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Barbara Ibrahim: Egyptian Philanthropy needs diversity

Founding director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on how Egyptian philanthropy is slow in the continuing revolutionary period

Barbara Ibrahim speaking at the session 'Value(s) for Money? Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Transformation'

Alex Jackson | 11.03.2014

Barbara Ibrahim is the founding director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Originally from the USA, Ibrahim has lived in Egypt for nearly 40 years and is married to renowned and formerly exiled civil society academic and activist Saad Ibrahim. A many-time Fellow and faculty member of Salzburg Global Seminar, she spoke to Salzburg Global Communications Intern Alex Jackson during the session Value(s) for Money: Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Change.

On your twitter biography, it says “Egypt is worth fighting for and I’m in it for the long haul.” Do you feel that international philanthropy has already started to forget about the tensions in Egypt because there are mounting problems in other areas?
I would have to say that that is true. First of all, I think the Arab Spring moment happened just as private philanthropy was coming out of the global recession. So there wasn’t as much of an expansive sense of resources as perhaps benefitted the Eastern European/Russian Federation transitions. There’s also a concern on the part of European and North American donors that the Muslim world and the Arab region are a little bit messy in terms of identity politics; there’s a clear strain of rejection or questioning of Western models. So for these reasons, I think there was initial interest, at small levels of funding, but as the Arab transformations have become more complex, have not been the bright shiny media images that they were perhaps in the first few months, very few donors from the international sphere have been able to stay the course.

Was the initial philanthropic reaction too slow? Was the backup not there to support transformation to start with?
I wouldn’t put it exactly that way. The uprisings of 2010 onwards, I wouldn’t call those the transformations. Those were the fall of an old broken corrupt system and they were very abrupt. If you think about the transitions in Poland or the Czech Republic, they took months and years. These happened in days. That is too rapid in some ways. It’s not enough time to build up coalitions in the space and the frame that has fallen. They happened in an environment in which there had been no space for opposition politics to evolve in a healthy way; there was a vacuum. And into that vacuum very quickly stepped the Islamists, who had a lot of grassroots organizing experience. They knew how to operate under the radar, they knew how to organize themselves. The armies too: in countries like Egypt, the armies stepped into what they thought might be an uncontrollable situation. They’re not comfortable with uncertainty or with democracy. They’re command-and-control institutions after all. And over time, discredited old regimes regrouped. So that crowded out the new ideas, the young voices and those aspirations that informed the Arab Spring.

In that sense, is there also an identity and cultural crisis that is driving movement in the region?
We certainly have a polarization of views towards the future right now. One of them is Islamist and I would not want to characterize that as one thing. It is an entire spectrum of ideas based around faith and politics. On the other side of this gap, we see more secular global democratic visions. They represent a minority still – they represent groups that do not have a great voice, like young people, like labor movements, like global interests in making markets more responsive to the poor. All those voices are still marginalized and so one of our roles I would argue as private philanthropy is to create a platform in which these two camps can come together. And not just dialogue, I think we have done enough of that, but roll up their sleeves and find a common project or shared goal, even if it just one of cleaning up neighborhoods, or solid waste management. Work together and try to build something together that will go some way to trying to rebuild these broken and fractured communities and societies.

Is there a disconnect between philanthropy and the government? We have heard in the session that there can be mistrust of money and where it’s come from?
Philanthropy is not one thing either just as political movements aren’t just one thing. You have local philanthropy which is very different from each of these emerging transitioning countries. If we take Egypt as an example we had an emerging private philanthropy sector, which included family foundations, public foundations. But the moment of uprising came as a shock to all of the systems of society. So for philanthropy, if you had got your permission to operate by being close to the Mubarak family or its cronies, you were under investigation. You had to take a lower profile. If you were a corporate foundation, you found your revenue stream cut by two thirds perhaps. So our sector wasn’t well enough established in its diversity to play the role of rapid response. There were great exceptions and we have tried to document those good practice examples but I would have to say that local philanthropy hasn’t yet risen to the opportunity. They are trying to fill that void but they don’t have that flexibility that I would argue that private philanthropy could and should have made.

What are the Gerhart Center's plans for the immediate future?
My center sees itself as part of the support system for strengthening the culture of giving and the institutions that make that giving more strategic. So in that support role, we have been documenting how things have been changing in the Arab Spring, so that those emergent opportunities and the kind of citizen philanthropy that we have identified is out there for people to understand and to support. We have looked at how informal some of this philanthropy is and whether there are ways to assist groups who would like to have a more sustainable model for their community work. So we’re a catalyst, we’re a platform, we’re matchmakers. Our focus right now is on next generation philanthropy and civic engagement – so what can universities do to produce good citizens and social innovators as well as job seekers and applicants.

Why is it important to discuss issue surrounding philanthropy here in Salzburg?
Private philanthropy is unique in that it really has no constituents that it answers to except its own internal boards of trustees. There are few opportunities like this in a safe space to talk very frankly about our failures, talk about our shortcomings, talk about how blinkered our vision may have been either in our own country, or our own sector, or our own type of philanthropy. So I think these will be incredibly important for opening out the discussions for forcing us to engage with people that are very different in their views of things. Sometimes it is a bit explosive but it is always positive.

What are your key takeaways from this session?
What I will be taking back is a sense of a growing malaise or dissatisfaction in our sector with the lack of global vision and sustainable toolkits. We have to overcome what seems to be a kind of polarity that has been existing in the past between grant making and traditional ways of doing philanthropy and I think this meeting has gone a long way forward in saying the toolkit needs to be broader than that. I think Arab philanthropy is at a young enough point in its evolution that we can jump on the learning curve and thus we can speed up the process.

Barbara Ibrahim was a participant at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Value(s) for Money? Philanthropy as a Catalyst for Social and Financial Change", which was sponsored by Hivos. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpagewww.salzburgglobal.org/go/530

Alex Jackson