Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Community work and Ramadan

Appeals for charitable donations in Ramadan raise questions about the role of civil society organisations and civic responsibility in Egypt, writes Ayman Abdel-Wahab

Al-Ahram Weekly

This year’s Ramadan advertisements have, as usual, triggered widespread debate over their substance and message, and the extent to which they reflect society and the conditions of life in the country.

The intention here is not to delve into the many facets of this controversy, much as it merits study and analysis, but instead to home in on a single point, which is the question of philanthropic organisations and how they take advantage of Ramadan to solicit contributions, or try to induce people into donating to hospitals, orphanages, housing and social aid and welfare services.

This soliciting, regardless of one’s assessment of it, is a feature of a problem relating to community work: exploiting religious belief and capitalising on the inherent devoutness of the Egyptian character.

The problem with the commercials that use this strategy, and the organisations that sponsor them, is that they promote detrimental consequences that are not consistent with the message of social solidarity, philanthropic action and helping the needy. They undermine the idea of volunteer work through their focus on donations, reducing the principle of social responsibility to support for their particular organisation.

In addition, they favour a handful of large organisations with the most resources and the largest professional skill pools, as these are the ones that can afford to mount the most effective publicity campaigns and, hence, obtain the lion’s share of public donations. The vast majority of philanthropic organisations, by contrast, are left to struggle with inadequate material and human resources.

Even granting that it is not the civil society organisations themselves that pay for advertisements, but rather wealthy businessmen, this only poses additional problems. The huge volume and frequency of these advertisements could be invested in other types of activities to support these organisations.

Then there is the question of the role of businessmen in supporting community work. It might have been thought that the entry of a segment of the business community into the charity sector would help develop the administrative capacities of the organisations concerned, and promote a partnership between civil society and the private sector.

Instead, it appears that some businessmen have been drawn to using community work to serve ends of their own, beyond winning kudos for themselves and their businesses as being socially responsible.

According to some studies, the private sector’s contribution to community work does not exceed 8.3 per cent of all donations, while the contribution of businessmen, as individuals, comes to 21.5 per cent. These figures raise the question of the discrepancy in support between community organisations that have businessmen as supporters and those that do not. This is not to deny that there are indications of growing interest in the business community to participate more effectively through its own funding institutions.

True, some of the advertised projects are concerned with empowering people to act as good citizens and building local community development. It is also true that donations to pay the medical bills of the needy are frequently urgently needed.

Likewise, time is not always an available resource for many of the activities, functions and responsibilities of community work. But there still remains the fundamental problem of the vicious circle that can be connected to seasonal donation drives in Ramadan and, to a lesser extent in other months, and a philosophy that seeks to meet only immediate and primary needs and fails to remedy root problems or promote the search for longer-term solutions.

The responsibility for addressing society’s needs does not fall on the shoulders of community organisations alone. Within the framework of the responsibility they do bear, and the aspects of the work they seek to perform, however, this sector, with its current outlook and capacities, cannot participate more effectively than it does at present.

To say that there are some 46,000 community organisations in the country is perhaps misleading. On closer inspection, it can be seen that 75 per cent of them are charity organisations and that more than half of them do not function effectively. There are also disparities in their distribution across the country and in the fields of work that receive their attention.

Then there are the problems of the extremely limited influence they have on policies, the small amount of attention generally devoted to cultural work, the lack of quality representation of youth in the organisations, the lack of expertise and personnel capable of stimulating community action aimed at meeting developmental goals, and the lack of larger NGOs that can act as umbrella organisations or sponsors for smaller ones.

The purpose here is not to diminish the role of charity work and the need to sustain it, but instead to shed light on the negative ramifications of publicity campaigns for charity and the current outlook that drives them. It might be useful here to underscore a number of points concerning the role played by community organisations.

Charity work and its connection with community organisations has a long history. It has contributed considerably to promoting social security by meeting many people’s basic needs and filling the gap created by the decline in government provision of essential services.

Figures indicate that all segments of society have benefited from the activities of social development organisations, if in varying proportions. Of the intended beneficiaries, 54 per cent are children, 38.2 per cent are women, 33.2 per cent are young people, 12.3 per cent are elderly and 9.3 per cent are disabled.

Second, recognising the importance of the role of charity and welfare organisations does not mean that this must continue to overshadow all the other roles that NGOs play, whether in the field of development, rights or awareness and capacity building.

Third, in order to develop and broaden the agenda of the activities and responsibilities of community organisations, it is necessary to go beyond some of the features that the majority of these organisations cling to, and that hamper their ability to build their roles and capacities in the development process and take part alongside the private and governmental sectors in the management of national resources.

Fourth, the fact that a number of NGOs have succeeded in attracting donations should certainly not be viewed as something negative that needs to be penalised. Far from it. Rather, the point should be that a broader vision of reorganising civil society and augmenting its roles and responsibilities requires a fundamental shift in the philosophy governing most NGOs, so as to increase the scope of attention they devote to human development and the empowerment of Egyptian citizens.

These ideas and their implications regarding the importance of charity work need to be linked with the current conditions in Egypt, which require measures to strengthen society and increase its coherence and empower the state.

This linkage necessitates the formulation of a different vision to that which has prevailed since philanthropic work emerged in its modern form at the end of the 19th century. Any new outlook or philosophy must take as its starting point a realistic reading of the magnitude of existing problems and the current restrictions that hamper development and capacity building as a means to creating a modern state.

We must re-examine the relationship between the state and the citizen and the rest of the system governing civil society and the private sector. The following points should be born in mind.
Human development organisations promote cooperative rather than competitive or antagonistic relations by campaigning to become effective partners with the governmental and private sectors, and by establishing this outlook as a basic mode for all civil society organisations.

Second, the activities of such organisations are generally linked with the need to establish a cooperative relationship with official agencies, whether at the executive or the community level. This promotes their acceptance and credibility among government institutions, which helps support their activities in society.

Third, the activities of such organisations always have a clear impact on their intended beneficiary groups and among the popular classes. This works to strengthen their credibility among the public and promote their sustainability.

To be more precise, depending solely on charity work and allowing it to prevail as a ruling philosophy for community work restrains society’s capacities and fails to broaden public participation through civil society organisations in the formulation of public policy.

As a result, the current type of charity drive, especially on the part of the larger charity organisations, does not help to increase public awareness of the importance of undertaking civic responsibility, either on the part of the individual or on that of the civil society organisations concerned. Without efforts to increase such awareness, the levels of public responsibility will continue to be low.

The challenge, therefore, is to formulate a new vision and to bring to bear new means of reinvigorating society, injecting fresh blood into social forces and engaging the intelligentsia and other social elites in a meaningful way.

Such a vision and the mechanisms it brings to bear should also help overcome the hesitancy among many segments of society when it comes to promoting community work through modern NGOs, leaving the developmental role of community organisations primarily to rights activists.

The writer is editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Ahwal Masriya.ِ

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