Luminary: Egypt, Philanthropy + Revolution. Barbara Ibrahim of the Gerhart Center for Philanthopy, American University in Cairo

Brilliant talk yesterday starring Dr. Barbara Ibrahim, founding Director of the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo.  She delivered one of the most insightful presentations I’ve seen yet on the who/what/why/how of the dramatic narrative now being written by the people of Egypt, led by their youth.  Ibrahim shared a number of deeply informed insights from the work she, her husband, her colleagues and her students (such as current Princeton Phd candidate Leah Hunt-Hendrix) have been doing in the region.

I asked Ibrahim for her take on the local and international philanthropic response to the situation in Egypt. She and her colleagues at the Gerhart Center have been studying the dynamic growth of Arab personal philanthropy in the past 5 years. Egypt has fewer billionaires than some other Arab countries, but there are many citizen business leaders who have been hard at work  addressing the charitable needs of their country. In response to government failure, individuals have been starting foundations. Up until the moment of the revolution, one of the ways to get around the legal red tape of setting up a foundation was to have a member of the first family on the board.

That being the case, what does the revolution mean for Egyptian philanthropy?

Ibrahim believes that the philanthropic sector is at a “press pause” moment — suspended as the political fallout determines which of the foundations were political power plays to “get in good” with Mubarak, and which were started by a more independent charitable impetus and will survive to help define Egypt’s future.  Ibrahim noted that,

“Egyptian philanthropy will emerge and be strong, but it’s clearly a moment for watching and waiting.”

As for international interest, she said, “I can’t tell you how many foreign academics and philanthropists have contacted us wanting to help.” But she also noted that it’s hard to help the right way from a distance. Soros and OSI are an example of an international funder with infrastructure on the ground and they are poised to support some interesting work. However, if interested foundations don’t have a presence on the ground and a history of working in Egypt, it’s hard for them to know what is to be funded at what level. As many in philanthropy well know, who you fund matters as much as how and when you fund. Paradoxically, too much money at the wrong time can seriously undermine a cause or organization.

How can international philanthropic sector work most thoughtfully with the local Egyptian philanthropic and NGO sector?

Luckily for those interested in Egypt and the future of Arab philanthropy, the Arab Foundations Forum is working to set standards of conduct and develop Arab philanthropic institutions. A new project called “Time4Egypt” is a private Egyptian effort to provide a clearinghouse for matching volunteers, potential donors and initiatives on the ground seeking resources. It will be interesting to see this online knowledge exchange model  — such mediating mechanisms can play an invaluable strategic role in international philanthropy.

I left the lecture hall with great hope and a palpable sense of the infectious excitement and deep challenges facing this fierce and fragile new victory. There is much to humbly learn from the people of Egypt as they find their way forward, and fund their way forward.  I’m certain that the indigenous civil society institutions like Egyptian foundations, NGO’s and places like the Gerhart Center will have much to teach us all about philanthropy’s best role in and after a revolution.

Ibrahim’s parting words?

“Come see the new Egypt!”

I think we should take her — and take Egypt — up on the invitation.

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