The role of European foundations in the Arab region

Alliance magazine

Poonam Joshi and James Logan talk about Sigrid Rausing Trust’s and Oak Foundation’s involvement in the Arab region prior to the Arab Spring and how recent events have affected their approach, while Massimo Lanza of Fondazione di Venezia talks about European involvement more generally and the potential role to be played by the Global Philanthropy Leadership Initiative.


Looking for the most effective way to intervene

Poonam Joshi

Prior to the wave of protests across the Arab region human rights groups played a critical role in shedding light on human rights abuses. This work was often done in isolation and activists faced decades of repression and in some cases abuse. The mass mobilization of protesters and widespread calls for respect for human rights have transformed the political landscape in which human rights groups operate across the region. In these circumstances the Sigrid Rausing Trust (SRT) has sought to take a strategic view on where, as a relatively small human rights funder, it can intervene most effectively to influence change.

Human rights groups now enjoy unprecedented opportunities to hold governments to account and to capitalize on the wave of first-time activists willing to be involved in human rights work. At the same time they continue to do this work often at great risk to themselves and are subjected to a range of barriers including restrictions on foreign funding and attacks through the media.

Generally the trust funds human rights groups directly, but it also sub-grants through a number of human rights funds to support emerging and small groups across its four programme areas. Prior to the revolutions, the trust’s work across the Middle East and North Africa region was chiefly done through a number of intermediaries or sub-granters working with human rights organizations in the region: the Arab Human Rights Fund and the Euro-Mediterranean Foundation, which fund across the region, the Fund for Global Human Rights, working in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, and the Mediterranean Women’s Fund, which works predominantly on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.

A considerable intervention in one country

Following a visit to the region and conversations with donors and activists, the trust decided to focus on two countries making the transition from dictatorship to democracy: Egypt and Tunisia. As a result, direct grants have been made to five relatively young Egyptian organizations.

The grants are meant to be complementary and mutually reinforcing. All the grantees work in coalitions, sometimes with each other, which both helps to amplify their voice and affords some protection against repression. All have a strong commitment to combating inequality and discrimination, especially against groups whose interests are often treated as peripheral, such as religious and sexual minorities and women. From talking to activists in the region, the trust became convinced that the treatment of such groups would constitute a litmus test of the extent to which the revolutions were democratic.

Although Cairo-based, these organizations are all seeking to extend their work either regionally or nationally. They include two women’s organizations, Nazra for Feminist Studies and the New Woman Foundation.

These five grants are unrestricted, in other words not earmarked, in order to build up the strength and capacity of its grantees. However, the trust has made earmarked grants to two organizations. One was to an Egyptian organization that has set up a training programme for Libyan lawyers, who can go on to set up new human rights initiatives in their home country. The other was to fund a meeting of Egyptian women activists so that they can agree common goals.

Tunisia and Libya

In Egypt, there was already a fairly well-developed civil society sector. In the other transition countries, the situation is different. Tunisia had only a handful of human rights organizations before the revolution, and they were subject to constant surveillance and/or harassment. Existing groups are cautious about accepting funding from western organizations and the new organizations, spawned by the revolution, are very small. The trust is considering ways either to provide additional support to existing sub-granters or to find new ones in order to support the country’s growing human rights culture.

In Libya, SRT is maintaining a watching brief as events unfold, talking to donors who are going into the country.

Out of the limelight…

Apart from the transition countries, the other area that SRT has begun to look at is the Gulf. There are acute human rights issues there and protests have resulted in severe human rights violations, but because those protests have not flared into open revolt and because, for political reasons, criticism from western governments has been relatively muted, the region has received little attention. Only one of SRT’s sub-granters currently makes grants there. The trust feels this is an area where targeted core grants could really make a difference, and it is considering how to support human rights groups there.

Poonam Joshi is a consultant to the Sigrid Rausing Trust’s women’s rights programme. Email
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Helping local organizations take new opportunities

James Logan

The Oak Foundation supports human rights organizations in the Arab region by funding regranting organizations, the Arab Human Rights Fund and the Global Fund for Human Rights. We saw that grave human rights violations were taking place in the region and that there was not a huge amount of foundation funding going to those issues. So we felt we would be filling a gap.

Funding regranters seemed like the best course as the foundation has limited regional expertise in what is a very challenging area. Also, human rights organizations were subject to heavy scrutiny or repression and western funding generally was viewed with suspicion. Supporting a regranter in the region with expertise and which is locally ‘owned’, like the Arab Human Rights Fund, helped overcome these difficulties.

Our support for the Arab Human Rights Fund is unrestricted. This allows them to use their judgement on which projects are important in the local context – though, as far as possible, we like these to align with our own priorities. We were concentrating on trying to build a local human rights community and stronger organizations that could respond to any changes if and when they happened. Like the rest of the world, we did not foresee the extraordinary changes that would be ushered in by the Arab Spring.

The transitions in these countries are still under way and vary in character from place to place, but generally speaking they have opened up new opportunities for human rights organizations. Some of the organizations that we have been funding indirectly are helping to shape those societies.

One of the focuses of our programme is accountability for gross abuses. Issues such as trials of perpetrators of human rights violations under previous regimes and documentation of evidence of violations that could be used in those trials present new opportunities – societies can’t move forward without a full reckoning for past violations.

At present, we are developing a strategy for the next few years for our programme and are considering whether we should make the region a priority. As part of this, we are trying to map the funding that is going into the region. Inevitably, the revolutions have resulted in growing donor interest and we want to go where we’re needed. However, our current levels of support for the region are unlikely to diminish and we may consider direct funding on the issues we’re particularly interested in.

Prior to the revolutions, NGOs were operating under serious restrictions. While some of these remain, there is now an opportunity to help human rights organizations in the region to grow.

James Logan is programme officer for international human rights at the Oak Foundation. Email

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Interview – Massimo Lanza

Why do you think European foundations are not more involved in the Arab region?

What’s happening now in the Arab region is historically so important, such an incredible opportunity. Foundations have a wealth of experience of being involved with major world events involving peace building and social justice – I will just mention what the community foundations in particular did in Northern Ireland.

So the question is: why are European foundations not involved this time? My impression is that the main reason is because this is a fairly unknown area. If we want to understand the priorities and how to address issues, we must rely upon people and structures that operate on the ground.

But when you talk to foundations there is a very clear understanding that this is an incredible opportunity: what’s happening now is going to have a big impact on the political life of the entire world in the next few years. There is a deep desire to get involved, and we must address this desire by drawing a roadmap showing how foundations can effectively accompany a peaceful transition

There is one thing we all agree upon and that is that you cannot export democracy: it has to be a bottom-up process. But each country is different, so you have to look at each one and map who is there.

So is the aim of the Global Philanthropy Leadership Initiative (GPLI) project initially to try to bring this knowledge together and map what’s going on?

The origins of GPLI are various: the desire to cooperate; the fact that we think there are issues like peace that are global and will affect everybody; the wish to put the knowledge gained from past experiences around the world to work; the wish to give foundations a stronger voice with decision-makers and public opinion.

Back in 2008 I invited a group of experts to Venice to talk about peace building. I had always wondered why foundations didn’t get together to work on such an important issue. When I visited Palestine the same year, I found foundations working there individually or in small groups. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, but imagine if you put the forces together – the financial resources, the human resources, the knowledge – so as to speak with one voice.

This prompted me to suggest that the EFC commission a study on cooperation. The results of the study [Multiplying Impact through Philanthropic Collaboration, published in 2010] were not surprising but led us to better understand the drivers of collaboration among foundations and the possible role of the EFC and other associations. The GPLI initiative – launched by the EFC, the Council on Foundations and WINGS – appeared immediately as the appropriate venue to put these ideas at work. We would like to have a roadmap for a common project that can hopefully attract many foundations that want to leverage their action, not just by bringing together resources, but even more by sharing understanding and knowledge of what to do and how to do it in order to avoid mistakes.

As a first step a group of experts – some of them from north Africa and the Middle East – met in Brussels for a two-day brainstorming. The results will be presented to the GPLI working group in November.

Massimo Lanza is general director at Fondazione di Venezia. Email

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