Diana Hollmann

Arab World Social Innovation Forum – Roll Up Your Sleeves!

Last week in bustling Cairo, Ashoka Arab World convened more than 250 practitioners from civil society, the public and private sectors, academics, as well as social entrepreneurs from more than 20 countries at the Arab World Social Innovation Forum. The two days of keynotes, round table discussions and networking were loaded with energy also from those who participated as delegates at last month’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship in DC and brought their experiences back to the region. Although everyone was ready to build on the momentum built up by Obama’s Summit, you could tell that there was a common understanding that this is not the time to wait for assistance from outside but rather for everybody right here in the region to roll up the sleeves and get dirty.

The first day kicked off with a reception, dinner and engaging keynotes. Participants had the chance to catch up on current initiatives, to connect for new partnerships and to learn about what projects are still in the pipeline.

The keynote speakers set the mood for the Forum: Mrs. Dalia Mogahed, Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies and Advisor to the White House Office on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, talked about five competencies that are key for what she called the “coming age of wisdom”: the drive to keep going despite problems that seem impossible to bear, the ability to see the wholeness and interconnectivity of the world, the ability to reach out and partner across boundaries as challenges do not stop at country borders either, a sincere compassion for the environment and the poor, as well as strength and clarity to stand up to core values. She concluded that “social entrepreneurs excel at these competencies and they must lead the way through the wisdom age.”

Naguib Sawiris, Chairman and CEO of Orascom Telecom Holding, addressed issues of innovation and entrepreneurship in the region highlighting the need to open up minds for change. He sees education and instilment of entrepreneurship amongst the youth as key for wealth creation. Dr. Farkhonda Hassan, from the Egyptian National Council for Women, shared examples of inspiring women entrepreneurs and expressed the importance of knowing the forms and contexts social entrepreneurs work in to be able to cater support to their specific needs.

Ambassador Hisham Youssif spoke on behalf of Mr. Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League, and provided some daunting figures outlining the challenges of the region: 40 percent of the population live below the poverty line, the region needs to create an incredible 100 million jobs by 2020 to keep up with population growth and provide employment opportunities to young people entering the job markets, and 70 million people are illiterate – the majority being women.

With those numbers in mind it was great to learn about new initiatives and see the induction of new Ashoka Fellows that will address some of those challenges.

Naif Al-Mutawa, Kuwaiti social entrepreneur, and Ahmed Nassef, Vice President and Managing Director of Yahoo! Middle East, talked about their current initiatives. Al-Mutawa inspires youth with the comic book series “The 99” on the world’s first superheroes based on Islamic culture and society. Soon also to be aired on TV, the series promotes universal values and morals such as tolerance, teamwork and appreciation of diversity. Have a look at Al-Mutawa’s very entertaining TED talk to learn more.

Also Yahoo! Middle East works on motivating Arab youth to become social entrepreneurs. They recently started a partnership with Egyptian social entrepreneurship incubator Nahdet El Mahrousa initiating an online campaign and competition called “Social Innovation Starts With YOU”.

Closing the first day of the Forum, 10 new Ashoka Fellows from across the region were inducted. One of the Fellows applying income-generating models is Jordanian Rabee Zureikat. He works on overcoming stereotypes between urban and rural communities while nurturing socio-economic development through combining exchange tourism with microloan programs.

The second day of the Forum was more hands-on. Participants gathered for issue specific round-tables to drill down on key challenges, to discuss opportunities and to formulate specific measures to advance and leverage social entrepreneurship.

Round table 1: Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship
(Thanks to Jamil Wyne from Ashoka Arab World who attended this round table and shared his impressions!)

Keeping in mind the demographic growth and the ensuing “youth explosion” is one of the main challenges in the MENA region, it was not a surprise that this was by far the most attended round table. One of the major issues that came up was the question of how to even define “social entrepreneurship”. Most attendees agreed that there is a need for a more specific definition of what the term entails; however, this should be fulfilled by setting a frame referring to a set of principles rather than pinning down a couple of sentences that aim to be all-encompassing.

Dalia Mogahed noted that 25% of youth in the MENA region want to start their own business compared to only 4% in the US. To unleash this potential for youth social entrepreneurship, changes in public policies that create an enabling environment as well as measures to increase awareness among the youth are crucial. Finding ways for measuring and monitoring social impact will be one component that could help advance advocacy efforts.

The value of this round table lay in the numerous pledges of participants. Just to name a couple of examples: Rama Chakaki from Baraka Ventures from the UAE will establish an online platform to connect social entrepreneurs from around the region. Fairouz Omar, Ashoka Fellow from Egypt, will develop student curricula that have a greater focus on social innovation. To see all pledges, have a look at the Ashoka Arab World Blog.

Round table 2: Social Investment Framework
(Thanks to Emily Zivanov Kaiser, from the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women who coordinated the session, for sharing her insights from this round table!)

During the round table on Social Investment, individuals from both sides of the investment equation agreed that a framework and a common understanding are needed to increase social investment and maximize its impact in the region. The private, social, and government sectors should be involved in the process of establishing and activating a framework. However, there was a concern of involving the government too much as for a fear it could hinder rather than enable the work and impact of investors and development practitioners.

Azza Kamel, Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Egyptian NGO Alwan wa Awtar (Crayons and Strings), emphasized that CSR and – to a greater extent – social investment are still nascent concepts in the MENA region. Both are based on a partnership approach between the sectors which does not seem to be as widespread in MENA as in other regions.

A division among opinions endured throughout the session: business sector representatives primarily concerned with economic returns on the one side and development practitioners emphasizing the significance of non-financial outcomes on the other side. To bring both minds together, discussants suggested that now is the time to build a case for social investment in the region. Learning from experience and creating benchmarks as well as standards will be an important basis to build trust and a common understanding.

Also this round table concluded with a number of pledges: Hibaaq Osman, Founder and CEO of Karama, and Maha Helali, Ashoka Fellow and founder of ADVANCE, will organize a regional forum on social investment. Mohamed El Sawy, Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Sawy Culturewheel in Egypt, will establish a company to invest in financially-sustainable, profitable social ventures. Have a look at the Ashoka Arab World Blog to read about all pledges.

Round table 3: Market-based Solutions

The round table on market-based solutions focused on Ashoka’s Housing For All (HFA) initiative that aims to provide affordable and structurally-sound housing for low-income communities (Iman Bibars had outlined the HFA concept in an earlier NextBillion.net post). Participants agreed that HFA is about empowering local communities by involving them as drivers of the initiative.

Some discord amongst discussants arose regarding the question whether a program like HFA could be a fully “market-based” initiative or whether it might be more appropriate to consider a “market-friendly” approach instead. Ahmed Fattouh, Managing Partner at Baron Advisors LLC Landmark Investors LLC, raised concerns about the feasibility of a pro-poor market-based initiative such as HFA considering the current situation of the financial markets: “Is sub-sub-sub-subprime less risky than subprime? Is it really a good idea to empower by lending if they cannot repay – would we do more harm than good?” Especially when applying microfinance to fields such as housing that are not directly income-generating, support mechanisms need to be in place that ensure that clients will be able to repay loans. Steve Podmore, founder of Global Sustainability Challenge, suggested implementing governance mechanisms that would avoid unwanted consequences of for-profit solutions such as unnecessarily high interest rates. Also, addressing the housing issue with a more comprehensive community approach could lower the risk. Such an approach would consider job creation as well as further social and economic benefits within the community. Another option that might help to reduce risk for the stakeholders involved would be to consider Islamic Banking solutions that are not build on interest-generating mechanisms.

Participants of the round table pledged to advance market-based / market-friendly development initiatives with academic research and case study writing, the exploration of partnerships as well as direct investment in HFA. All pledges are spelled out in the Ashoka Arab World Blog.

In a nutshell:

A lot to learn – The discussions during and outside of the round tables showed that there is still a lot of room for better defining the “what” and the “how” of social entrepreneurship in the region. It seems important to create a common understanding on terminology and concepts to drive a more targeted discourse, raise awareness and create an adequate support infrastructure in the MENA region. In particular, ways need to be explored to include the youth in these endeavors and encourage them to become involved in social entrepreneurship.

A lot to come – Many new initiatives are starting up or are already underway in the MENA region. More experience and more documented cases of what has worked and what hasn’t will help to get a better grasp of the sector’s characteristics in the MENA region and create adequate support mechanisms. As the Arab World Social Innovation Forum has proved, individuals and institutions of the region are eager to advance the sector and are committed to take specific actions.