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MENA + Social Good Aims to Empower Arab World

by Mehrunisa Qayyum

It’s difficult to divorce politics from any conversation on the Middle East and North Africa. But on Nov. 7, Al-Mubadarah, also known as the Arab Empowerment Initiative, sought to engage Arabs globally on every topic — except politics — by focusing on how technology and philanthropy can converge to achieve “social good.”

Al-Mubadarah (Arabic for “taking initiative”), a D.C.-based nonprofit, calls on the Arab world and its vast diaspora to help address social and economic development in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

Inspired by the yearly “Social Good Summit” organized by Mashable, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Nations Foundation, Al-Mubadarah founder Hazami Barmada decided to pose the same question at a global virtual summit called MENA + SocialGood, asking: How can the Arab world achieve positive impact through technology, social media and the internet?

Al-Mubadarah founder Hazami Barmada hosts an online event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., that streamed live to 17 off-site virtual meetings around the world. Photos: Megan Ekhaml

Al-Mubadarah held the first-ever interactive summit at the Newseum, setting it up as a full television production. With sponsorship by Cisco, the summit tapped 25 speakers from around the world, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, San Francisco and New York, in TED-style, 7-minute video conversations, with active participation from more than 53 countries via social media. U.S. government officials and local entrepreneurs joined in person from Washington, D.C.

The event was streamed live in both Arabic and English into 17 independently organized, off-site virtual meetings around the world, where audiences engaged in local conversations around the summit topics. With the main event hub in D.C., meet-ups were hosted in Ireland, Belgium, Hungary, France, Egypt, Qatar, Palestine, Lebanon, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Annette Richardson, senior advisor in the United Nations Office for Partnerships, emphasized the “power of one” and individual responsibility in bringing about social change, while the U.N. secretary-general’s youth envoy, Ahmad Alhendawi, argued that youth-led organizations need to be “treated as partners, not beneficiaries” in development efforts because it is their generation that is maturing in the technology and philanthropy spaces.

Alhendawi’s words echoed the voices speaking virtually. In fact, the hashtag #MENASocialGood trended third worldwide on Twitter, racking up a Twitter footprint of 27.53 million impressions.

The Arab diaspora is a broad category — not just because it covers more than 22 Arab countries, but because it extends to wherever Arab expats live. Participants ranged from Lebanese expatriates working in Dubai to Egyptians who established a mentoring hub for technology startups in Silicon Valley, Calif.

Likewise, the technology field is rather broad, although “MENA + SocialGood” is focused more on the information communication technology sector, with an emphasis on social media. Through a mix of workshops, face-to-face and video-chat conversations, Barmada invited small businesses, nonprofits and activists among the Arab diaspora to tell their stories of how they problem solve utilizing technology and philanthropy.

Hazami Barmada, left, interviews entrepreneur Hend Alhinnawi, reaching an online audience around the world.

To better connect with its audience, the summit included workshops to demonstrate how a charity could use social media to raise money from donors through a “crowd-funding” platform. Barmada said that crowd-funding increases the chances for many people to become stakeholders in a cause, sharing ownership rather than promoting the lone-donor syndrome, or “savior complex,” which is a common tension between local recipients and donors among diaspora communities.

In the same vein of leveraging community platforms, “crowd-sourcing,” another social media technique, can collect information from citizen activists to monitor trends such as health emergencies, said Hend Alhinnawi, co-founder of Humanitarian Tracker. She described crowd-sourcing as “eyewitness reporting plus social media mining to give a holistic view of what is happening on the ground.”

For example, when polio broke out in Syria, the tool Syria Tracker received over 70,000 eyewitness reports. This is crowd-sourcing, much like the way Wikipedia operates. But unlike Wikipedia, Syria Tracker pools the verified reports with data from the World Health Organization, before mapping out polio cases by town. Both the United Nations and U.S. State Department follow Syria Tracker. As a result, social media tools can achieve social good through online collective efforts, like monitoring epidemics.

The interactive summit "MENA +Social Good" attracted an audience from 53 countries and trended third on Twitter worldwide.

Another key challenge that technology, with the aid of philanthropy, needs to address is education. “Education is the key … yet teachers are not being given the tools and resources they need,” emphasized Muna Abu Sulayman, a Saudi Arabian thought leader in philanthropy. That’s what Rama Chameitelly, a civil engineer, hopes to do with her child-friendly program, the Little Engineer. Based in Lebanon, Chameitelly’s mission is to expose elementary school children to engineering concepts. These are critical to computer programming jobs, which have risen in popularity but do not encompass all the employment prospects that technology offers. The Little Engineer offers an alternative that goes beyond developing mobile phone applications.

MENA + SocialGood discussed less technology-focused initiatives as well — among them, an effort to counter the negative perceptions of conflict consuming the Arab world. “We have become desensitized to the negative images media portrays,” said Nawara Chakaki, pointing to the need for local Arab narratives that “inspire us to make a difference.” So Chakaki and her sister Rama created Baraka Bits to share uplifting stories and news from around the Arab world, specifically highlighting social entrepreneurship, youth initiatives and women enterprises, in the belief that readers will gain inspiration to try similar ventures.

Barmada hopes this summit will not just be a once-a-year conversation. Whether or not there is a formalized engagement effort, “people in MENA are not waiting around for others to create solutions — they are empowered to create them and now have the tools,” she concluded.

The summit was supported by Turkish Airlines, Cisco, Silatech, Paltel, Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, the League of Arab States, Bank of Palestine, Booz Allen Hamilton, Crescent Enterprises, and over 45 “SocialGood” partners, such as the State Department, Wamda, Ashoka, United Nations Foundation, Devex, Aspen Institute’s Partners for a New Beginning and Microsoft.

To learn more about MENA + SocialGood, visit, www.menasocialgood.com.

Mehrunisa Qayyum is the founder and blogger for PitaPolicy Consulting.




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