Middle East Social Entrepreneurship Faces Challenges, but No Shortage of Volunteers

The Arab Spring brought tumult to the Middle East, but the demonstrations have also ushered in new aspects to civil life in Arab society. Egypt this past week saw its first free presidential elections in its history as a result, and Arab youth across the region have used new media as an unfiltered way to express themselves and organize as they never could before.

Researchers at Stanford University say that the Arab Spring has also lent itself to furthering the development of social entrepreneurship in the region. According to its March report, Social Entrepreneurship: Why It Is Important After the Arab Spring, "unanimously across the region, young people are more interested in improving their communities and contributing to the long-term development of their societies after the revolution."

Jointly done by its Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, online Middle East jobsite Bayt.com, and YouGov Siraj, an online research firm in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the report notes that in a survey of over 12,000 respondents from the region, more than one in four said they were already involved in volunteerism, while roughly 40% of respondents stated they were interested in starting their own business.

The challenges facing social entrepreneurship, the report notes, are those faced by traditional startups in the region. Financing is a big stumbling block, along with bureaucratic hurdles, and unclear regulations. "Although there are other challenges facing social entrepreneurship in the region, such as the lack of entrepreneurial skills among the youth, it is environmental factors that have been cited more widely by the respondents across the region," the report notes.

Still, the upsurge in social media use following the Arab Spring protests has translated into greater efforts in social entrepreneurship, as the medium has appealed to a young Arab population that is very idealistic about causing change," said Racha Mourtada, research associate at the Dubai School of Government, which has been conducting ongoing studies into the use of social media in the region.

"People are starting to realize that yes, they can use social media and social entrepreneurship to create social change, to start their own business or create awareness in their community," Mourtada said. "There are all sorts of positive things that can come out of the use of social media."

Social Entrepreneurship Tech

There are a number of efforts aimed at regional youth, but technology is the way to get them socially involved, says Patricia Anderson of Gulf for Good, a UAE charity that organizes adventure challenges for people to raise sponsorship to support children’s charities around the world.

"Teenagers are now so much more aware of the plight of people less fortunate than themselves, they are made aware by their parents, teachers and through connecting to global issues through television and the Internet," she says. "They don’t just sit back and do nothing. Instead, they are empowered to do something to try to help."

One tech initiative from Dubai takes the idea of shopping and giving at the same time onto mobile phones. Launched by Ritesh Tilani, CareZone is a mobile application that aims to connect socially conscious shoppers with brands that help charities, so that people can contribute to their favorite causes while they make everyday purchases.

The application operates on a simple system: Every time a user shops at any of the partner outlets, they get a code that is scanned onto their phone, which provides them with CareZone Coins, virtual currency that can then be donated. Whether it is to plant a mangrove or help kids with autism, the choice is left up to the user.

Tilani, who graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school in 2001, says it was always his dream to build a socially responsible business that would empower others to give back. "It’s not unrealistic to say that if you spend around 10 Dhs (US$2.70) on something you normally do anyway, you can feed someone in Africa," he says, adding it’s simple for high school students to use also.

He says the app currently runs only on iPhones, but he says the plan is to launch versions of CareZone compatible with Symbian operating systems, BlackBerry devices and Android phones as well.

Anderson says technology has certainly played a large role in spreading information and mobilizing teenagers to volunteer. "Especially free services such as Facebook and Twitter, which allow charities such as Gulf for Good to spread information about our activities and needs widely, reaching more and more potential donors and volunteers."

But while apps provide an easy way for people to donate a little something to a good cause, students say they also want to get involved with more hands-on volunteering.

"I’d been looking for a way to get involved with charity activities for a while," says Pavitra Iyengar, an 11th grade student at Our Own English High School, who found opportunities at the VolunteerinDubai (VID) website, and took the chance to work with them for their Ramadan charity drive at the Sharjah City Centre.

"It was just really great and easy to sign up through the website," Iyengar says. "All I needed to do was register and keep checking their page for days when they needed volunteers. If there are other events nearby, I’d love to get involved again and so I log onto their website regularly."

Madhvi Kumar, who acts as project manager for a VID-run weekly event for children with special needs, says the organization tries to accommodate as many people as possible who are interested in volunteering, as individual members. Madhvi, who has been working with VID’s founder Lola Lopez for a while now, says in 2011, they organized nearly 485 events.

She notes that while some events have age restrictions, other events such as Operation Ozone, which recruits volunteers to clean up beaches across Dubai, are open to all. Some of the projects that students can sign up to help out with include collecting, sorting, pricing and selling second-hand books to raise funds for breast cancer through the Pink Book Sale Project, as well as, refurbishing charity schools and hospitals across the country with the Colour 4 A Cause project, although jobs are assigned based on skills and age of the individual.

Awareness And Opportunities

Among the recommendations made in the Stanford report to further social entrepreneurship is for education authorities to increase entrepreneurship lessons at schools, and build awareness.

Many schools in Dubai have community outreach programs, including American School of Dubai, whose service activities involve trips to countries such as Ethiopia and Vietnam to work in schools and orphanages, and Jumeira Baccalaureate School, which holds charity runs, breast cancer sew-athons and other events to raise money for causes. Millennium School of Dubai is also a Round Square school, which gives students the opportunity to participate in community service, work projects, and exchange programs.

Diyafah School has a dedicated community outreach program, launched with Mahesh Sajnani’s appointment as Community Outreach Coordinator in 2010, with their first initiative being to collect relief materials to help flood victims in Pakistan. Targeted towards 15-18 year olds, the program has been enthusiastically supported by students of all ages and staff.

Some of the work done by students over the past two years includes a stationery drive for the Big Ben School in Nairobi and the Philippines, blood donation camps, competing in the Pink Walkathon and organizing a Cancer Awareness Marathon, community service at Al Wasl Hospital, collecting food for a labor camp on World Food Day, and partnering with the Al Noor Training Centre for Special Needs Children to volunteer there every week.

The Stanford report notes that it is difficult for individuals in the region to start NGOs. At the same time, the researchers suggest that foreign funding for civil projects could lead to more openness in the sector, and potential job opportunities in North African countries such as Egypt and Tunisia. "With high rates of unemployment across all sectors and more development aid being directed to post-Arab Spring countries, the NGO and social sector will presumably become more attractive to the younger generation," the report notes.

In the Gulf, government-affiliated bodies direct much of the social entrepreneurship activities. One such organization is Takatof, founded in 2007 with the endorsement of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Takatof focuses on getting young Emirati students involved in blood donation drives, environmental awareness campaigns, patient care as well as cultural activities organized across the nation.

Such efforts have already received a boost from the Arab Spring — Gulf countries have committed to US$150 billion worth of social welfare spending since the unrest began, according to a report by Merrill Lynch Bank of America. Though much of that will translate into salary increases for government employees, funds have been allocated to improve entrepreneurship and social engagement.

Young Gulf nationals like Yousuf Saeed, a 16-year-old student, serve as an example of the impact of such programs. Yousuf says that while he initially got involved in Takatof because he needed to complete the requirement demanded by his high school, it has become something that he has grown to enjoy. "I think it’s good that students are encouraged to volunteer and help out, it really changes the way you look at things."

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