A Discussion with Mona Atia, Consultant, Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, American University in Cairo

With: Mona Atia

December 14, 2007

Background: This conversation between Mona Atia and Katherine Marshall took place as part of the preparatory work for a December 17, 2007 conference at Georgetown University's Doha Campus on "Global Development and Faith-Inspired Organizations in the Muslim World." Atia discusses her dissertation research as a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, inspired by her initial desire to understand "how the Patriot Act was creating a climate in which traditional charity, across the Muslim world, was being harmed or shut down." In the research process, she shifted her focus to Islamic charity in Egypt and conducted several interviews with Islamic-affiliated organizations. In addition to outlining her findings and explaining her work, Atia shares her vision for how her research can create change within faith-inspired NGOs in the future.

Please tell me about your current work, and particularly how it involves faith-based organizations and international development?

My main interest for some years has been the intersection of civil society and Islamic economic practices. Right now I am finishing my dissertation in cultural geography at the University of Washington, and I am also working as a consultant to the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civil Engagement at the University of Cairo. My own research is on Islamic charity in Egypt; the work for the Gerhart center is part of their broader transnational project on Arab philanthropy and foundations.

What is the main focus of your own research, and how did you come to it?

I began working primarily on urban development, but after September 11, 2001 I became interested in the reports of how the Patriot Act was creating a climate in which traditional charity, across the Muslim world, was being harmed or shut down. I followed congressional hearings, legal suits, etc., and tried to unravel the legalities of what was happening, to understand the federal framework for looking at the issues. I wanted to do a transnational study, to see the impact at the level of charities, but found it very difficult. The climate in the United States of the organizations concerned was extremely secretive. People would say that flows had decreased, and that there was increased surveillance, but details were almost impossible to come by. So I decided that rather than follow the process from the United States, I would look at it from Egypt. There, my field work involved me in observing Islamic scholars, bankers, and philanthropists to learn how Islamic charity works in Egypt, channels, its scale, dynamic, and on the ground practices. I was also interested in how it links up with the government. I have done some 75 interviews with some 27 organizations, all of them Islamic in character.

And for the Gerhart center?

I am a consultant for a large project focused on mapping Arab philanthropy, and I am writing the chapter on Egypt. The Phase 1 report is coming out this month, and there will be a consultation in Dubai in January. There, I am focusing on a set of institutionalized philanthropic organizations, most of them secular. There are, however, some that have an Islamic character—two out of the six that are featured.

Can you describe the picture or map of Muslim organizations that you see emerging from your work?

There are a vast array of organizations and several ways to categorize them: for example, in terms of their relationship to the state, the kind of resources they have, how they see themselves on a continuum from more traditional to more cutting edge, how they describe the Islamic character of their work, whether modern or tending more towards an idea of reviving the past. I have also tried to examine them in terms of their approach to the charity versus development nature of their work, ranging from what I term handout charity to a more developmental, more sustainable paradigm. I have also looked at how the organizations are structured: more hierarchical or more democratic?

Overall, I have found that the most useful categorization is around the concept of charity versus development, and the organizations I study fall along a continuum, with some involved in very traditional charity, some at the other extreme—very modern—and most falling somewhere in the middle. The picture is very dynamic, with much change, coming both from inside the organizations and from different understandings, local and international, in international development ideology. The Ministry of Social Solidarity also plays a role in pushing organizations away from handout charity. There is much talk about doing development, not charity. That is reflected in name changes we are seeing among a number of organizations.

Can you describe the picture in a bit more detail, and give some examples?

As I said, there is a wide continuum. At the "traditional charity" end are organizations like Gamia Charia, which is one of the oldest and largest Islamic charities, with some 5,000 branches across all of Egypt. Its leader is Mohamed Moktar El-Mahdy. It is almost completely focused on what I would call proselytizing (dawa), and it has managed to gain a lot of members and support. It is involved in many social services, for example through clinics attached to mosques, giving handouts, supporting orphans and widows through monthly assistance. That tends to be the traditional model. It takes inspiration from the sura of the Qur'an that sets out eight categories of those who are worthy recipients of charity (sura nine verse 60). The organization's balance sheets are aligned to those categories. Numbers one and two are the poor and needy. Those categories are defined respectively as those who are working and cannot meet their needs, and those who do not work and are in need. Within these groups, the needs of orphans and widows cannot be contested, and there is no doubt about their needs, so organizations tend to favor directing aid towards them. Most of the services are operated from mosques. The variety of organizations and services is very broad, ranging from religious schools, teaching centers, clinics, etc. The organization has many different faces, and it operates locally, but it is centrally administered from Cairo. It has a well-structured organization, though, that is not always evident in its local operations.

What do you understand by the term you used, proselytizing?

In Arabic the term they use is dawa. This generally refers to preaching of some sort. I call it proselytizing, but I mean that their central purpose is to bring people closer to God in their practice and lifestyle. They are not working to convert, but to see changes in lifestyle.

What about the other end of the spectrum?

The organizations I have identified there are mostly very small, and most were started by youth. These are mostly university graduates, and among the graduates especially the doctors and engineers, who, in Egypt, are those with the highest ranking in the university system. Many are starting these new organizations, sometimes as sub-organizations attached to existing ones but often as independent entities. Their perspective is that traditional charity is not working any more, and their interest is in development. They have seen the secular organizations at work and believe that an Islamic approach is the best way. Many are inspired by the very popular televangelist Amr Khaled and model themselves along similar lines. Such organizations might focus on skill upgrading or on microfinance. There are secular-based models that have worked in these areas for some time. When I asked what was the difference in what they were doing, the language they used tended to be more aligned with management science than with theology. But their comment is that their understanding of Islam is the correct one, that being effective and organized is Islamic. "Random or haphazard" organizations that just give handouts are not meeting the needs of the poor. They might say, "We are doing good deeds, and that is what it means to be a good Muslim." It is not enough just to do the formalities, to pray and fast. What is needed is to try to incorporate benevolence into one's lifestyle. 

These organizations attract youth as volunteers, as an act of piety. They might start as a Ramadan food projects, collecting bags of food for the poor, or running a blood drive. Then they see limits on such activity and want to have a more sustainable impact. The student-run organizations might, for example, pay the poor to work on semiconductors they need built to do their projects in college. Doctors volunteer time at clinics that collects small fees which support the clinic's costs. There are a wide variety of small, quite different institutions.

The traditional organizations tend to be led by elderly men and involve many housewives as volunteers, who see themselves as practicing charity through in-kind contributions, time, and knowledge. The modern organizations look very different and involve youth who see themselves building their own skills in leadership, business skills, and organization at the same time they are living the Islamic ideal.

What about the organizations in the middle, which you say are the large majority?

Most of these organizations still do charity, but they are doing something a bit more innovative. For example, traditional charities used to give interest-free loans. This is no longer practiced widely in Egypt (though it is more so in Lebanon). Instead, the organization gives tools or mechanisms to support self-sufficient lifestyles. Say someone from a rural area wants to open a kiosk. Traditionally, an organization might have given them a loan to start it or meet needs. In the newer model, they might provide a site, buy a parcel of land, or material goods. They might provide some training and follow through. There is a program that gives a family a cow, and they give a cow to a neighbor after it calves. It is in many senses still "charity," but done in a different way.

Can you give an example?

The Egyptian Food Bank is an interesting example. It began as Islamic in the sense of the motivation and the families concerned but operates largely as a secular organization They took note of the large waste of food from large wedding receptions and other hotel events. Most leftover food was thrown away. They went to the hotels, asking them to donate food, which they boxed up and distributed the next day. The effort launched a network, in effect an association, with lots of volunteers, which now runs a distribution network all around Cairo and nationwide. It is very successful and now also sells plastic boxes so people can do the same with leftovers. They have developed a similar program for distributing meat after the Islamic holiday of Eid. They have seen that food is not the only problem, and they have started to create networks in other areas—for example, youth clothing, and housing is on the way. This is changing and developing fast, before our eyes.

So you are seeing dynamic change?

Absolutely. There is lots of learning going on. However, there is a lack of documentation of these projects, and of what works and what does not. Organizations themselves complain that they are disconnected and are often reinventing the wheel.

What does this picture look like in relation to the secular NGOs?

There is a very similar continuum, and Islamic foundations may be some 10 percent of the some 400 foundations in Egypt. In terms of Islamic organizations, they constitute a very large percentage of the huge number or NGOs today. It is difficult to say exactly what percent or number are religious in nature because religious NGOs are grouped for reporting purposes by the Ministry of Social Solidarity with knowledge and scientific organizations. One general difference is that the secular organizations have developed broader agendas, including advocacy and policy-related approaches.

How does politics fit in this picture?

My research started with questions about how the war on terror was affecting charitable work, but I found that it really just added an additional level of surveillance, turning around concerns about political activity and security that already existed. A large bureaucracy had already been created. So the new measures meant that there were not that many changes in the way things worked on the ground. What is new is that all international funding must go through the ministry, and the ministry must be notified. There are all kinds of new guidelines. So the 9/11 marker is not that important as a major change in the environment.

Do you perceive much tension around the boundaries between charity and development and politics?

Yes indeed. One manifestation is that when I asked about political activity or relationships with government, every single organization said categorically "we are apolitical." What that means in practice obviously varies. But the government has sent a clear message that combining politics with social work is not desirable or tolerated. Organizations do a good job of distancing themselves from politics, largely as a protective mechanism.

Where does the Muslim Brotherhood fit in this picture?

The Brotherhood obviously is a banned entity, and it is technically a political party. Scholars have observed that they have been hugely involved in social services. I struggled myself in my research to understand where they fit. The social aspects of the organization are not visible because they are banned. But they are present in many ways. The organization may work through the non-profit sector in different ways, or through professional syndicates. I tried to understand how previous scholars had documented their social work, but I could not document their involvement myself. It appears to work through very informal networks. Organizations that are registered, and attached to mosques, do not affiliate themselves with the Brotherhood, at least not publicly. It is in a sense the big white elephant in the room. Information about their work is very partial. I was able to interview some people with Brotherhood affiliations in the doctors' union; even there, there were abstractions in almost everything they said and in how they described what they do. My impressions were that they were very political at present, focused on getting seats in parliament, with not much energy focused on social services. My conclusion is that it is seen as significant in public discourse because the government has framed Islamic entities and their concern about them as an issue of the Brotherhood, so therefore, amongst laypeople, the social work of mosques is seem to represent the Brotherhood even if in reality there is virtually no direct link.

What role does the Ministry of Social Solidarity play in practice?

It is a very large organization, with many different departments and a number of quite distinct bureaucratic functions. And there are other relevant organizations, especially the Ministry of Endowment, or waqf. The committees that work out of mosques, zakat committees, are considered to be engaged in waqf and report to the Ministry of Endowments; associations (non-governmental organizations) report to the Ministry of Social Solidarity. And there are mechanisms and organizations that fall between. The Nasser Social Bank is also significant as it hold the accounts for the zakat committees. That is just a small part of its activities; for example, they administer interest-free loans to government employees. The Nasser Social Bank was the first interest-free bank in Egypt, established in 1971. Although some of the literature identifies this as an Islamic bank, it is in fact a social bank providing interest-free loans to the poor and needy and scholarships to students, in addition to more conventional loans. Although it was established in 1971 as a social bank it has since grown into something much larger. For Islamic banking, many people bank with Faisal Islamic Bank. Another organization of importance is the NGO union which represents some civil society interests to the ministries.

There is considerable change in the organizations of government also. In the past, the Ministry of Social Solidarity was much involved in providing social services directly, and it also handles social security and pensions. Formerly known as the Ministry of Social Affairs, its new name reflects a changed mandate, as it is less and less involved in playing a direct role in social service provision, and much more in overseeing the activities of non-profit organizations. They see themselves as overseeing but also helping with information sharing and communications.

What form does surveillance take?

It is based on Law 83 of 2002, which outlines a whole set of regulations. They include a detailed outline of the registration process, including the specification that the organization must have at least 10 members; it gives the ministry the right to research who the members are and the right to accord their status. Organizations report back annually, need to have quarterly meetings, notify the ministry about any public meetings, and receive permission to receive foreign funds. There are many mechanisms embedded in the bureaucratic systems designed to keep track of the roughly 23,000 organizations (though in practice it is the bureaucracy that determines how this complex array of regulations is in fact enforced).

What is their positive role? What is the significance of "status"?

Having legal status is important. Otherwise, the change in role from government provision of funding is a significant new element. Many organizations used to get money from the government. Some still do, but generally most do not. Thus there is much more emphasis on private funding and more involvement of the private sector.

Where is most of the money coming from?

For the Islamic organizations, they rely mostly on donations, thus zakat from individuals. Increasingly large businessmen are setting up foundations and donating large sums. Organizations used to get funds from abroad—the United States, the Gulf—but those flows have been curbed quite a bit. There is much fundraising activity, both around mosques and institutions but also using modern techniques—satellite TV, for example. Many channels donate air time for drives, etc.

How closely does the government look at these funding flows and how?

There are many rules and regulations and requirements. Accounts must be submitted, reports filed, receipts kept, etc. However, my sense is that the ministry collects more information than they can really process. Egypt is still largely a cash economy. So there are lots of problems. Most donations are given in cash, in boxes, not by checks, nor with credit card numbers. Much charity is informal and difficult to document. There are a host of incentives for things to be done underground.

How much is the change and dynamic of these organizations being studied?

It is a growing field. Many are studying nonprofits, though there is less looking at financial flows. Youth organizations are a large focus of current research. As to foundation work, the Gerhart Center is the premier institutions. UNDP prepared a recent report in the context of human development work. However, the research is quite limited, and it is all quite new; there were not any foundations before 2002. The Center for Development Studies, working with the Near East Foundation, has done a study of individual giving in Egypt.

And it is incredibly difficult to study. There are many barriers, including suspicion and a lack of transparency, on different levels. There are concerns about researchers' relation to the government, and their motives. More generally, there is a culture of secrecy about charity. Many believe that charity is not valid unless it is done in secret. If it is announced or known, it is not charity. There is thus a cultural norm of silence on the issue, and a resistance to institutionalization.

How do networks among institutions work?

Generally not much, largely because of the concerns about government control. People are conscious of them and want to ensure that they do not get too large or powerful. There are also rules and regulations about cooperation. The overall result is rather dampening to networks.

Can you briefly describe the Gerhart Center study on philanthropy and its background, and give some examples?

The study is looking at institutionalized philanthropy, and especially six categories of organizations. I am looking at all six and focusing on an example of each one.

(a) Religious charities that are moving towards more of a foundation character. The example is El Omorn, a large charity, operating for many years. The foundation involves getting businessmen to get together, along lines that resemble the “adopt a road” project in the United States. They work in rural villages; they are also involved in traditional charitable work, for example with orphans; they run an orphan day, for example.

(b) Operational foundations focused on a particular cause. An example is Al-Noor, a large eyeglass company—Maghrabi Group founded the organization, and the foundation deals with eye disease. Among its programs is one that focuses on trachoma. They do research and work with the Ministry of Health, and they have gotten donations from Pfizer to distribute medicine to rural areas. At present they operate themselves but hope to get involved in grant-making.

(c) Grant-making foundations. An example is the Sewiras Foundation. Its mission is to create jobs, and it gives grants to organizations working to this end. Its focus is on sustainable programs, with an emphasis on results and performance. The programs are to be demand-driven, and involve, for example, skill upgrading for nurses and artisans.

(d) Private sector partnership. The Egyptian Food Bank we discussed earlier is an example. These usually involve individuals—businessmen—with a vision.

(e) Corporate grant-making. An example is the EFG Hermes bank. These foundations tend to be inspired by the corporate social responsibility movement and to fund small organizations involved with a variety of social causes. Many are multinational.

(f) Community foundations. These focus on a specific location and generally involve multiple donors. An example is Waqfayet al Maadi, or the Maadi Community Foundation. It is an attempt to revive the Islamic practice of waqf to create sustainable development in a particular place.

Why is there so much change and what is the significance of the year 2002 that you have noted several times as a watershed?

The development of foundations and philanthropy is dynamic and fast changing. This is directly linked to changes in the law. Charity was governed by Law 32 of 1964 for many years, until the new Law of Associations (Law 153) which was enacted in 1999. The change came in response to many problems as the environment had changed so much, and long and active lobbying and negotiations. The new law introduced important new restrictions (notably those related to the required permission to receive funds); assets can be seized, and boards dissolved. It governs taxation status and fundraising status. The law was actually promulgated in 2002.

This one in 2002 included a separate regulation for foundations. Foundations are able to register as such, thus distinct from associations. Their registration is based on a sum of money, rather than the number of members. The laws are laxer on foundations, and they have fewer associated requirements, for example on annual meetings. There are already nearly 400 foundations registered with the ministry.

How many with a religious character?

Very hard to tell...probably around 10 percent.

Just to conclude, can you comment on the role women are playing in the religiously inspired organizations?

There is an important and well-established organization led by women. It was set up in the 1970s and operates through zakat committees, out of mosques. It has branches all over Cairo. More generally, in conservative circles the separation of the sexes means that activities tend to be separate. Women are involved in a lot of organizations, and even where there is a male administration, in practice many women are involved in operational work. This is particularly true at the traditional end of the spectrum. I have not come across more modern, youth-led organizations that are run by women. Nonetheless, women are the main volunteers in most of the newer organizations.

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