February 8, 2017; Open Democracy

A “digital window of opportunity” for humanitarian organizations is opening in the Arab world, as the region’s online presence and engagement with the philanthropic sector grow. Philanthropic networks and corporate collaboratives still unite in “high impact philanthropy,” but at the same time, websites, online social platforms, mobile apps, and other tools are streamlining engagement pathways for younger players in the region.

An Egyptian app called Megakheir provides an example of these streamlining mobile pathways. Product manager Maissera Allaithy says that various nonprofit subsectors with diverse operational scales are embracing Megakheir, which offers to help users “donate with just a few taps on your phone.” Considering the worsening humanitarian situations in the Arab world, such as in war in Syria and famine in Yemen, broadening giving capacities in the region will likely prove critical.

The outbreak of several humanitarian crises since 2010 has also driven numerous Arab-centered initiatives, mainly in the area of humanitarian response and volunteering, to emerge online…[including] online volunteering initiatives that mobilize average citizens, activists and organizations around a cause.

This type of charitable giving is very new to the region; in fact, overall penetration of the Internet into the Arab world has been sluggish since the technology became available. Open Democracy cites that Internet access growth in the region has been slower than the global average (36 percent in 2014). However, its annual growth rate of 20 percent is now one of the fastest in the world. Thomson Reuters Zawya cites statistics from the Arab Knowledge Economy Report 2015-2016 that indicate the region’s Internet penetration rate is expected to jump to over 55 percent in 2018. It is also worth noting that the overall growth rate represents 3G network access—mobile or wireless Internet—rather than fixed broadband.

How can we directly link the jump in Internet access to the rise in digital philanthropy? Consider some demographics. According to a 2015 Arab Social Media report, most Internet users in the Arab world are young people—and they represent the biggest population segment in the region. Open Democracy states that over 60 percent of the Arab population are young people between 15–24 years of age. The Muslim World Journal cites some variance in the statistics, but confirms the Arab world’s “rise in the youth bulge.” But even though they are the largest population group, youths across the Arab world are often excluded from 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.

Enhanced digital access for youth has its pros and cons; NPQ elaborated on some of the complications of “gamifying philanthropy” for youth via mobile apps and websites. The paradox between virtual engagement and proactive health measures for teenagers and young adults is a genuine concern. In addition, unfettered access to information and connection brings change to existing social orders, which might be of special concern in a region with many ultraconservative cultures and governments. The Foreign Policy Institute reported that many Saudi Arabian youth (and 51 percent of the Saudi population are youths) who see themselves as loyal to the kingdom want “drastic reforms.” On the other hand, the report portrays the “veiled society” as becoming more open to the world. In any case, the Arab world appears to be opening itself up to new ways of giving. Inside Philanthropy calls youth philanthropy “a growing field, along with the online spaces to support it.” Physical spaces are not far behind; the Emirates Foundation hosted a youth philanthropy summit in Abu Dhabi last year.

Open Democracy notes another specific challenge to online philanthropic engagement, and that challenge has to do with transparency, which is now said to be a leading determinant of charitable giving. NPQ recently elaborated on how “donors are awfully focused on overhead expenditures,” one example of the ways in which donors are demanding more accountability from their beneficiaries. We have also considered how calls for greater transparencies span the globe.

Studies about philanthropic cultures and institutions in regions like the Middle East and Africa are still fairly new, as are digital technology platforms. As philanthropic giving continues to make itself more transparent in the digital age, this leads to the final challenge for the surging engagement pathways in the Middle East. The democratic nature of information sharing is a relatively new introduction in this part of the world, where publishing information in any format is “still the purview of only a few foundations and philanthropic organizations that are mainly organized under the umbrella of corporate philanthropy.”

Indeed, as Heba Abou Shnief wrote for Open Democracy, “Nothing short of a cultural shift towards transparency is needed.” Such a cultural shift is not made overnight. Open Democracy addresses the ultra-conservative sectors across the Arab world, reminding nonprofit leaders, “Publicizing basic descriptive information about roles, programs, and targets will not cut it.”

Discussion of transparency in the Arab philanthropic sector will be critical in a region where a traditional scenario can be very costly in terms of losing donor support and might potentially foster distrust. A larger conversation that engages philanthropic organizations, government, and stakeholders on the ways and means of sharing data and information for social change is warranted.

That being said, it will be interesting to see how Arab digital philanthropy will interface with the culture of transparency.—Noreen Ohlrich