Why funding isn’t enough

Tarik Yousef, CEO of the Qatar-based social initiative Silatech, argues that organisations working for young people need to approach donors with more than just requests for funding

While civil unrest and political turmoil dominate headlines emerging from the Arab world, perhaps the greatest challenge facing the region is that of youth unemployment. While there were initial hopes that the protest movements in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen in 2011 would eventually lead to increased economic opportunity for Arab youth, much of the region remains in a state of political uncertainty and economic dislocation. More than 25 per cent of the region’s economically active youth are unemployed, and millions more are either employed in low-wage informal jobs, or have remained outside of the labour force due to poor prospects. Finding economic solutions for youth – particularly in the areas of job creation and skills development – is a vital element of securing economic security for the region.

Despite efforts made in good faith, the region’s policymakers have, by and large, proven unable to muster the resources and political will to put in place the programmes and reforms needed to improve opportunities for young people. In fact, economic insecurity has reinforced longstanding tendencies toward public sector employment and subsidy provision. These provide short-term gains but work against the long-term goals of enabling young people to transition into the labour market. At the same time, the private sector’s ability to serve as an engine of job creation has been stymied in most countries by regulatory issues and ongoing political instability. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been involved in providing innovative solutions, but a lack of financial resources has limited the scale and scope of their activities.

Past efforts at unlocking the challenge of job creation have failed to take into account the potential offered by regional philanthropists and high-net-worth individuals eager to play a substantive role in improving socioeconomic outcomes. In this regard, large foundations and institutionalised philanthropies have played an increasingly active role in the youth space in recent years, particularly in the Gulf countries. Institutions like the Qatar Foundation, the Alwaleed bin Talal Foundation, the Emirates Foundation, and the King Khalid Foundation have emerged with the goal of making social investments that help build more sustainable societal gains. In many cases, the efforts of these foundations have focused on improving the potential of the region’s youth.

Private sector-led social investing has also emerged as a new trend in this area. However, such efforts are only a small part of the philanthropic sector’s potential as a whole, particularly when one takes into account the vast potential of non-institutionalised, discrete charitable giving.

Due to a lack of transparency in giving – driven to some extent by a cultural stigma against publicising one’s own good deeds – there is little useful information on the amount of charitable giving within the region, but it is clear that the philanthropic sector is sizeable. However, only a small share of charitable giving in the region has been strategically invested in issues related to the economic empowerment of youth.

Islamic philanthropy, in particular, provides a large resource, but it has rarely been deployed in a manner designed to create strategic social change. Rather, Islamic charitable giving has focused largely on conventional donations: building schools, supporting religious institutions and responding to natural disasters. While these are all important needs, such giving is rarely aligned with a longer-term strategy that empowers youth.

To effectively engage with potential donors interested in catalysing lasting social change through smart giving, organisations working actively for young people need to come to the table with more than requests for funding. Rather, it is up to us to engage philanthropists and high-net-worth individuals with a support structure that enables them to take bold steps. In this regard, there are a number of identified needs among charitable givers that must be addressed.

First, most foundations and individual givers realise the magnitude of the region’s youth employment challenge; however, they often do not know the most appropriate entry points or how to address the issue strategically with their donations. Providing them with training on the core issues involved, as well as ways that they can provide innovative support, is a necessity.

This need is particularly important in regard to Islamic charitable giving. While there is no doctrinal limitation on the application of such giving to support sustainable development for youth, potential donors are often uncertain about their ability to use charity in this regard. Islamic charity platforms are often designed in a way that aligns with literal interpretations of religious texts. Building the case for a broader interpretation of Islamic giving requires engagement with religious authorities, and practical advice on how zakat and sadaqah can be used to support youth.

Technology also plays an important role, particularly with the development of online giving platforms that allow people to donate directly to organisations. We have seen the establishment of several ‘crowdfunding’ platforms aimed at providing funding for youth, such as the Silatech-supported Kiva Arab Youth platform. The challenge is to align such platforms with the interests of socially-minded investors and charitable givers.

Finally, effective partnerships are essential. The challenge of youth unemployment in the Arab world is too large to be resolved by individual stakeholders in isolation; it requires a coordinated approach involving government, the private sector, NGOs and charitable givers working in concert. Building networking platforms is essential to enabling communication, exchanging knowledge and experience, and facilitating collaborative partnerships. The solutions are out there; it’s up to us to help find them.

About the author

Tarik Yousef is the CEO of Silatech, a Qatar-based regional social initiative focused on improving employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for young people throughout the Arab world. He was also co-founder of the Middle East Youth Initiative at the Brookings Institution in 2007, where he served as nonresident senior fellow