Unleashing local resources

Barbara Ibrahim

Governments in the Arab region have responded to pressure for reform and popular participation either by repression or by concession. Even in ‘successful’ uprisings such as those of Egypt and Tunisia, the ultimate outcomes of regime change are far from certain. Nonetheless, one feature of the region-wide uprisings gives ground for optimism: the flowering of peaceful citizen initiative, which had been suppressed throughout decades of dictatorship.

The most visible aspect of the Arab Spring is youthful political protest. Receiving less attention are the spontaneous and highly creative local responses to the problems posed by transition. In Egypt, these took myriad forms, from neighbourhood watch committees to the use of social media to fund causes such as abject urban poverty. Tunisian and Egyptian citizen groups assisted refugees and sent medical supplies to Libya throughout the long months of anti-regime fighting there. Even in places with less political agitation, this year has seen higher levels of volunteering (UAE) and giving (Saudi Arabia).

What is the likely impact of the Arab Spring on the philanthropic sector in the region? To answer that question, we need to look at how existing institutions have been affected. Then we can identify signs of new philanthropic forms emerging as people and their governments realign the social contract.

Resetting Arab philanthropy

Modern grantmaking institutions have proliferated during the last decade. Of the 34 member foundations of the Arab Foundations Forum, 60 per cent were founded since 2000, despite a generally unfavourable environment. For example, most national laws allow governments to dissolve boards and seize the assets of non-profit organizations, with few or no safeguards against abuse. These circumstances favoured high levels of individual giving and faith-based charitable services, but discouraged more systemic efforts towards social change.

Some of the newer foundations overcame the difficulties by including a member of the country’s ruling family on the board, or registering through an exceptional royal decree rather than ordinary governmental channels. It was safer to select areas for foundation work that were not controversial or challenging to the status quo. These tactics made sense on a practical level but the line between convenience and abuse was thin. A blatant example is the handful of ‘foundations’ in Libya which were primarily propaganda efforts for the Gaddafi family. More typically, foundations in Gulf countries and elsewhere have used connections to powerful individuals to raise corporate and private donations in ways that felt coercive to those contributing. Another problem was a general lack of transparency, which made it difficult to evaluate the overall impact of these organizations.

Other foundations in the Arab region have struggled against these trends, choosing the more difficult path of independence. They are likely to be working in fields related to rights or social justice; they usually opt for a lower public profile. Contrary to early expectations, these organizations are not finding an improved regulatory environment following the Arab Spring. Government restrictions on the work of democracy and human rights groups in particular are increasing in the face of growing internal pressures for reform.

Independent foundations are finding it easier to adapt to popular demands for increased transparency. Less entangled with the old regimes, they have fewer barriers of public trust to overcome. As arenas for contested national politics emerge, however, another dilemma is becoming apparent. Some individual philanthropists have become active in financing new parties or running for office. While mixing philanthropy and politics is common in other democracies, with George Soros as a high-profile example, this is usually done within a set of defined rules. Those have yet to be established in nascent Arab democracies.

Before the Arab Spring, issues around relations to the power elite and foundation independence were discussed quietly but rarely in public. Now there is more public debate about cronyism of all kinds whether in business, government or the non-profit arena. As with philanthropy worldwide, some people of wealth still use their giving to curry favour with those in power. New codes of practice will need to emerge from within the philanthropy sector itself. This year the annual conference of the Arab Foundations Forum launched a discussion of ethical standards. The Takaful regional research conference on philanthropy and civic engagement, held in Amman in April 2011, explored codes of conduct and operational dilemmas for ‘new’ civil society.[1]

Emerging citizen action

Periods of intense social change can stimulate previously untapped sources of citizen initiative. This has been particularly true in the Arab Spring, where after decades of suppressed participation people felt the exhilaration of collective social action. As one example, in the months since an uprising began in Libya, over 300 civil society organizations have emerged where none existed before. In the period leading up to elections in Tunisia, women were especially active in campaigns to get out the vote and encourage public debate on gender issues. During Egypt’s 18 days of popular uprising, the protests were characterized by dramatic examples of citizen journalism and spontaneous services to protesters – medical stations, food distribution, security cordons, even cell phone recharging stations using power from lamp posts. When the regime fell, thousands of citizens took to the streets to clean, repair and repaint. Young people cleaning my neighbourhood handed out flyers asking us to sort household garbage and refrain from taking or offering bribes. The public clean-up thus mirrored a national impulse to cleanse institutions of corruption and make a fresh start.

Having ousted long-entrenched dictators, citizens are demanding more responsive and transparent governance. At the same time they insist upon contributing more substantially to the rebuilding of their societies. This new democratic ‘compact’ is debated endlessly on TV talk shows and wherever people gather. But finding the right formula is proving elusive in the face of decades of top-down administration of public life.

Civic initiative is not lacking. After the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the creative talents of citizens poured into projects providing civic education, helping young activists to enter politics and preparing women to vote and run for office. In Egypt there are at least four internet platforms linking volunteers to development projects.

New forms of philanthropy are also in evidence. Numerous projects are using social media to raise awareness and funding. As internet and cell phone use has grown rapidly in 2011, these channels help raise funds for Egypt’s poorest neighbourhoods, a signal that ordinary people, not just celebrities or millionaires, are becoming active in resource mobilization.

From neighbourhood protection to community development

Spontaneous initiatives are likely to wane if not encouraged to become sustainable. This is an area where international organizations could give support and share effective models such as community foundations. A vibrant local donor sector will have the added benefit of reducing reliance on external funding, a problem addressed elsewhere in this issue by Judy Barsalou.

Only a handful of community foundations are active in the Arab region, although traditional forms of community solidarity exist in abundance. During the uprising in Egypt, literally thousands of urban neighbourhood watch groups sprang up overnight when police protection withdrew. Many of those groups are seeking ways to become sustainable. These ‘people’s committees’ range from small groups of neighbours to one with over 40,000 members. Similar groups that formed in Libya can now be converted to meet post-conflict needs. At the Gerhart Center we plan a series of activities to disseminate the community foundation model for mobilizing local talent and resources, using experiences from transitions in Eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

The private sector

It is still too early to know what shape national governance structures will take in North African countries undergoing transition, although it seems clear that religious interests will play a greater role. Meanwhile, private sector actors are starting to define a role for the business community. Seminars on anti-corruption measures, improving labour standards and sustainable management have brought record attendance in Egypt, UAE and Jordan. A number of far-sighted business leaders have joined with the UN Global Compact, Green Business Councils and the Gerhart Center to promote sustainability standards while also jump-starting economic recovery. Corporate partnerships with community groups are increasing and becoming more sensitive to local needs.

With so many promising initiatives under way, the region is poised for a people-driven transition. Despite many unknowns ahead, the gains of the Arab Spring have achieved a momentum not easily reversed. More likely, it seems to me, the spirit of Tahrir will continue to inspire citizen action in Arab public spaces and elsewhere around the world.

1 http://www.aucegypt.edu/research/gerhart/rprogram/Pages/home.aspx

Barbara Lethem Ibrahim is founding director of the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo. Email bibrahim@aucegypt.edu


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