Opportunity at a time of transition

Sociologist Barbara Ibrahim explores the findings of a landmark study on the potential impact of private philanthropy in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings

Since 1970 more than 50 countries have transitioned out of civil war or longstanding dictatorship. These are hopeful moments when the normal course of events speeds up and opportunities emerge for significant societal change. Often the transition comes unexpectedly, as was the case recently in Tunisia and Egypt. That can mean rising expectations on the part of citizens just when political uncertainty and shocks to the economy bring temporary hardship. Governments are often too new or inexperienced during these early transition periods to be able to cope alone. In such moments, private philanthropy has an important role to play.

Working directly with civil society organisations, philanthropy can help build responsive entities such as media watchdogs or consumer rights groups that give citizens a sense of participation. They can support emerging human rights groups that promote inclusion for minority groups. If police or judicial reform is needed, private foundations can offer their prior experience and resources. International foundations are also able to support the growth of local philanthropy, which will provide sustainable funding sources once a transition period winds down. It is true that large bilateral or multinational donor agencies often step in with major financing to help during transitional periods. However, their assistance is slower to be released and may be tied to political considerations. Private philanthropy has the independence and flexibility to offer rapid assistance and to work with governments, non-profits and the business sector.

Over the past 35 years, foundations have acquired valuable experience in transition settings worldwide. Some can point with pride to elected presidents in emerging democracies who had been supported to hone their leadership skills in civil society organisations before the transition took place. In other cases, relatively small grants helped get a truth and reconciliation commission up and running at a critical time just after protracted violence ended.  Unfortunately, that learning was not gathered into one guidebook or shared widely.  Given the unpredictable nature of many transitions, this left some inexperienced foundations understandably reluctant to launch new programmes. As a result, the recent transitions occurring around the Arab region have not received as much global philanthropic support as earlier transitions in southern Africa or the former Soviet republics did.

To address the need for wider sharing of good practices, two organisations joined forces in 2012 to survey previous foundation experience and produce a ‘framework guide’ for sound transition grantmaking. The Institute for Integrated Transitions and the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement spent nearly a year conducting in-depth interviews with foundation leaders and transition experts. The resulting publication, of which I am a co-author, is titled ‘Supporting Countries in Transition: A Framework Guide for Foundation Engagement’ and contains an overview of the common features of democratic transitions and those following the end of civil strife.

In the publication, we describe the concept of informed risk-taking in order for foundations to avoid missteps and reap the opportunities for positive impact. This means that while all foundations expect to exercise due diligence in their grantmaking, transition situations demand additional information gathering. Which political actors are rising and who is losing influence? What are the economic perils that could affect prospective grant programmes? Despite increased risks of failure, veteran foundation leaders argue vigorously for the heightened impact that is possible with transition grantmaking. For example, shortly after Egypt’s January 25th uprising, the Ford Foundation designed a special appropriation to help initiatives around civic education and social justice. Even though government donors eventually made much larger contributions, the speed and flexibility of the initial foundation grants meant that a number of important pilot programmes got off the ground when needs were greatest. One small grant has resulted in more than 15 student debate clubs in public universities where none existed previously.

We also learned that donors need to be prepared to stay engaged for at least five years or longer. Transitions may take a decade before the ultimate destination is known. Donors who pull out too soon leave behind half-completed agendas for capacity development, and frustrated grantees. International donors increasingly see the advantages of partnering with local foundations that are likely to stay the course over time. A popular form of local philanthropy that emerges during many transitions is the community foundation. In this model, rather than depending only on wealthy donors, a community assesses its needs and then pools the contributions from many ordinary citizens to reach its goals. Libya and Tunisia are countries where community philanthropy is helping to meet the needs of towns and villages just beginning to develop civic institutions.

Our findings make a strong case for donor collaboration and sharing rigorous evaluations of what works – as well as what doesn’t – in times of transition. By sharing experiences more openly, international philanthropy will be better prepared the next time a country leaves behind violent conflict or moves toward more democratic governance. Finally, support for inclusion of all political, social and religious elements of society is a key to rebuilding lasting institutions. That may offer one of the most effective ways for foundations to pursue and achieve disproportionate positive outcomes, which would be unattainable in more ordinary times.

About the writer

Barbara Ibrahim is the founding director of the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement at the American University in Cairo. She has published widely in the areas of gender and health, Arab philanthropy, women’s employment and youth studies, and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies.