While the popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have posed immediate challenges for charities, many nonprofit officials say they are hopeful that philanthropy will soon have new opportunities in the region. The starkest example of a new climate may be in Tunisia, where the mid-January ouster of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s authoritarian president, has meant that nonprofits once repressed by the government are now advising the political transition.
Regan E. Ralph, executive director of the Fund for Global Human Rights, in Washington, says the handful of Tunisian human-rights groups supported by her organization have been asked to weigh in on questions about changing the country’s constitution and holding elections. “They have gone from being marginalized and harassed at best, with very limited resources, to having huge demand placed on them,” she says.
Her organization awarded $120,000 in grants to Tunisian groups in 2009 and is now seeking to step up its giving.
Other charities, too, are considering opening offices in Tunisia, particularly as U.S. government aid money becomes available.
Relief International, an aid group based in Los Angeles, and Education for Employment Foundation, a group with headquarters in Washington that works throughout the Middle East, are beginning to consider the possibility of starting job-creation and employment programs in the North African nation.
Prospects for Egypt
Similarly, in Egypt, the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February holds the potential for many charities to expand their operations, nonprofit experts say.
Making grants to Egyptian charities has been difficult for some time because of a rule requiring that all contributions from foreign donors be approved by the government. Nonprofit officials hope that new leadership might abandon that restriction, says Solome Lemma, senior program officer for the Global Fund for Children’s Africa programs.
“With the new Egypt that’s being established, there will be more of a role for advocacy, for human-rights activities, civic rights, for monitoring the government,” says Magdy El-Sanady, a visiting professor in nonprofit management at Cairo University.
But some large nonprofits will have to grapple with their ties to the Mubarak regime, says Barbara Ibrahim, director of the John D. Gerhart Center for Philanthropy at the American University, in Cairo.
Many groups found that appointing high-level government officials or family members of Mr. Mubarak to their boards opened doors, she says.
“Some were legitimate organizations providing meaningful grants, but with others, it’s more questionable,” says Ms. Ibrahim.
She and other experts say that global philanthropy could help by connecting Egyptian nonprofit leaders with officials from other parts of the world, such as Eastern Europe, that had made successful transitions to democracy.
Others say employment programs should be a priority. The protests arose not just from a desire for democracy but also in response to the bleak economic outlook, particularly for young people: In Egypt, people under 25 make up 80 of those who are unemployed.
“The key role of philanthropy is not traditional education, traditional child survival, social services, the traditional areas that philanthropy deals with,” says Susan Raymond, who worked on projects in Egypt with the World Bank and now serves as executive vice president of Changing Our World, a New York group that provides advice to charities. “The real sticking point here is how to empower these young people with jobs and enterprises and creativity and productivity.”
Dr. El-Sanady, of Cairo University, says that nonprofits need help strengthening their operations and collaborating with one another. Donors have typically focused on starting short-term projects rather than supporting institutions and networks of charities.
Despite the general optimism, some nonprofit experts worry that if a more conservative, religious government were to succeed Mr. Mubarak’s regime, life could become get more restrictive, not less, for human-rights and civil-rights charities, and for groups that receive U.S. government money.
“That would be extremely dangerous for the philanthropic sector,” says Dr. El-Sanady.
And the immediate term has been a challenge. Many companies that offer jobs to young people enrolled in Education for Employment Foundation’s training programs, for example, are holding off on new employment contracts because of the economic uncertainty. As of last week, the country’s stock market remained closed.
Meanwhile, the situation in Libya is far bleaker. A humanitarian crisis is brewing along the country’s borders with Egypt and Tunisia as tens of thousands of people flee Libyan leader Col. Muammar el-Quaddafi’s violent crackdown against protestors trying to oust him from power.
Many large U.S. aid groups are responding and some are raising money for the crisis. Islamic Relief, in Alexandria, Va., has received more than $1-million so far and recently increased its goal by $500,000 to $1.5-million.
Asma Yousef, a spokeswoman at Islamic Relief, says the humanitarian situation is poised to deteriorate as fighting spreads to the western part of the country, which is home to three-quarters of Libya’s population. “There is already a shortage of food and medicine,” she says. “We anticipate there will be a serious need for us and other NGOs.”
Nicole Wallace contributed to this article.