What Lies Ahead for the Egyptian Philanthropic Sector?
February 17, 2011
(Nick Scott is the assistant to the publisher at Philanthropy News Digest. This is his first post for PhilanTopic.)
While it remains to be seen whether widespread hopes for a more inclusive, democratic Egypt are fully realized, there are reasons to be optimistic. Assuming a positive outcome, the legal environment for foundations and nonprofits could become much more favorable in the coming years. Even with the political obstacles erected by the Mubarak regime, however, philanthropy in Egypt has been growing over the past decade or so. With that in mind, now seems like an opportune time to take a look at what has been going right in Egyptian philanthropy, obstacles to the sector's continued growth, and what the future may hold.
Long thought of as a leader in the Arab world, Egypt is emerging as a leader in the Arab philanthropic world as well. It is home to the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo and boasts long-established and effective foundations like the pioneering Sawiris Foundation, established by the Sawiris family after the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 to address the country's unique development goals. And while more money overall may be awarded in oil-rich states like the UAE, Egyptian philanthropy has made significant progress in recent years.
Charity is not a new concept in Egypt. The country -- indeed, the entire Islamic world -- has a long tradition of religious charity. Individual giving in the form of zakat -- a type of religiously mandated alms-giving -- totals an estimated $1 billion (USD) annually in Egypt, making it far and away the country's largest charitable outlet. Charitable foundations are a much less established tradition, although the sector has been expanding rapidly. There are currently well over four hundred registered foundations in Egypt, and the number continues to grow. But while the field is relatively young, with many Egyptian foundations still finding their way, a more open political system would remove many of the roadblocks preventing them from realizing their full potential.
Despite the mostly positive outlook, philanthropy and the NGO sector in Egypt are still tightly regulated by the Ministry of Social Solidarity. NGOs operate in an extremely restrictive legal environment that limits membership/fees, methods of revenue generation, and public fundraising efforts. The ministry also has the right to oversee and control NGO finances and must approve any foreign funds awarded to Egyptian NGOs. As a result, foundations that operate in Egypt sometimes choose to base themselves outside the country in order to avoid excessive and sometimes arbitrary government oversight and restrictions.
Indeed, ambitious plans for programs like education or health reform are often avoided by foundations out of concern that government bureaucrats will make their implementation too difficult. Another concern among some is that foreign development agencies sometimes crowd out indigenous organizations and stifle the development of local NGOs.
When, for example, Molly Schultz Hafid interviewed Egyptian nonprofit professionals in 2009 about the potential for community-based philanthropy in the country, she heard things like: "I don't see [community-controlled] philanthropy working as well here simply because there is more apathy. You have to have a sense of citizenship." While an understandable sentiment, not everyone feels so discouraged. The success of organizations like the Maadi Community Foundation demonstrates that there is an interest in community-based philanthropy despite the obstacles imposed by the state. An Egypt whose citizenry felt they had a real stake in the government could well be an Egypt that sees a rapid increase in community foundations, as young people begin to believe they have an opportunity to participate in civil society and make a difference.
The philanthropic sector in Egypt is still young and there's room for improved practice, more transparency, and greater effectiveness. Schultz-Hafid's 2009 study Emerging Trends in Social Justice Philanthropy in Egypt offers five excellent recommendations. Still, less government regulation and legal handcuffing could go a long way toward making those recommendations easier to implement and accelerate the growth of the field. Another great source for background information is Gerhart Center founding director Barbara Ibrahim's paper From Charity to Change: Trends in Arab Philanthropy.
If much still hangs in the balance politically, we should note and applaud the fact that Egyptian philanthropy has been getting more organized and strategic -- trends likely to continue into the future.