Local traditions and global context—understanding Arab philanthropy

This article was originally published on the Latest from Alliance blog on 27 May 2014. The original article can be found here. For more information about Alliance magazine, please visit www.alliancemagazine.org.

kuttab_250By Atallah Kuttab

Studies on global philanthropy indicate that cultural traditions, religious norms, political histories, and the economic strength of individual countries have profoundly shaped giving in individual countries and geographical regions, creating a rich and diverse global philanthropic landscape. However, some commonalities emerge from the various studies, including:

  • The unique philanthropic heritage for each region needs to be acknowledged. Also, it is important to link new institutionalized forms of philanthropy with long-standing practices and traditions, and to support efforts to ensure that philanthropy is effectively organized and sustainable without destroying traditional giving motivations and practices.
  • There is movement, albeit relatively slow, away from traditional charitable giving to more strategic giving aimed at achieving significant social change. There is a growing focus on the causes of social ills, and not merely on their symptoms. Also, there is an admission that solutions will not be found by the philanthropic sector alone and that collaborative efforts including government and private sector are needed for greater effectiveness.

Historically in the Arab region, endowments for much-needed social services like education and health services provided a sustainable approach to giving. However, more recently giving has been mainly charity-oriented, mostly state-sponsored, ill-studied and patronizing. The philanthropy thrust in recent years has been guided mainly by an Anglo-Saxon discourse not rooted in the local culture. When reading about the development of contemporary philanthropy, examples from the 1800s onward are cited, mostly from the UK or US, with no mention, for example, of experiences from other parts of the world like endowments or waqf set up in places like Jerusalem or Cairo to support schools, hospitals and poor and needy people. These have been active for more than 2,000 years with rudimentary documentation, with better records dating from the year 1200. The waqf of Hasseki Sultan, founded in 1552 in support of the needy in Jerusalem, with an endowment including agriculture land, shopping areas and rented properties that created revenue to support its mission, is one example of such rich past that we tend to overlook.

To take another example, at a recent global philanthropy meeting a session on networking indicated that the art of networking dated back a couple of hundred in the US when railways where built. Again networking along trading routes in other continents that existed over 2,000 years ago were never mentioned (trade links along the Silk Road is just one example). One can only blame oneself for failing to document the rich experience from one’s own region.

Many efforts are now under way in various regions to document local practices, learn from other regions, redevelop the local discourse, and reinvigorate local traditions and practices to enable the local philanthropy sector to find sustainable solutions to chronic problems such as the lack of relevant education, high youth unemployment, the absence of democracy and the lack of space for citizens to express themselves, etc. Writing an article on emerging practices in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Alliance, March 2014), it was heartening to see that old practices are still living (markets, storehouses, housing and other facilities for commerce and light industry are among the assets set up by foundations as waqf dedicated to support and finance education and social welfare projects, just like waqf set up in old times) but with the added perspective of social justice and sustainable development.

Of specific relevance to global philanthropy in general and Arab philanthropy specifically is the increased consciousness that the cultural and social problems that societies face and philanthropy needs to address are complex and global. As a result, there is more awareness that solutions must be multidisciplinary and rooted in the local culture and values rather than copied blindly from other regions. The Arab Spring brought to the forefront terms like social justice, integrity, accountability and transparency in all aspects of life.

The main purpose of this blog is to create a platform to share the development of philanthropy in various regions and how it relates to its rich past while interacting with the global discourse. Hopefully it will encourage philanthropy leaders around the globe to reveal trends and document stories, old and new, from Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. The dream will be to see these stories quoted in the philanthropy literature, creating a truly global philanthropy enriched with its diversity.

Atallah Kuttab is chairman of both WINGS and SAANED for Philanthropy Advisory, and is a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow hosted by Robert Bosch Stiftung. The purpose of his fellowship is to identify the emerging new Arab philanthropy discourse, anchored in its rich past of giving and linking with contemporary philanthropy in other regions.

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