Bridging civic engagement theory and practice in the Arab world

This article was originally published on the American University of Beirut website on 6 June 2014. The original article can be found here.

The interaction between scholarly analysis and lived experiences, with the aim of contributing to sound policy and practice in philanthropy and civic engagement in the Arab world, was the underlying theme of the Takaful 2014 conference, which was held at AUB and at the University of Balamand on June 4-6, 2014.

“The urgency to respond is needed more than ever as evidenced by the turbulent times that are shifting the course of history in the Arab world,” said Provost Ahmad Dallal, in his welcoming speech at the Charles Hostler Auditorium on June 4. “Universities are to develop the theories for change to support the existing homegrown methods, which are still in their infancy.”

Now in its fourth year, the annual Takaful research conference on the Arab region has become the leading opportunity to strengthen a growing network of scholars and practitioners working on philanthropy and civic engagement. By bringing together mature scholars, young researchers, policy-makers, activists and practitioners from within and outside the region, the conference provides a unique venue for disseminating empirical findings, innovative ideas, and thus generating bottom-up solutions for Arab socio-economic development.

AUB researchers presented several papers at the conference. These included: “Civic Engagement in an Educational Setting: the Case of the American University of Beirut” by Mounir Mabsout, director of Civic Engagement and Community Service at AUB, one of the co-hosts of the event; “Youth Donating Life” by Hussein Sleiman, MA candidate in environmental technology and Mohamad Mahdi Alloush MS candidate; and “The Biodiversity Village Award: Promoting the Decentralization of Biodiversity Conservation through Civic Engagement” by Salma N. Talhouk, associate dean of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Services, and research assistant Lama-Yasmine Tawk.

The conference was co-hosted by the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo (AUC), the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service (CCECS) at the American University in Beirut (AUB), and the University of Balamand (UOB)..

“Universities are not just for academia but a place to steer the mind and imagination towards developing tools for civil society,” said Georges Dorlian, UOB Dean Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “Now is the time to move from analyzing situations to finding the suitable solutions and initiating system transition in the political, civic, environmental and economic spheres.”

“We are in for the long haul in building a knowledge base where hardly anything existed before 2004,” said Barbara Ibrahim, AUC director of Gerhart Center. “Only the vigorous evaluation of the past, open debate, and sound analysis will further the voice of those we work for.”

According to Ibrahim, 119 submissions were made for Takaful 2014 of which 36 were chosen for presentation and the number of registered participants went up from just 70 during the first Takaful event in 2011 to 180 in 2014.

In lieu of a keynote speech, extracts from Carol Mansour’s award-winning documentary “Not Who We Are” were shown. The documentary focuses on the plight of refugee women from Syria who share their experiences of displacement and loss, and their survival in an often harsh and unfriendly environment.

“About 80 percent of the world’s 45 million refugees are women and children who bear the brunt and cost of wars and conflicts,” said Mansour. “In 2013 the Syrians were the fourth largest refugee population in the world, and their numbers in Lebanon constituted 20 percent of the overall Lebanese population.”

“The situation is akin to having eight million French people cross over the border into Switzerland,” said Abdul Haq Amiri, UN Head of Office, Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs. “No one can gauge what the reply of the Swiss would be in such a case.”

There are over one million registered Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon with an ongoing weekly inflow of 11,000 according to Jean-Marie Garelli Assistant Representative UNHCR. Health care, education and shelter remain the largest challenges faced.

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