Young Arabs step up to give back

Students with a new enthusiasm for volunteering find altruism has benefits for them - and for their CVs

Ahmed Marey is a first-year architecture student at the American University in Cairo. Along with academic skills, his first year has taught him another valuable lesson: the benefits of giving back.

“I’m on the committee of a club called Volunteers for Action. Every Friday we give English lessons at orphanages in Cairo and play sports with the children,” said the 19-year-old. “I have many skills now that I didn’t before: in leadership, communication, how to deal with mentors. I learnt that I needed volunteering more than the orphans needed me.”

Marey is one of around 100 students learning about the impact of philanthropy. He is part of the first cohort to benefit from a scholarship from the UAE’s Al Ghurair Foundation for Education (AGFE), a $1.1bn foundation that aims to propel 15,000 young Arabs into tertiary education over the next 10 years. The grant covers his tuition fees, but it also requires him to complete 100 hours of volunteering over the course of his university career. In his first year alone, Marey has nearly hit his target.

“You feel satisfied about giving something back,” he added. “We have to give as long as we can, not just when we need something in return.”

“All we ask is they become committed to giving back, to their country and to the region”The scheme chimes with a wider campaign across the Arab world to encourage young people to give back. Civic engagement in the region is among the lowest in the world, shows UN data, with just 9 per cent of youth volunteering their time.

In Saudi Arabia, less than 10 per cent of young nationals volunteer, a figure that rises to 16 per cent in Bahrain and the UAE, and to 24 per cent in Qatar.

Nonprofits and governments alike are keen to up the ante. Society benefits when youth get involved in tackling local challenges – from the charities that gain manpower, to the young people that gain employable skills.

“It isn’t just about the academic experience. It’s about how you link that to the problems and challenges in the Arab world and involve young people in creating solutions,” said Maysa Jalbout, CEO of AGFE. “We don’t ask the students for a financial return. All we ask is they become committed to giving back, to their country and to the region.”

Some students are already innovating. One AGFE student used his hours to find a way to compress online lessons into a format that can be sent and downloaded via Whatsapp to students whose internet access is shaky, such as refugees.

So far, AGFE has enrolled some 100 students at the American Universities of Cairo, Beirut and Sharjah. Half of this year’s intake has already completed more than 30 hours of volunteering, according to the foundation. AGFE tracks their progress via reports the students submit online, as well as from university counsellors who help place students locally with NGOs.

As well as inculcating a sense of civic duty, the students gain a host of skills they wouldn’t ordinarily get in the classroom. These soft skills - such as communication, teamwork and solving real life problems – are those that many employers lament are lacking among Arab youth. In a tough economic climate, volunteering can give students an edge.

“Young people, especially in the Arab world, often graduate from university without any real job experience,” said Jalbout. “Volunteering and being engaged in community service are an excellent way to develop those skills.”

It’s an approach that is beginning to gain traction. Across the Middle East, nonprofits and universities are clubbing together to link students with volunteering placements – and to help create long-term opportunities for those keen to give back. In Saudi Arabia, Ghadan for Consulting and Capacity Building, a social enterprise, works with universities to build volunteering centres.

“We see a high number of youth [wanting to volunteer],” said Badr Al-Khanbashi, Ghadan’s executive director. “But these engagements are often unsustainable – so they only volunteer once or twice.” Training students in how to map community needs is one way to help them become proactive, life-long volunteers, he says.

In Lebanon, the American University of Beirut’s civic engagement and community service centre has a similar remit: it helps students form teams to work on social projects with a budget and a mentor.

AGFE plans to extend its volunteer campaign beyond its scholarship students to other Arab youth. This month, the foundation will launch a drive to encourage people in the private sector to volunteer their time and expertise.

“It’s crucial for universities, the private sector, NGOs and philanthropists to work together,” she said. “Not only to provide more opportunities for students, but also to harness the energy of young people who have a lot of creative ideas and new solutions to give.”