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The Arab World: From Statism to Civil Society?

March 08, 2011

(Nick Scott is assistant to the publisher at Philanthropy News Digest. In his previous post, he took a look at what may lie ahead for the Egyptian philanthropic sector.)

Arab_statism As a follow-up to my previous post, I thought I'd take a look at some of the broader issues and trends driving change in the Arab world. These include a "youth bulge" and other demographic trends of importance; the pernicious effects of high unemployment, political exclusion,
and low per capita GDP in large parts of the Arab world; and the ways in which social media and modern communications technology have accelerated the dissemination of ideas and helped protest movements spread rapidly across borders. My lens is what all this might mean for civil society development and engagement, with a special focus on the role of philanthropy in the region. If, and this is a big "if," we have entered a new epoch in the Arab world, the role of philanthropy in providing social services could increase exponentially.

It's important to note that the turmoil in Arab countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Yemen cannot be reduced to a single neat formula; unrest stemming from sectarian discrimination in wealthy Bahrain is not analogous to the largely secular/cross-denominational calls for democracy in Egypt. That said, lack of economic and political opportunity are endemic to the region, and if some of the causes behind country-specific uprisings are unique, they nevertheless share a common context.

Demographics and the Youth Factor

The wave of unrest in the Arab world was not inevitable, but the main ingredients -- rapid population growth combined with lack of economic and political opportunity -- have been in place for a long time. Populations in Arab countries, where the median age is 22 compared to a global average of 28, are among the youngest in the world. And in sharp contrast to their political aspirations, many of these young people have lived their entire lives under a single, autocratic ruler.

According to the 2010 ASDA'A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Survey, "The single most important priority for young people in the Middle East is living in a democratic country, followed by having quality infrastructure, and access to the best universities: 99 per cent of those interviewed said living in a democracy was either 'very important' or 'somewhat important'."

There is a strong tradition of respect for one's elders in the Arab world, an idea we've seen reflected in appeals by political leaders across the region to preserve the status quo. Last week, for example, the BBC's live blog reported that Muammar al-Qaddafi had called on parents in Libya to "come out of your houses and talk to your sons." Similarly, Omar Suleiman, a longtime ally of Hosni Mubarak's who served as vice president in the final weeks of the Mubarak regime, appealed to the country's grandfathers to persuade their grandchildren to end the demonstrations in that country.

While Qaddafi appears to be completely unhinged and Suleiman lacked credibility, there's no doubt that the protest movements throughout the region have been driven by young people. After a lifetime of economic deprivation and political repression, Arab youth are no longer willing to let their elders steer the ship; they want change, and they want it now. Whether they know what to do once their demands are met is another matter. Egypt's next president will inherit the corruption and economic problems, an army deeply entangled in the private sector, and competing ideas about how the country should be run that contributed to Mubarak's downfall. From the perspective of a young, globally aware Egyptian, the importance of getting rid of Mubarak cannot be overstated, but his departure alone does not solve any of the country's longstanding problems, and it is no guarantee of a more democratic or prosperous Egypt.

Social Media & Social Unrest

Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell sparked a heated debate last fall with a piece ("Small Change – Why the Revolution Will Not be Tweeted") in the New Yorker in which he argued that social media was not a revolutionary force because it tended to encourage "weak [social] ties" -- as opposed to the "close ties" (i.e., those between friends and family) that have facilitated broad social movements (e.g., the American civil rights movement) in the past. In other words, people don't join protests where they might be killed or injured based on something someone says on the Internet. Social media experts were predictably outraged and dismissed Gladwell as an out-of-touch Luddite -- a view that seems less unreasonable as popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, fueled in part by the Internet and social media, mushroom into regime-toppling affairs.

I'm not going to wade into that debate, except to say it's clear social media has been a critical factor in the uprisings in the Arab world, in two ways. First, it has made it easier for protesters to communicate with each other, enabling them to organize mass demonstrations quickly and without a need for hierarchical leadership. And while Gladwell argued that only "strong ties" are powerful enough to compel individuals to risk their lives for a cause, what we have learned from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other Arab countries is that those connections were already in place, merely awaiting activation. Moreover, communication via the Internet, because it is virtually instantaneous, acts as an accelerator -- allowing opposition movements to reach critical mass before the coercive apparatus of the state can mobilize itself to act decisively.

Secondly, social media, cable and satellite TV, and the Internet all serve to amplify ideas, helping them to spread quickly across borders -- and around the globe -- in a way that is unprecedented. Professor Fouad Ajami sees the European revolutions of 1848 as the closest historical analogy to the current uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, but notes that those earlier uprisings aimed at upending the status quo played out over the period of a year or more (though they did have lasting impact).

As recent events have demonstrated, it is increasingly difficult for any government to block the flow of information into and out of a country that is "wired." And attempts to "turn off" the Internet or expel foreign journalists merely serve as a further indictment of authoritarian rulers who have overstayed their welcome. One need only consider some of the slogans ("the people want to bring down the regime") that young Egyptians borrowed from their Tunisian counterparts for proof. I could point to other examples from across the region where social media and modern communications technologies have helped to engender a strong sense of pan-Arab solidarity and shared purpose.

Civil Society and Philanthropy in a New Arab World

Wealth creation in the Arab world has accelerated in recent years, and though it's still fueled in large part by oil, the region has undergone significant economic diversification, with Arab companies having become competitive in fields like telecommunications, transportation, and construction. At the same time, problems such as youth unemployment, poverty, nonexistent social services, and environmental degradation are being exacerbated by demographic pressures.

Too often, in this part of the world, economic development has been controlled by the government, leaving little room for private solutions to socioeconomic problems and stifling the development of a vigorous civil society. In Egypt, this is exemplified by what has happened to waqf institutions -- a form of endowment used for community benefit that dates back to the early days of Islam. These endowments traditionally had been privately held, but after being formally nationalized in the mid-twentieth century under the aegis of the Ministry of Awqaf, they increasingly were seen as a tool of the state. While some space has opened recently for the philanthropic sector to contribute to the “social good,” that change has come slowly.

It should be noted that Egypt did embark on a transition toward economic liberalization in the 1970s and greater privatization of the economy in the 1990s, but state institutions in fields such as education and health have been underfunded and overwhelmed by the country’s rapidly growing population. Government regulations also have made it difficult for civil society organizations to fill the gap. When they have been given space to operate, however, there has been considerable progress in moving from traditional forms of religious-based charity to a more strategic philanthropy that seeks to address the root causes of social problems.

My previous post talked about the restrictions put on nonprofits and foundations in Egypt, and a similar situation exists to varying degrees throughout much of the region. Despite this, the philanthropic sector in this part of the world continues its steady development. The hope now is that restrictions will be lifted -- which could happen rapidly -- and that a wave of new, eager civil society organizations and foundations will be empowered to work on the many social and economic problems that hamper development in Arab countries. Such an expansion would, of course, present its own challenges -- any rapidly growing field is bound to experience a steep learning curve -- but the sector has demonstrated considerable adaptability in the face of a difficult operating environment.

Among other things, the easing of economic control by the state would allow governments in the region to begin working as a partner with the private sector, rather than treating it as a potential enemy. In an ideal scenario, we might see two important changes. First, restrictive laws and excessive government oversight would be eased to allow nonprofits and foundations to operate more freely. Second, a transition away from government institutions that are underfunded, corrupt, or inefficient and toward a more vibrant civil society and charitable and philanthropic sectors. In tandem, these developments would begin to fill longstanding gaps in social services in the region and help fuel the social and economic development it so desperately needs.

-- Nick Scott

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