Time for US foundations to engage with the Arab region

Moukhtar Kocache and Nadia Roumani

A study conducted in early 2010[1] identified 17 US-based foundations funding in the Arab region. These foundations are funding at varying degrees, in specific countries, and on different issues. Although they do not share a common framework for their work, they have funded primarily in three areas: research and fellowships; support for identity-based NGOs (for instance, marginalized or under-supported constituents) and support for civil society development. What are the opportunities and challenges for these and other US-based foundations following the Arab Spring? (Many of the issues and dynamics also apply to European funders but for the sake of consistency this article will focus exclusively on US foundations.)

Taking stock

Nadia RoumaniUS foundation support to the Arab region has historically been almost non-existent. According to a 2008 study, it amounted to no more than 3.2 per cent of all US foundation overseas giving, most of it coming from just two sources, the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Institute. There are a number of reasons for this, including: very little knowledge of the region in political, cultural and practical terms; lack of staff and/or board members to prioritize the region and guide them through the process; a reluctance to engage in a region that is dominated by the Arab-Israeli conflict in the domestic policy discourse; unstable governments; and the logistical and political difficulty of directing resources there.

The events of 11 September 2001 exacerbated an already tense relationship between the US and the Arab region. Some US foundations moved towards creating greater understanding between the two regions. However, very little funding went to support civil society development in Arab countries. Instead, most went to support learning about the Arab region and Muslim societies in the US and support services for Middle Eastern Americans. A Foundation Center study published in 2008 showed that over 70 per cent of grants directed to Arab countries were awarded to US-based programmes and only around 30 per cent went to direct overseas giving.

Response to the Arab Spring

There is no doubt that there is heightened interest in the Arab region among US funders. In increasing numbers, foundation representatives are attending briefings and panels about the Arab Spring, largely to learn more about the events taking place in the region. However, this has not necessarily translated into increased funding for the region, nor much engagement by new donors. In addition to the reasons outlined above, foundations are facing a reduction in overall resources due to the economic climate, and there is a fear that the region and particular country situations remain unstable and volatile.

In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, US foundations that were present on the ground with an existing infrastructure managed to make immediate additional allocations in support of independent media, documentation of abuses, data collection and information management, research on reform policies and training for free elections. Within a changing and chaotic landscape, they made grants to diverse groups including international NGOs, regional organizations and local groups. Some US foundations also contributed following the revolutions by supporting the work of international organizations already working or planning to work on the ground. Concrete programming was happening in Tunisia and Egypt for obvious reasons. Funding was also geared towards helping civil society organizations move from opposition and contestation to the proposal of constructive alternatives and concrete policies.

One of the challenges has been to respond to regional needs while designing appropriate country-specific initiatives. Another challenge has been negotiating the legal and administrative processes of working in countries with interrupted or interim governments. Where it was possible at all, reaching and working with new structures that were still in formation proved to be delicate. Non-profits working on human rights and political reform became increasingly cautious about receiving foreign, and specifically US, funding due to heightened sensitivity about foreign intervention.

Opportunities for intervention

Despite the apparent risk of venturing into such a complex and unsettled situation, many straightforward opportunities exist for US foundations to participate in this historic moment. For instance:

Learning and building internal expertise

Foundations could undertake learning trips, visit the region, shadow some of the existing foundations and donors, and establish personal contacts on the ground. They could learn about Arab diasporas in the US, and their philanthropies and NGOs, and explore working with them and through them on joint projects. They could also make use of related advisory services and consultancies so that decisions are informed by local needs and realities.


Foundations could make grants to Arab-based regional services and re-granting organizations that are already active in the area (for instance, working with women, human rights and culture) and help democratize access to resources for small groups. Most of these are also registered in Europe, which might make oversight and reporting easier and less risky in the eyes of senior management and board members.

They might also support leadership development in a certain sector or in a specific country or develop comprehensive, multi-layered support for civil society organizations, including organizational development (strategic planning, accountability and governance, communications, policies and procedures, etc), technical capacity (thematic, training, workshops, access to resources, etc) and financial capacity.


They could invite thought leaders from all sectors of Arab civil society for lecture tours to the US and to speak to board members, staff and other donors. In this case, they should look for a diversity of speakers to assure various perspectives and fields.


In terms of working with others, they could also explore partnerships with Arab-based or Europe-based foundations, or connect with local and regional donor groups in order to learn and network in a safe and collegial environment.

They could join a donor consortium to help best focus their resources and limit their administrative engagement, or join an existing request for proposals, call for entries or grants programme that is already funded by other donors; this helps expand an area of work and ensures continuity.

US foundations have been largely absent as partners in the development of Arab civil society. This has meant that for most in the Arab region, the only source of American development funds is USAID. If a more nuanced and more sophisticated relationship is to emerge between the two regions, more diverse sources of US foundation funding should be available to ensure people-to-people collaborations, learning and partnerships. This historic period of transition in the Arab region gives US foundations a unique opportunity to help play a role in building civil society in Arab countries and to redefine the terms of engagement, perceptions and relationships between the two regions.

1 Nadia Roumani, Archana Sahgal and Molly Shultz Hafid (June 2010) Philanthropic efforts aimed at improving relations between the U.S. and Muslim societies. This paper was commissioned by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy and supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Moukhtar Kocache is program officer, Freedom of Expression Unit, at the Ford Foundation. Email M.Kocache@fordfoundation.org
Nadia Roumani is the principal of Roumani Consulting LLC. Email nadia_roumani@yahoo.com

US-based foundations funding in the Arab region

Ashoka: Innovators for the Public
Chrest Foundation
Flora Family Foundation
Ford Foundation
Fund for Global Human Rights
Global Fund for Women
Global Greengrants Fund
Grassroots International
International Youth Foundation
Jerusalem Fund
National Endowment for Democracy
Open Society Institute
Rockefeller Brothers Fund
Skoll Foundation
Synergos Institute
US Institute of Peace
William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

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