COVID-19 And The Shift To Collective Strategic Philanthropy

Forbes ME / 24 Nov 2020 

For the philanthropy sector, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated an important shift to a new era of “collective strategic philanthropy” to better meet the challenges facing sustainable development. 

In the Arab states, this represents a repositioning from using well-understood formulas of short-term giving, such as infrastructure projects and direct donations, to investing in sustainable solutions with measurable impacts. It is about tackling the root causes of the challenges of today through strategic and collaborative thinking and actions. 

Previous generations of philanthropists focused primarily on charitable giving. In the Arab region they would give privately, with a humble integrity that spoke of their beliefs of civic and religious responsibility. In other regions, large-scale giving is still primarily an extension of public relations for corporations, differentiating them from their competitors. 

The efforts of the previous generations have been instrumental in improving the quality of life for millions worldwide. In our increasingly globalized world, it is worthwhile to note that direct charitable giving is facing greater limitations to its potential outcomes. 

Efforts that are made in isolation, or are solely donor-driven, have shown to have diffused and unfocused impacts. This sacrifices opportunities to create momentum to bring about lasting change. 

A new era of collective strategic philanthropy is emerging around the world. The private and public sectors are being called upon to collaboratively design, implement, and fund interlinked, high-impact solutions to create a better and more sustainable future for all. Initiatives like the Global Muslim Philanthropy Fund for Children are galvanizing efforts to address problems that cannot be resolved by one person alone. 

For years now, philanthropists have been institutionalizing their giving and operationalizing their efforts. This is allowing them to become globally-recognized actors in the development sector, amongst others. Entire academic conferences and events like Philanthropy & the SDGs, hosted by the United Nations, are being organized around how to adapt current models to better incorporate partnerships with philanthropic organizations. The idea is to generate impact through collective action and strategic planning across sectors and priority areas. 

Philanthropy has been taking a key position in this new system, as it has the advantage of being more flexible, innovative, and well positioned. Furthermore, philanthropy requires certain conditions to succeed and benefit all involved. It needs data for transparency and informed decision-making, technology to link donors and recipients, capacity-building to help make better use of existing resources, effective donor coordination, and professional accountability that builds trust between stakeholders. 

So, what does this mean for the Arab region’s burgeoning philanthropic sector as it enters a new era of collective strategic philanthropy? Being driven to create sustainable impact requires Arab philanthropists to adapt and become more vocal and visible about the region’s shared culture of giving. It requires the engagement of likeminded actors across sectors to bring about sustainable progress through championing local solutions. This will drive the region’s recognition that the actors in the Arab states are key contributors to the progress of the region. 

Philanthropy’s guiding principles and practices are being refined during the pandemic, as it’s been forced to further innovate to be effective in the new global reality. During these pandemic times, digital innovation is playing a key role, online learning is the new go-to solution for education, remote work has become a necessity, and new careers have emerged, pushing out some older ways of work. These are the changes that should be embraced, studied, and incorporated into more effective models of philanthropic programs and delivery of funds. 

The world needs sustainable solutions to its longstanding challenges. Furthermore, the marginalization of so many Arab families, which is robbing the youth of their hope for the future, demands the Arab region’s response. 

Collective strategic philanthropy has a key role to play in the upcoming post COVID-19 reality. This new era will be led by those who adopt and refine innovative and flexible frameworks for action, learning, and continuous improvement. 

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Arab Philanthropy: Moving Beyond Money To Outcomes

Calls for more funds to serve those who are facing aggravated health and economic risks in the Arab region due to the onslaught of COVID-19, have been multiplying every month since the pandemic struck in March this year. 

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA), in its COVID-19 appeal, has asked for $94.6 million this year alone to continue responding to the emergency needs of 5.6 million registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East. The funds are intended to be, among other things, spent on healthcare, direct cash assistance and education. According to UNICEF, 150 million additional children have been plunged into poverty due to COVID-19, pushing the total number to an estimated 1.2 billion. 

“Families on the cusp of escaping poverty have been pulled back in, while others are experiencing multi-dimensional levels of deprivation they have never seen before. Most concerningly, we are closer to the beginning of this crisis than its end,” said UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore. 

In such a grim scenario, it is not surprising that the number of appeals for funds is multiplying at an alarming rate, with governments in low and middle-income countries struggling to ensure that at least the basic needs of their populations are met. 

Amidst this crisis, it is interesting to note that donors in the Arab region, and globally too, are looking at their donations in a very different way. There is a diametric shift away from giving money and counting success based on the dollar value collected and donated, to having an outcomes-focused mindset. 

The increased attention on outcomes, rather than outputs, is paramount as the development sector has evolved over time. The delivery of goods or services is no longer the metric by which success is measured; rather it is more and more about “measurable benefit.” 

In education, this will signify that providing training to a group of people is no longer enough for donor accountability. The training must offer upskilling to beneficiaries and pave the way for them to access better opportunities and attain elevated levels of living and livelihood. In other words, we do not need more youth earning a “certificate of completion” for a course that does not give them a better chance of getting a job. 

This global shift towards “responsible giving” is arguably more pronounced among Arab philanthropists and young Arabs in general. It is operationalized through initiatives like the Gulf-backed Centre for Strategic Philanthropy at Cambridge Judge Business School, the Global Muslim Philanthropy Fund and Alfanar, the Arab region’s first venture philanthropy. These are examples of initiatives that demonstrate the new ways in which Arab philanthropy is leveraging funds to achieve better results for vulnerable populations. In other words, monetary donations are an insufficient mechanism when it comes to the new way of giving in the Arab region. 

Interestingly, we are now seeing education grants being given based on a competitive selection process solely to organizations that work directly with refugee and conflict-affected children and youth in the UAE, Lebanon, and Jordan. In addition, the philanthropists are embedding an impact-driven funding approach in their partnership-agreement model. 

The most notable piece in this puzzle is the foundation of professional accountability within the strategic partnership model that facilitated the rapid responses needed for operators to respond to urgent situations. The result of this approach is that refugee and vulnerable Arab youth receive educational opportunities that lead to credentials even during the pandemic. 

Overall, philanthropic giving in the Arab world needs to define success within the context of approaches, protocols, and procedures that lead to results-based, transparent communication between the donor and program partners. In other words, organizations must explore ways in which co-created processes allow for fiscal, technical and results-driven reporting, creating a platform for knowledge-sharing, and designing responsive solutions. If they believe that the best outcomes are enhancing the livelihoods of thousands of beneficiaries, then they need to innovate together for a measurable impact on the lives of these vulnerable individuals. 

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Vocational Education in the Arab Region Faces Challenges in Shifting Online

Al Fanar – 13 Oct 2020  

Challenges for vocational education include translating instruction to an online format, retaining students who may lack digital resources, and adapting to a changing job market. Above, Hidaya Syam and classmates participate in an online class. 

The shift to online learning that the Covid-19 shutdowns forced on universities and schools has created particular set of challenges for technical and vocational schools in the Middle East and North Africa region, where lack of access to digital devices, poor Internet connections and a widening digital divide are causing some students to fall behind. 

Many technical and vocational courses rely on practical demonstrations that are difficult to translate to a digital environment, and the programs typically attract students from low-income backgrounds who are less likely to have access to digital devices. 

With Covid-19 caseloads climbing and many students unable to attend class, there is concern that these young people, many of whom already live in challenging environments, will suffer a lasting impact on their education. 

“There is a huge need to build digital skills amongst the most vulnerable,” says Sonia Ben Jaafar, chief executive of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, which provides scholarships and skills training to underserved students in the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Jordan. 

“What the Covid crisis exposed was an increase in the gender digital divide (which) adversely affects gender gaps in education, violence and higher risk of female drop-outs,” she says. “The result is girls are left behind and cultural norms dictate that online learning remains in the male domain.”  

“The new Covid-19 reality taught us to re-emphasize the importance of being a flexible donor … and provide grantees with the opportunity to be creative in exploring solutions.” 

Danah DajaniDirector of philanthropic partnerships of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education 

In response, the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation has enabled its grantees to repurpose funds and buy laptops and data bundles for students to continue their education during the pandemic. 

“The new Covid-19 reality taught us to re-emphasize the importance of being a flexible donor … and provide grantees with the opportunity to be creative in exploring solutions,” says Danah Dajani, the foundation’s director of philanthropic partnerships. 

Mistrust of Online Learning 

This hasn’t been easy, though. Despite the recent efforts to create functioning virtual classrooms in response to Covid-19, online learning remains far from mainstream for many schools across the Middle East and North Africa. 

A survey of 1,000 Arab university students conducted by the Al Ghurair Foundation between October 2018 and January 2019 found that, while many students were willing to top up their studies with online courses, “Arab youth still have misconceptions around online learning, which seem to limit their openness to pursuing it for traditional degrees.”  

This hesitancy seems particularly strong among students in vocational and technical schools. 

In Sudan, Hamdan Mohamed, a student at the Department of Telecommunications Engineering at Gezira College of Technology, in Khartoum, says the online method has failed the more vulnerable in his community. “We will not benefit. The Internet is weak in Sudan and students do not have the means to afford it,” he says. Worse, additional charges have been levied for courses going online. “I decided to stop studying this year because I need to earn money,” Mohamed says. 

Others struggle to engage with online lessons. In Egypt, Ahmed Saeed, 19, has been trying to keep up with his first-year mechatronics course at Beni-Suef University of Technology from his home in Alexandria, but says online teaching is no substitute for in-class training. “I am a technical high school graduate and I do not like theoretical study,” he says. “I do not feel that I have absorbed the lessons well … but we had no other solution.” 

Even students who succeed in completing a program online may face frustrations as they start new jobs from home. 

Two weeks into his new role as a software engineer at an IT services company in Jordan, Osama Mousa is becoming familiar with the demands of his job, but he misses the buzz of an office. “I like to be in an environment where I can mingle with friends and enjoy my work,” the 25-year-old says. “I’d prefer to prove myself in the office, but they told us that to stay safe we have to work from home.” 

Students participate in a class at Luminus Technical University College that uses blended learning (Photo courtesy of Luminus Technical University College)

Mousa is in a better position than most. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Jordan, prompting one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in mid-March, he was already halfway through his course at the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair School of Advanced Computing, part of Luminus Technical University College, in Amman. The school switched to virtual classes, delivering 170 laptops to students so they could continue their studies online. “It was difficult at first but after that we learned how to communicate and ask questions virtually,” he says. 

Reaching More Students Remotely 

Even institutions that were operating a blended learning model before the pandemic have found the sudden shift online disruptive. Zeina Saab, the co-founder of SE Factory, which runs coding bootcamps for refugees and vulnerable youth in Lebanon, recalls a conversation with colleagues in early March, when the rising Covid-19 caseload began to have a profound impact on everyday life. 

“We were really concerned. … A lot of these students needed to be in class in person. The question was how to make this experience really valid and maintain the quality of the course, even if it went online.” 

At first, the dropout rate increased as power cuts and poor Internet connections interrupted classes and teachers struggled to keep students engaged as they logged in from homes that were often crowded and noisy. 

It was a stressful period, says Saab, but over the last few months it’s become clear that online learning brings benefits, too, like allowing the organization to reach more students in remote areas and reducing costs for rent, transportation and refreshments. Interactive online tools like Miro, a visual collaboration software that facilitates brainstorming sessions and workshops, have also helped keep students engaged, while English classes have boosted their ability to navigate the digital space. 

“The Covid crisis forced people to speed up to online. Resistance was not an option.” 

Sonia Ben Jaafar  Chief executive of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education 

It has also helped change attitudes toward online education. “Remote learning has really been validated, even remote work. This wasn’t a culture that people openly embraced even before Covid in Lebanon,” Saab says. In the future, she feels a blended learning model would be best. “Online alone won’t work,” she says. “Even with the pandemic, people are not yet ready to go fully online. It needs to be blended.” 

But the pandemic has sown the seeds for a new era of education in the region, accelerating a digital uptake that was long overdue. “The Covid crisis forced people to speed up to online,” says Jaafar, of the Al Ghurair Foundation. “Resistance was not an option.” 

‘Tech Is the New Reality’ 

The shift comes at a time when pressure is mounting on Arab education ministries to upgrade outdated learning models and modernize curricula as labor markets evolve and job requirements change. According to a report published by the Al Ghurair Foundation, 47 percent of work activities in the region’s largest economies are likely to become automated in the coming years, requiring new skill sets that will transform the way people work. 

“If not addressed, Arab youth’s lack of readiness for the labor market may be further exacerbated in the medium or long term,” says the report, titled “Online Learning in the Arab World: An Educational Model That Needs Support.” 

Vocational education—which has typically prepared Arab students for low-paid jobs such as carpentry, construction, sewing and salon work—runs this risk, limiting the opportunities available to young people and failing to address market requirements by churning out hundreds of graduates for roles that are already over-subscribed. 

“We need to make sure all TVET (technical and vocational education and training) courses are aligned with what the market demands and needs,” Ben Jaafar says, and “ensure the private sector is engaged from the onset.” Otherwise, it becomes the same mismatch in skills between many higher education institutes and the workforce, she adds. 

And the future is decidedly online. “Tech is the new reality,” she says. “You can’t get a job and improved livelihood if you don’t have digital literacy at a minimum.” 

Currently, there’s a high demand for programmers in the Emirates, where the emphasis on theoretical over practical learning at the university level leaves many graduates ill-prepared for the jobs sector. This creates a gap that organizations like Luminus, which is one of the Al Ghurair Foundation’s grantees, hope to fill. 

Hidaya Syam took a course at the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair School of Advanced Computing, part of Luminus Technical University College, in Amman, to boost her job prospects (Photo courtesy of Luminus Technical University College).

“We’re seeing this with students graduating from the programming and software development courses, who are getting jobs they would never have been able to access previously, and they are getting them really fast, even in a pandemic,” Dajani says.

Ready for the World of Work

Since funds were repurposed during the pandemic, 150 students have been able to take online courses at the Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair School of Advanced Computing, at Luminus Technical University College, and 22 have graduated so far. Of these, 14 have gained full-time employment at companies including Amazon, Bank al Etihad, and Bayt, a major Middle East job platform, with salaries starting at $1,000 a month, approximately four to six times the average wage in Jordan.

A month before finishing her course at the advanced computing school, Hidaya Syam, 22, had already landed a job doing coding work remotely for a company in Canada. After graduating from the Jordan University of Science and Technology earlier this year, she was apprehensive about her prospects. “I had a lot of fears about how I could get a job after uni because all universities in Jordan focus on theory not practical studies and I wasn’t prepared to get anything in the job market.”

Syam, who is Palestinian and lives in the Jerash refugee camp in northern Jordan, says a lot of young people like her struggle to find work, despite having degrees in relevant sectors. But since taking the course, she’s mastered some of the soft skills needed for the workplace. “After I started with ASAC I felt, OK, I can go to the job market with confidence.”

In wealthier countries, too, efforts are underway to bolster the vocational sector and furnish students with practical skills for the changing world of work. The U.A.E. government says the country needs to produce 10 Emiratis with vocational skills for every university graduate in order to achieve its goal of creating a sustainable and diversified knowledge-based economy. With a focus on new and emerging technologies, materials and systems, it is now a national priority to ensure the Emirati population is armed with skills to drive the economy of the future, beyond oil.

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