Arab Philanthropic Support To Digitalization: Is COVID-19 A Turning Point?

By Heba Abou Shnief, philanthropy specialist focusing on emerging economies and a CUNY Fellow. [1]

As the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered and accelerated digital transformations across diverse sectors in both the private and public spheres, the question of whether it has had any impact on inducing Arab philanthropy programmatic support towards ‘digital solutions’ and ‘technology for the social good’ is a pertinent one. This is especially true when responding to communities in dire need of support and services was only possible through digital means during the most extreme phases of lockdown. With the high likelihood that COVID-19 will remain a major global public health phenomenon for at least a year or more, the relevance of digital solutions within the philanthropic context has already changed in terms of demand.

COVID-19 has disrupted the status quo in a number of ways. Firstly, Arab philanthropy has stepped up support to digital solutions in online learning, healthcare and mental well-being and income generation.  From an operational perspective, digital technology was a vital means and sometimes the only means for the continuation of existing activities for philanthropies and their grantees. Switching preset on-the-ground training to online virtual sessions or adopting IT facilitated learning was common. Educate–Me, a social enterprise and investee of Alfanar Foundation (one of the earliest venture philanthropy foundations in the region), runs a community school and organizes curricula training for teachers in Cairo. The crisis triggered Educate-Me to conduct a mapping exercise of existing digital capabilities of communities and based on the findings it has created a simple and workable system for teacher instruction and interaction with students using mobile technology. Alfanar Foundation has also acted on the crisis through the “Survive and Thrive Campaign” by stepping up marketing and fundraising efforts aimed to support its social enterprise investees in Lebanon with already existing distance-learning solutions for vulnerable communities.   

The swift execution of work from home arrangements for philanthropic and CSO staff that relied on online and digital tools was also common. These are clear cases of preparedness meeting opportunity, where already existing digital solutions (e.g. e-learning platforms) and digital infrastructure (e.g. the mapping of mobile technology and capacities) have enabled these organizations to respond effectively to the crisis.   

For other philanthropies, digital solutions were deployed for new activities and as an emergency response to the lockdown effect. Waqfeyat Al Maadi, a community foundation in Egypt, initiated an online social media campaign to support the fundraising and sales of products for workers who have lost income due to the lockdown effect., an online job matching platform, and Mashora, an app connecting entrepreneurs with mentors, were launched by Community Jameel (a social enterprise founded by the Abdul-Latif Jameel family in Saudi Arabia) to help navigate COVID-19 effects by supporting job creation in online sectors and supporting entrepreneurs during these difficult times.  

An important effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is its role in rethinking existing practices and traditional models of service delivery. This is visible in the area of healthcare and e-finance. The Abdul-Latif Jameel family’s philanthropic efforts are most notable regionally by their support to the Abdul-Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). Nonetheless, their philanthropy during the pandemic indicates that the Foundation has taken itself off the beaten path by investing in R&D of data-driven technological solutions in health care. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning, are being deployed to model the spread of COVID-19 by the Abdul-Latif Jameel Institute for Disease and Emergency Analytics (J-IDEA) at Imperial College London and towards the discovery of new antibiotics and anti-retrovirals to treat the virus by the Jameel Clinic at MIT.  To reinforce this, a new ‘Excellence Fund’ in partnership with Imperial College London was launched in June 2020 as a rapid funding mechanism to fund researchers and scale-up work on COVID-19 related treatments and prevention using data analytics and AI. This kind of philanthropic leadership is strongly needed and can hopefully stimulate further philanthropic partnerships and innovation at times when traditional models of service delivery and solutions are not commensurately responsive to a crisis of this magnitude. 

Embracing the idea that technology can potentially play a more enabling role in microfinance is another immediate effect of the COVID-19 crisis. The slow disbursement of micro-loans by CSOs due to banks closure or later operating with shorter working hours has caused liquidity crunches. This dependency on a cash-based transaction system is a cause for concern, especially in light of the imperative need for social distancing practices, which might be in place for the foreseeable future. Foundations are turning their attention to the important role that e-finance can play in unlocking opportunities for the poor. 

An equally important effect of COVID-19 is how it brought to the fore the deep digital divides and inequities in access to technologies and telecommunication infrastructure. The biggest gap is experienced by disadvantaged and rural communities, students in the public education system, refugees, internally displaced persons and people with special needs, as well as grassroot CSOs. For instance, some refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Egypt experienced challenges accessing vital and credible COVID-19 related awareness information shared by UNHCR through social media and other digital sources, mostly due to a lack of internet connectivity and expired SIM cards, rendering their mobile phones of little use. Replacing in-person programmatic interventions with digital learning options by grantees working with people with special needs has been challenging, causing a complete halt in service delivery. Both the digital skills needed and digital learning content and delivery platforms are currently lacking. For CSOs, especially grassroots organizations and those operating in low-income communities, having no broadband connectivity or laptops for staff to work from home was more often the norm. 

Other CSOs either grappled with the use of digital tools or showed outright resistance to change no matter how simple the tech solution was, serving as a reality check on the actual digital readiness of CSOs. According to Shenouda Bissada, Egypt Country Director of Alfanar Foundation, the Foundation is tackling this challenge head-on by listening to its investees and providing technical assistance on how to integrate digital tools in their work where relevant.

Some of these challenges also played out in high income economies. Al Qassimi Foundation in Ras Al Khaimah of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) led a drive to collect unused laptops and tablets from the local community for distribution to low-income students, so as to be able to resume their studies when distance-learning was implemented in the UAE. Emirates NBD and Emirates Islamic Bank have donated 4 million Dirhams (around 1.09 million USD) to the Ministry of Education to support distance-learning and the procurement of laptops for low-income students. 

To support CSOs to deal with the challenges associated with lack of IT infrastructure among their own workers and among the communities they serve, a new look at institutional support to CSOs needs to be introduced.  The role of flexible funding mechanisms for digitalization and tech development needs emphasis. The Ford Foundation is a leading example in this regard. According to Noha El-Mikawy, Regional Director – Middle East and North Africa: “Three years ago, the foundation started to allocate up to 20% of each of its grants to institutional strengthening of the receiving grantee.  Now around 70% of all our grants have a strong component of support to institutional needs, not activities and programmatic deliverables only.  This approach has been instrumental in supporting the resilience of CSOs during this crisis. Funding their most basic digital gaps, whether it is covering mobile charges of CSO staff, Zoom licensing, or other digital priorities, is only possible through flexible funding support.” 

Clearly, COVID-19 and the practical impacts of the lockdown that followed in its wake has created a new momentum for rethinking existing practices by Arab philanthropy. It has revealed the efficiency gains and the functional utility of digital solutions. It has also unveiled the cost and reality of embedded digital inequities gripping the region, which may, hopefully, drive more philanthropic support and technical assistance towards building the digital infrastructure and skills needed for a post-COVID-19 context. Equally important, is philanthropic support to innovation in new technologies and digital solutions for social problem-solving, which has been largely untapped in Arab countries.  Finally, this crisis and its responses may inspire Arab philanthropy to adopt new modalities of grant-making that allow CSOs to use more resources for their own organizational strengthening and growth, contributing not just to their sustainability, but to their functional resilience when it is most acutely needed. 

[1] I would like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Noha El-Mikawy, Regional Director MENA at the Ford Foundation, for her guidance and comments during the drafting of this article. Any errors are solely those of the author.

Heba Abou Shnief is a philanthropy specialist focusing on emerging economies and a CUNY Fellow.

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