North Africa, West Asia

The Arab digital philanthropy and transparency nexus

The growing digital engagement and online presence of the philanthropic sector in the Arab region is playing a growing role in engaging people philanthropically in a context where personalized ways of giving still have a stronghold.

Heba Abou Shnief
8 February 2017

"I want internet". Picture by Ramy Raoof. Flickr. Some rights reserved CC BY 2.0. Capitalizing on the digital window of opportunity, philanthropic and humanitarian organizations operating in the region are engaging with donors and charity supporters through websites, online social platforms, mobile apps, videos, photos and infographics. A 2014 survey on Arab social media trends organized by the Mohammed bin Rashed School of Government in collaboration with showed that 79 percent of 3373 survey respondents believe that the internet has made them more responsive to the community.

Charitable giving through mobile applications is also on the rise. Megakheir, one of the first Egyptian mobile applications for charitable giving, raised around EGP 25.5 million in mobile donations in 2016, which despite the economic slump facing the Egyptian economy, is a steady increase from the 2015 levels (EGP 24.3 million). According to Maissera Allaithy, Product Manager of MegaKheir, philanthropic organizations of different operational scales and different charitable sub-sectors are increasingly embracing this digital platform.

Over 60 percent of the Arab population are youth, of which the majority are disgruntled about the lack of participatory and somewhat exclusionary political processes and institutions.

The outbreak of several humanitarian crisis since 2010 has also driven numerous Arab centered initiatives mainly in the area of humanitarian response and volunteering to emerge online. Molham, a youth led online volunteering hub that focuses on Syrian refugees, Attahub in Kuwait and Ness Khir in Algeria are examples of online volunteering initiatives that mobilize average citizens, activists and organizations around a cause.

Driving this change to digital philanthropy is a number of factors but primarily the rising mobile and internet penetration in the Arab world. Even though the region’s internet penetration lags behind the world average (36 percent in 2014), it has one of the fastest growth rates at 20 percent annually. Mobile penetration rates are at 110 percent.  An equally important driver for digital philanthropic engagement is the demographics behind this change. Over 60 percent of the Arab population are youth, of which the majority are disgruntled about the lack of participatory and somewhat exclusionary political processes and institutions. Digital mediums offer far more freedoms and space for voicing Arab youth concerns and aspirations, and this growing online civic engagement is one manifestation.

So while this new digital pathway for giving is gaining momentum in the region, at the same time, it also brings to the fore important questions on how it is influencing (if at all) the practices of philanthropic organizations themselves.  One issue that philanthropic organizations must respond to is the need for transparency, which is visibly becoming a determinant of philanthropic giving both in the region and globally. Digital philanthropic engagement is putting more pressure on philanthropic organizations to become more responsive to publicizing data about their work and impact. This is an even more pressing issue for philanthropic organizations that rely on crowd-sourcing and donations from the public. Philanthropy Age’s survey of giving behavior for over 1000 respondents (64 percent were aged 25 to 39) in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries in 2015 suggests that the overwhelming majority believe that a charity’s transparency and the visibility of a charity’s effectiveness are key determinants that influences their donation decisions.

Responding to shifting donor expectations on transparency has regulatory dimensions. To-date, there are no government imposed regulations or involuntary codes for the philanthropic sector to publicize information. According to Dima Jweihan, Executive Director of the International Center for Non-Profit Law MENA office, ‘while regulatory frameworks in the region include provisions for basic transparency of CSOs, however, it is mainly linked to requirements by government supervisory authorities.  The concept of transparency of CSOs to the public is missing at large in the region’.  The new CSO law in Egypt requires philanthropic organizations and non-profits to publish their financial accounts online is one step in this direction but not enough to catalyze change.

Nothing short of a culture shift towards transparency is needed by philanthropic organizations to operate and thrive in a digital era

Equally important is the organizational dimension of change towards transparency. Publishing annual reports, financial statements and information about operations, grant-making processes and investment policies online is still the purview of only a few foundations and philanthropic organizations that are mainly organized under the umbrella of corporate philanthropy. Nothing short of a culture shift towards transparency, where transparency permeates behavior and operations, with digital accessibility at the pinnacle, is needed by philanthropic organizations to operate and thrive in a digital era. Publicizing basic descriptive information about roles, programs and targets will not cut it.

In an expanding digital philanthropic landscape, the discussion on transparency of the Arab philanthropic sector will be critical in a region where a business as usual scenario can be very costly in terms of losing donor support, and in the worse scenario can foster distrust.  A larger conversation that engages philanthropic organizations, governments and stakeholders on the ways and means of sharing data and information for social change is warranted.

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