5 Qs for... Barbara Ibrahim, Director, Gerhart Center for Philanthropy at the American University in Cairo
September 20, 2011
(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.