The youth that took to almost every sidewalk literally the day after the revolution painting the streets red, white and black, donning Ana Masry (I’m Egyptian) T-shirts were not always this involved. True, some had faith in the country even before the January 25 Revolution and worked on introducing grassroots initiatives for the development of the country, a few even succeeded and gained momentum. But what they failed at was inspiring a whole generation to do the same. Many opted to travel abroad for education and work to segregate themselves from society and to become comfortable with their general careless attitude concerning the future of the country in which they were born.
But after January 25, things changed.
A sense of overwhelming pride took Egypt by storm with hopeful dreams of piecing the country back together after former President Hosni Mubarak and his regime were ousted from power. Hundreds of online grassroots initiatives appeared on the social networking sites Facebook and Twitter or through social mobile services including BBM and WhatsApp messenger, helping create a clear shift from blasé youth to ones who were proactively trying to create a ‘New Egypt.’
However, that spur of energy and excitement fizzled out when realistic expectations of the sustainability of these initiatives came into the picture several months down the line. The founders of some initiatives had to give up the work they had hoped to do because of lack of funding, vision and networking. However, some have managed to fight their way through, creating grassroots initiatives that became successful and sustainable development projects. The core of the difference between the two is understanding how these youth addressed their challenges and overcame the obstacles thrown at them in a development-unfriendly country.
“Grassroots initiatives are local initiatives that emerge from civil society needs. They are started by people on the ground to target issues relevant to society and provide services otherwise not provided by governmental organizations,” says Nesma Farahat, manager at the Commercial International Bank (CIB) Foundation.
“A large number of grassroots initiatives were born post-revolution to address both immediate needs such as healthcare for those directly injured in the events of January 25, as well as long-term poverty alleviation needs,” she continues. “The problem with these initiatives is that they may often be driven by the desire to do good without having real long-term sustainability plans.”
The CIB Foundation is a non-profit organization established by the bank some 10 years ago as its corporate social responsibility arm. Much of its work is focused on health and nutrition sustainable development initiatives, with special attention paid to underprivileged children. Recently, the foundation funded pediatric intensive care units at the Magdi Yacoub Foundation Aswan Heart Center and Abou El Reesh El Mounira Children’s Hospital, both expected to open later this year.
According to Farahat, the key to successful sustainable projects is to first identify the actual need for services being offered. Too often, services offered by grassroots initiatives do not match real community needs, resulting in wasted resources and little benefit to society.
Additionally, grassroots initiatives must ensure funding for the duration of their project cycles before they begin project implementation. If they don’t, they do more of a disservice to themselves and society when their project vision cannot be adequately carried to fruition due to insufficient funding.
“Low access to finance was always our biggest issue because of the very challenging demands of banks: minimum capital requirement, a three-year track record of profit-making and the lack of an investor network that one can approach to leverage funds for the business,” says Seif Abou Zaid, partner and cofounder of Agency for Development and Advancement (ADAA), a learning and development company for youth and professional development that works with more than 40 initiatives focused on political activism, advocacy and awareness.
“Egypt still doesn’t have proper incubators and venture capitals that pass on knowledge and help young business and social entrepreneurs succeed in the field of development,” he says. “Even if it did, initiatives need to create sustainable means of funding from revenue-generating activities and not only restrict themselves to funds from other organizations, which can be very limiting.”
Grants and sponsorships are another way to go about securing funding. However, securing approvals from those offering the funding can be tough to get because people who want to donate money tend to want to give it to charities rather than development projects with more long-term goals.
Egyptian society is not fully aware of what social initiatives are and what they can achieve. So often those with money to give donate to charities ignoring the long-term benefit a good grassroots initiative can have on society as a whole.
“We need to raise awareness about the difference between charity and development,” says Rowan El Shimi, a freelance journalist and volunteer with CISV International (formerly Children’s International Summer Villages), an international organization founded on the aim of achieving world peace through cross-cultural understanding. “With charity, you give money to a specific goal like feeding someone or to an orphanage. But with development, even if you don’t see the results right away, if the project is sustainable it can affect and develop people’s lives in a sustainable way.”
Cutting the Cord
Grassroots projects are just that, projects that have sprung from a grassroots level and are spearheaded by the target communities. Having the target’s community’s full involvement and cooperation during all phases of the project is the key to its success. “I think there needs to be more awareness about sustainable development,” says El Shimi. “An NGO can’t pick a community and try to fix all its problems. As soon as this NGO backs out, it is very likely that the community goes back to how it used to be. NGOs should only give communities the tools they need to develop and let each community develop for itself. The attitude of trying to ‘save’ people, doesn’t necessarily work.”
This is exactly what the EFG Hermes Foundation did with its latest project Ro’ya (vision). It transformed the extremely impoverished village of Ezbet Yacoub in Beni Suef into a model village through comprehensive development — human development, economic development and infrastructure development. The EFG Hermes Foundation is a grant-giving non-profit organization that receives project proposals from NGOs in need of funding. They then assess whether there is a grassroots need for the proposed project and come up with a sustainability plan in cooperation with the implementing NGO, community members and government entities. This way, they ensure that all partners in the project are in agreement, increasing the likelihood of the project’s sustainability.
“The biggest challenge to the project was gaining the trust of the Ezbet Yacoub residents,” explains Dina El Wakil, project manager of Ro’ya at the EFG Hermes Foundation. “These were people who had been marginalized and ignored for years; nobody had ever given them anything. They could not believe the sincerity of the Ro’ya project and were terrified of losing what little they had.”
The key to sustainability of such projects is full involvement and cooperation with the target communities in all phases of the project, so that the project is not one that is forced on the communities but is instead one in which they are partners. This approach creates community ownership. Projects that failed at being sustainable often fall into the trap of trying to force themselves on the communities. And generally speaking, once the implementation phase is completed, the project falls apart because the community feels no loyalty or ownership of the project and has little involvement in it.
According to El Wakil, to overcome the initial hostility, Ro’ya adopted a highly participatory approach. Many meetings were held with village residents to explain the project and obtain feedback on the community’s needs. Goodwill gestures such as a mobile ophthalmology clinic and other medical services also helped gain the people’s trust. The residents even began helping in the demolition of their own houses and clearing debris from the streets to speed up the construction process.
“The Ro’ya project was careful to foster a sense of ownership and encourage residents to [play] an active role in implementing the project,” says El Wakil. “This was instrumental in breeding civil society institutions capable of assuming responsibility once the project was complete. People cared about the project and wanted to see it succeed.”
Early on, a village committee was formed including village elders and male volunteers called Lagnet El Balad (the town committee) to provide support to the process by helping to resolve conflicts and raise awareness. This committee also insisted on collecting tariffs from residents to contribute to the maintenance of the waste water treatment plant that was being built as part of the project. Three young men from the village received training in how to maintain and operate the new waste water treatment plant. This committee was later formalized as the Ro’ya NGO and entrusted with ensuring the sustainability of the project.
“All 15 of the [EFG] Foundation’s projects have been successful, but its integrated development project, Ro’ya, is definitely the Foundation’s biggest success because it was able to successfully transform Ezbet Yacoub from a derelict, economically-defunct rural slum into a vibrant, functioning and sustainable village,” adds El Wakil.
It took 28 months to galvanize a sense of ownership and pride in Ezbet Yacoub residents and complete the waste water treatment plant.
Volunteering for a cause
For the sustainability of any project, initiatives need training on how to manage volunteer projects and how to recruit, motivate, train and retain these volunteers. This is essential since these are common challenges that any volunteer entity faces. And without volunteers, all these initiatives won’t be anything more than ideas.
“In the days before the revolution, I was staffing a project in Farafra [45 kilometers from the Western Desert] in cooperation with a local NGO trying to spread the spirit of volunteerism and awareness,” says El Shimi, frustrated at the lack of volunteer spirit in Egypt. “We really do need to address this issue of volunteerism in Egypt; it’s not something that is embedded in our culture. So there is a need to change people’s attitudes towards it and nurture it. That way, we have people all over the country taking initiative and doing something collectively so we can develop.”
And it’s not just finding the volunteers; it’s also the issue of motivating them. Volunteers tend to have other things on their plate like work, studies, families and social lives. The most important thing is to have human resources, even in the smallest number, who are passionate enough about the goal of the initiative to dedicate their time and energy to it.
“Initiatives have a chance to be sustainable but organizers have to play it right,” explains El Shimi. “They have to learn about volunteer management, as it is totally different than managing employees. They have to create a great environment for their volunteers and make sure their volunteers enjoy the process of working on the project.”
According to the 2010 Egypt Human Development Report (NHCR) “Youth in Egypt: Building Our Future”: “Youth volunteerism is a means for strengthening youth participation. From a youth perspective, volunteerism brings a strong sense of confidence and self-satisfaction and it enables young people to develop new skills such as leadership, creative thinking, and problem solving. In fact, volunteering empowers young people and expands their social networks, often representing their first channel of involvement with the work environment.”
The report also states that the feeling of national belonging among Egyptian youth is very high, ranking the country as the fifth-highest worldwide in terms of youth pride and national belonging: “With a difference of 13 percent above the international [average of] 58 percent; Egypt ranks here among five states, namely Vietnam, South Africa, Turkey and India. In this respect, Egypt is ahead of developed countries which figure at the bottom of the list, namely the USA, Sweden, Britain and Japan. This perhaps indicates that the sense of national belonging among young people is not necessarily linked to levels of a country’s progress and human welfare.”
Regulations and Red Tape
With bureaucratic obstacles and legislative hula-hoops, the former regime made it difficult for grassroots initiatives and development projects to get the help they needed to get things done.
“The major problems we have faced at the CIB Foundation are government regulations and red tape,” says Farahat. “A number of our donor recipients have been governmental hospitals, and the logistics of coordinating with governmental entities are difficult. Hopefully this will change in post-revolution Egypt.”
How much red tape an NGO or grassroots movement actually faced seemed to depend on the perspective of the regime on the actual issue.
“Previously, it all depended on satisfying the agenda of the regime by staying away from sensitive political issues or government-sponsored issues such as illiteracy,” says ADAA’s Abou Zaid.
While it is still unclear how the revolution will impact the red tape surrounding activism, what is definite is that for initiatives and NGOs born during or right after the revolution, the key to their sustainability will be in institutionalization through good governance.
“Working within the current NGOs law is very challenging because it’s designed to cripple the freedom of association and freedom of expression,” adds Abou Zaid. “However, being legal will make those organizations eligible for funding and creating revenue-generating projects. These organizations have to have bylaws organizing their decision-making, a vision and strategic directives for the organization, all based on democratic means.”
The youth also felt these limitations pre-revolution because of the lack of freedom of expression — they were increasingly aware of their exclusion from the community and public life. According to the NHCR report, “young citizens in Egypt are those least likely to engage in any kind of formal political behavior. Their high level of indifference to civic affairs in general raises the question as to why this should be, and whether youth have developed channels for alternative means of engagement in public life.”
Getting it Right
Any initiative has a chance at being sustainable as long as certain criteria are met. Development does not happen overnight; it requires time and dedication that many people simply do not have. It is very easy to get caught up in emotions and ride the revolution bandwagon, but real development needs commitment. If all of the organizations and initiatives that have popped up recently are truly committed to developing Egypt and are willing to make the effort as well as persevere in the face of bumps and sidetracks along the way, real development work can become a reality.
Networking is key to development work. There are so many players in the development field that duplication of efforts is rampant. Knowing who is out there and what services are already being provided is essential to ensure that your work is unique, innovative and required by society. Attending development-related events opens doors and provides a great arena for meeting representatives from active organizations in the field. Also, doing your homework is crucial. Going to communities, asking people what they need, finding innovative solutions to everyday problems — these are things people can do to make sure their efforts do not go to waste.
“Development is a never-ending job,” Farahat says. “It’s about finding the right match for the people you want to serve.” et