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Event: The Arab World in Transition: What’s the Role of Philanthropy?

April 21, 2011

(Nick Scott is assistant to the publisher at Philanthropy News Digest. In his previous post, he looked at burgeoning civil society movements in the MENA region.)

Libya_protestor Taking my seat in a crowded conference room at Philanthropy New York earlier this month, I felt a bit like an interloper in the company of so many foundation presidents, investment bank VPs, and executive directors. But banishing my insecurities, I settled in to listen to an excellent workshop moderated by Foundation Center president Brad Smith.

The panel of speakers featured Stephen Heintz, president of the New York City-based Rockefeller Brothers Fund (and a former co-founding president at Demos: A Network for Action & Ideas); Dr. Bassma Kodmani, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative (and a former senior program officer at the Ford Foundation's MENA office); and Anthony Richter, associate director at the Open Society Foundations and director of OSF's MENA initiative and Central Eurasia project.

A Limited Role for U.S. Foundations in the Arab World

It was clear from the outset that the major theme of the evening was going to be caution and restraint. Political reform in the Middle East is the kind of topic that gets international funders excited, but the panelists all agreed it is important for Western foundations, NGOs, and development agencies to respect the fact that the democracy movements in the Arab world are homegrown and driven by local actors. Moreover, the appropriate role for an outsider is almost always a supporting one -- and only if requested. Kodmani spoke of the hyper-sensitivity to Western intervention she experienced firsthand recently in Egypt. Change, when it comes, "will be on our terms" was an oft-repeated sentiment, and outside funders, she said, need to understand that the debate over issues such as minority rights, religion, and women's participation would continue to be an internal conversation. The events of the last decade have made citizens of many Arab countries wary of American interventionism, so any attempts to influence the political discourse -- well intentioned though they may be -- are likely to be met with resistance.

Her comments left me wondering whether there's any role for U.S. foundations in the Arab world during these tumultuous times. The other panelists agreed there was, but warned that it needed to be low profile and focused on building the capacity of local groups. As Smith noted, foundations should understand that money isn't the only way they can help; philanthropy at its best should be about ideas, not just financial assistance. Richter mentioned recent meetings he had had with NGO leaders in the region who often didn't want money but instead were interested in talking with legal experts, constitutional scholars, and other authorities on governance. He also noted that OSF's policy was to work through local contacts and provide funding to indigenous organizations that would then re-grant the funds to other local actors. Both Richter and Heintz said they would be spending a lot of time speaking with such groups to get a better sense of what the greatest needs were.

"Hardest Work Is Still to Come"

While unprecedented change has swept the Middle East since President Zine El Abidine fled Tunisia in January and Hosni Mubarak was forced out as president of Egypt in February, the situation in every country remains in flux. All the panelists agreed that pro-democracy movements in the region are likely to experience setbacks and that they will develop in their own way and at their own pace. Grantmaking organizations thinking about working in the region should make sure they are ready for a carefully considered, long-term commitment.

Having worked earlier in his career with transitional democracy movements in Central and Eastern Europe, Heintz was able to share several observations from his own experience with democratization. He emphasized that there is no blueprint for democracy and that context is everything in these situations. Observations based on a different context can be instructive, but regional specificity precludes the extrapolation of concrete lessons from one context to another. Indeed, any organization viewing the Arab world as a monolith whose problems can be addressed through broad-brush approaches is destined to fail. Change will be driven from within, Heintz added, and the most effective funders will be those who work closely with local organizations. As such, funders who have a network of contacts in the region are in the strongest position to help.

Finally, Heintz pointed out that democracy is not just about elections, and it is not a commodity that can be exported. It really only works, he said, when the forces pushing for it are able to foster a "culture of democracy" rather than just its trappings. To truly help the region make that transition, funders must avoid the tendency to exert too much control. A restrained approach emphasizing support for indigenous leadership and a more robust civil society is the best way to make a contribution.

Most people would agree that subtlety has not been a hallmark of American development work in the region over the last decade. It's becoming clear, however, that funders and NGOs are going to have an opportunity over the coming months and years to demonstrate what kind of impact a less heavy-handed approach can have. Let's hope it's positive.

-- Nick Scott

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