Barbara Ibrahim, Director, Gerhart Center for Philanthropy at the American University in Cairo

Barbara Ibrahim, Director, Gerhart Center for Philanthropy at the American University in Cairo

Shortly after the government of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled earlier this year, we asked What Lies Ahead for the Egyptian Philanthropic Sector? Seven months later, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is still serving as de facto head of state as various factions attempt to shape the oft-delayed transition to a democratically elected government. While the form and composition of the next government remains uncertain, few people are better positioned to assess the situation in Egypt than Barbara Ibrahim, director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy & Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo and co-editor of From Charity to Social Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy. We recently had the opportunity to ask Ibrahim about the role of philanthropy in shaping the future of the country, what Western foundations can do to support democratic transitions in the Middle East, and why she is optimistic about the future of Libya.

Philanthropy News Digest: The first chapter of your book From Charity to Social Change is titled "Arab Philanthropy in Transition." Now that we're seeing one authoritarian Arab government after another crumble, one has to wonder whether the political changes sweeping the region will accelerate the changes already taking place in Arab philanthropy.

Barbara Ibrahim: There is no doubt that the pace of change will be faster and deeper now in the countries experiencing political uprisings — and perhaps also in neighboring countries trying to avoid a popular uprising. However, the direction and pace will very much depend on specific historical and socioeconomic conditions in individual countries.

Philanthropy in the Arab world had been growing fairly rapidly until the global economic recession, driven partly by the recognition that governments could no longer provide quality welfare services for their populations. Some of that philanthropy was too closely allied with ruling families and not transparent in its mode of operation. Now there will be a necessary period of "resetting."

PND: The Egyptian people have taken an amazing step toward self-determination, but longstanding social issues and economic problems in Egypt clearly won't be solved by the ouster of Mubarak alone. While the new government, whatever form it takes, will have the primary responsibility for addressing these problems, philanthropy seems poised to shoulder some of the burden — especially in the human services sphere. Is philanthropy in Egypt developed enough to meet the challenge? And what are some key areas where philanthropic resources could do the most good?

BI: This is a moment of tremendous potential for philanthropy in Egypt. Always a country of great individual generosity, now we are seeing an unleashing of interest in more collective means of problem solving. When the police withdrew from protecting citizens in January, thousands of neighborhood watch groups sprang up spontaneously across the country. Many of those are hoping to evolve into more sustainable community development organizations — the classic motivation for a community foundation. I also anticipate that middle class and professional Egyptians will become more engaged in giving through new institutional forms. Social media like Twitter and Facebook are already being utilized to inform and mobilize citizen funding for good causes.

PND: Naguib Sawiris, whose personal wealth is estimated to be in excess of $2.5 billion and who, with family members, founded the influential Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, recently has helped establish the Free Egyptians Party. Do you expect to see philanthropy and philanthropists play more of a role in the Egyptian political process in the coming months?

BI: Absolutely. After decades of being shut out of the political process, business leaders, religious groups and youthful activists are jumping into the public space. What impresses me about Naguib Sawiris' approach so far is that he is helping a number of youth coalitions and parties, in addition to his own, through financial contributions. He believes that youth deserve extra support in order for their voices to be heard in the upcoming elections.

PND: There are a number of Western foundations with longstanding ties to Egypt and the Middle East that are trying to figure out the best way to strengthen and advance civil society in Egypt and other countries in the region. What kind of role should they play? And is there room for greater collaboration between Egyptian and Western foundations?

BI: Foundations already present on the ground have been agile in providing rapid support to important causes in the post-uprising period. In Egypt, the Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations are funding media and public awareness efforts, political education, and youth projects "beyond the center." However, there is a long history of popular suspicion of the motives behind foreign funding of political and human rights groups, especially when the source is U.S. government agencies. We had hoped this would no longer be used to discredit local human rights activists by questioning their patriotism or loyalties if they took foreign funds. Unfortunately, the transitional rulers seem to be repeating some of Mubarak's tactics for undermining independent critics of their policies.

I always urge new actors to spend time listening and to form alliances whenever possible with donors who have longer experience in the country. A number of us in the region are prepared to organize learning visits for any donors who would like to explore opening new programs in Egypt or other Arab countries.

PND: Are you optimistic about the outcome of the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya? Which of the revolutions has the best chance of delivering on its promise of democratic reform? And would failure to deliver on that reform be a serious blow to an independent philanthropic sector and the continued strengthening of civil society in the region?

BI: Egypt is the largest and in some ways most complex country undergoing a democratic transition. Its endemic poverty, corruption, and poor educational standards will make economic progress difficult, even under the best of circumstances. Local and international philanthropy will play a critical role in this coming period until the overgrown public sector gets on its feet. Egypt needs major external support for debt relief, reform of basic services, and infusions of private capital to jump-start medium and small enterprises that can take advantage of young people's talents. If Egypt falters on its path to reform, the implications will be negative throughout the region.

Unlike some others, I am optimistic about Libya. It has undergone a protracted conflict in which nearly all citizens were mobilized and paid a price for the liberty they are now close to achieving. There will be a lot of energy and mobilization going forward — including from highly educated expat Libyans who are returning to help with the transition. With ample oil resources and a relatively small population, economic growth can be achieved and shared fairly quickly. Ironically, the lack of basic institutions or a civil society may be a blessing in disguise. Libyans can build modern democratic institutions from scratch, instead of going through the painful process Egypt and Tunisia face of dismantling dysfunctional systems first.

Nick Scott