A will with no way: Egypt's charitable spirit dampened with economic hardship
If you have been following Egyptian TV channels during the month of Ramadan you must have noticed the many advertisements that call on people to donate for a wide range of charity projects. Calls to donate for building hospitals, providing impoverished people with food and water, and getting indebted mothers out of jail are all presented in sometimes dramatic ways to encourage people to give.
Egyptian charities, it seems, have not escaped the ramifications of the economic crisis triggered by the January 25 Revolution in 2011. Donations and volunteering have decreased considerably, affecting the operational running of many charities. Meanwhile, a number of local and international NGOs were closed amid accusations of bias or political motivations.
“Charitable donations from abroad have witnessed the greatest decline. Domestic funding, though affected, has remained more consistent,” explains Khalid Sultan of the funding unit of the Ministry of Social Affairs, acknowledging the recent increase in domestic funding during the holy month of Ramadan.
Prior to the 2011 revolution, NGOs played a significant role in the country’s socio-economic development, assert experts, alleviating some of the pressures neglected by the malfunctioning state. Following the January uprising, controversy over foreign funding of Egyptian and international NGOs expressed by local media and the public notably increased, leading to closures. Controversy was amplified after February 2012, when authorities accused 43 Egyptian and foreign human rights activists of founding NGOs and receiving foreign funding without the necessary permits.
The World Bank’s findings shed further light on the rationale behind recent setbacks within the charity sector. At the end of June 2013, Egypt’s fiscal deficit and gross public debt, domestic and external, rose to nearly 100 percent of gross domestic product. Unemployment reached over 13 percent, principally affecting youth. Owing to the country’s deficit, smaller charity organisations in particular have been the worse hit, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.
Orphanages have been badly affected. Wataneya Society for the Development of Orphanages, established in 2008, acknowledged a 60 percent drop in donations following the 2011 revolution, with little improvement to date. Whilst some orphanages are state funded, many are supported through private and commercial funds. Since donations are not a steady source of income, standards vary dramatically, with notable deterioration over the last three years.
“Before the revolution people were donating a lot and visiting frequently. Now, no one visits. No one cares about the welfare of these wonderful orphan girls!” exclaimed a visibly distressed Bent Misr founder and president, Dr Esmat Maghari, who described her failed attempt to initiate a national campaign to collect 1LE donations, rebuffed by the state.
The founder describes the struggle to cover even bare minimum rent, electricity and employee salaries. Repeated in many small organisations, Dr Maghari admits to using her own resources, as well as family and friends, to ensure the charity remains functional, at least barely.
Al-Nour Wal Amal (Light and Hope), another small charity supporting Egypt’s female blind orchestra, described as “Egypt’s miracle,” is also feeling the economic brunt of political instability. In previous years the orchestra staged regular monthly concerts, traveled annually and had multiple donors supporting its initiatives. Today, depleted funds, infrequent concerts and minimal international travel have become the status quo.
“The organisation is really struggling since the revolution. Most donors either left Egypt, are in jail, or simply cannot afford to help,” said Amal Fikry, the organisation’s proud chairwoman, amid the sound of instruments wafting through the organisation’s bare hallways where blind girls practice their music. Even regular donors are today less forthcoming than last year, added Fikry. Masr El-Kheir, the renowned Egyptian charity, is currently the main, stable funding source, according to Fikry, who like Dr Magharni also uses her own personal resources for additional support.
Funding constraints have prevented the purchase of new orchestral instruments and stalled initiatives such as the development of a piece of land where Fikry aspires to establish a sports centre for the blind. Ali Osman, conductor of Al Nour Wal Amal since 2001, refers to the Ministry of Culture’s failings prior to and after the revolution, which have denied the organisation vital resources, media and international recognition. Its future sustainability, like many organisations at this stage, remains questionable.
Of the larger, more established charities, the economic crisis has also had an adverse affect, though in some cases to a less palpable degree given their scope of experience and annual zikat (Muslims' obligatory annual 2.5 percent charitable donations from their incomes, which can be administered in gold or other means) contributions. The Egyptian children’s cancer hospital, 57357, which relies solely on public donations, is one of the many affected by the economic downturn. The hospital claims to be enduring such periods owing to its strategic financial sustainability plan that includes bank endowments. Resala foundation also seems to have felt the economic pangs, which may be linked to rumours of its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood despite the organisation’s denials in televised adverts.
Other organisations, like Egypt’s acclaimed Misr El-Kheir, purport to have been shielded from the financial crisis given their non-partisan, apolitical stance and ongoing annual zikat donations over the last three years.
“Our sole focus is on the development of the Egyptian citizen. We steer clear of politics, which has safeguarded us, and the annual zikat which never gets affected,” affirmed the charity’s media spokesperson Hala Said.
The organisation does not accept international donations, relying solely on domestic funds. According to Said, throughout the last three years it has been business as usual, as Egyptians have continued to donate and corporate funding has remained consistent. Religious holidays, Ramadan, Eid and the annual Haj pilgrimage are a high season for donations, say officials. Owing to its solid grounding, Misr El-Kheir — with ministerial approval — is able to collaborate and provide assistance to smaller organisations, like Al-Nour Wal Amal.
Mostafa Zamzam, the spokesman for Dar El-Orman, a charity that supports cancer hospital 57357, similarly claims that the revolution has not impacted his charity's funding, though concedes that this is not the case for most charities. Distinct from many Egyptian foundations, Dar El-Orman accepts donations from abroad. Nonetheless, domestic contributions constitute 95 percent of its funds, according to Zamzam.
“Since the January 25 Revolution we have witnessed a 40 percent increase in donations. In January 2014, we received the first ever donation from an Arab country,” Zamzam told Ahram Online, referring to UAE Sheikh El-Nahyan’s LE100 million donation.
Flexible payment methods have facilitated this increase, upholds Zamzam, drawing attention to online payments and door-to-door donor collection facilities.
Dar El-Orman and Misr El-Kheir are two of the few more fortunate charities that express optimism regarding the future. However, for most, fear and uncertainty overshadow their aspirations and current initiatives. Dr Maghari is one of the many voicing fears on the future prospects of her orphanages and charities alike, underlining the state's negligence despite repeated pleas. The Ministry of Social Affairs rebuffs such accusations, insisting that it supports those in need.
“It is vital that an NGO knows who the right sources are to approach for funding. Any NGO that needs help should come to us at the ministry and we will help,” stated Sultan.
Nonetheless scepticism remains prevalent, as Fikry, Dr Maghari and countless others assert they are yet to receive such support, despite their advances.