ for achieving human benefit. They emphasised the need for people working in philanthropy to put their egos aside, challenge naturalised assumptions, and analyse their privilege in relation to local and global systems of power.

Comments from the audience, that sought to challenge assumptions and draw attention to power in philanthropy, were integral for disrupting power structures within the forum itself.

The fact that these voices felt comfortable to speak up, and risk causing discomfort, is a testament to the AFF for creating a safe space for attendees to share their thoughts. Indeed, the AFF’s approach to delivering a ‘forum’, rather than a ‘conference’, including the final day’s highly interactive, ‘knowledge-sharing’ workshops, was integral to ensuring everyone in the room could contribute to designing a uniquely Arab blueprint for transformative philanthropy.

In addition, the AFF’s recent and bold decision to remove barriers of ‘exclusivity’ in their membership, opening it up beyond philanthropists and foundations to include civil society organisations, (despite some backlash) is another important step towards structurally challenging power systems within Arab Philanthropy.

Such steps have tangible and positive outcomes. By day three, it was clear that a platform for collaboration, one based on human benefit, was already unfolding before us. This was not necessarily taking place in the plenary rooms, where distinguished speakers from large INGOs and philanthropic foundations spoke of indicators and market trends, but rather in the pockets of hushed voices and shared stories that grew between these spaces.

From across the lunch tables, in the lines to the bathrooms, as attendees met in Ubers that hurtled across Cairo in search of the city’s best Umm Ali (spoiler alert; the best one is your grandmother’s recipe). With the quick raise of a hand when the plenary “opened the floor” – these are where the conversations of power were happening. It was in these pockets that a community, a real community, not one based on professionalism, but rather on friendship, was beginning to flourish.

Building on this work by adding more grassroots voices to the key plenary sessions and remaining alert to the dangers of ‘professionalism’, the AFF can evolve into a space in which philanthropists and civil society actors encounter and sit with discomfort. Here, attendees and speakers can reflect on their privilege and learn to altruistically listen to the voices that are brave enough to challenge power structures within and outside Arab philanthropy.

I am deeply grateful to be offered the opportunity to feel like an outsider at the AFF. I will cherish the lessons I learned, the opportunity to try Egyptian falafel and above all, the friends I made, who were always willing to draw me in with outstretched arms whenever I felt a little out of place.

Kit Muirhead is Partnerships manager at Alliance magazine

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