“Every society can fix all their problems,” Amgad told me. Can it? More than 5 years after the Egyptian revolution of 2011, when the people gathered at Tahrir square to take problems into their own hands, things appear not to be so. When I speak to Egyptians today, I am confronted with countless problems.
From the recent currency devaluation in early November, to the sharp decline in tourism and the consequent economic difficulties, to unaffordable education, to environmental problems, to mistrust within society – this list could continue for much longer. When Egyptians share their concerns with me, especially the young people who are still about to establish their whole life in this country, they seem disheartened. They seem so disheartened that a great number of them do not want this future life to take place in Egypt anymore. Or at least they don’t think that a decent life is feasible considering the opportunities they are provided with. Their hope has diminished and to most of them, the revolution led by society is over. Egyptian society does not believe that they are able to solve their problems anymore. But are they actually able to do so? According to social entrepreneur Amgad Morgan, they are. People only need to gain back the motivation to do so. And this is what he sees as the role of any social entrepreneur – motivating society to seek citizen-led change.
So who are these social entrepreneurs? And what is social entrepreneurship anyway? Prior to my internship at Ashoka Arab World(the regional office of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public) I did not have a clue either, but now that I do have one; I understand why Amgad believes that social entrepreneurship can make a change and be a driving force in any society, including the Egyptian one. In short, social entrepreneurs are individuals who introduce sustainable solutions to societal problems. They are entrepreneurial as they have an innovative idea which they want to realise and scale. They are social as their idea attempts to improve the social sector. This is what really distinguishes them from business entrepreneurs and makes them so special: their priority does not lie in profit-generation but on achieving positive social impact. This does not mean that somebody who generates profit is automatically excluded from the definition of a social entrepreneur ― social enterprises can take many forms. But first and foremost, social entrepreneurs are dedicated to society and to serving people’s needs; and they are people whom nothing can stop – not even the depression that is so prevailing and pressing in today’s Egypt. When other people lose faith, social entrepreneurs are the people who are even more encouraged to trigger change, transform mind-sets, and be role models to society. It may sound as if I was exaggerating, but from my experience I know that the potential of social entrepreneurs is underestimated in today’s socio-political and economic system. It is, however, precisely in this system, predominated by neoliberal ideas of prioritising economic growth over anything else, that social entrepreneurship can be a leading force for social change. By combining both entrepreneurial qualities, essential to the private sector, with the social focus essential to the social sector, social entrepreneurship is the sector that has the potential to integrate social concerns, widely neglected by neoliberalism, with the dominant private sector. If only people realised the existence and importance of social entrepreneurship and the people who lead this field. Ashoka Arab World is one of the organisations that familiarises the Egyptian society with the potential of social entrepreneurship. Since 2003, it has been nurturing the environment of Egyptian social entrepreneurs and has established a network of the Arab world’s leading social entrepreneurs. By enabling social innovators to realise their change, Ashoka Arab World has helped to bring hundreds of initiatives into being that strive for sustainable social development. It is these local solutions Egyptians found to local problems that have been shaping Egypt’s social sector for good. Inspiring Egyptians with ground-breaking ideas are all around; they are diverse, they are inviting ― one only has to see them and engage.
Marwa El Dely, for example, aspires to bridge the gap between rich and poor Egyptians in a revolutionising way. She implemented the first modern model of waqf – promoting the traditional social endowments in a sustainable way. When Marwa found out that the one billion dollars spent yearly by Egyptians on charitable activities are rarely directed towards development initiatives but rather used for unsustainable projects of short-term food and money provision, she was convinced that change needed to happen. She established a community-based foundation, the Waqfeyet al-Maadi al-Ahleya (Maadi Community Foundation) to redistribute wealth in a truly efficient way. Being familiar with the local distribution of wealth, Marwa knew that Maadi is an area full of well-to-do Egyptians and expatriate communities, surrounded, however, by very poor areas. For this reason, she decided to commit herself to improving and balancing the well-being of the Maadi community. Maadi residents as well as major business entrepreneurs and business enterprises are engaged with the Foundation and anyone interested in bridging the gap between rich and poor is mostly welcome.
Social entrepreneur Ehaab Abdou enhances the social and economic development of Egypt in another way. He focuses his efforts on Egypt’s youth, those people who have hard times believing in a positive future development of their country. In fact, he is mobilising and empowering precisely those young Egyptians to lead this progress. Being young himself, Ehaab witnessed the disengagement of young Egyptians and the brain drain resulting from so many Egyptians leaving the country. So he felt the need to bring them together. He knows that if there is someone boosting young Egyptians’ potential and providing these youth with opportunities to carry out their diverse talents, they will take on their role as active citizens of Egypt again. This is what Ehaab does through his NGO Nahdet el Mahrousa. He supports Egyptian youth by offering innovative capacity building programmes for young social entrepreneurs who focus on Egypt’s socio-economic development. Moreover, he has built a whole network of more than 120 young Egyptians living in Egypt as well as abroad. Through his network he educates, connects, and breeds innovative exchange. He also offers partnerships that provide tools and resources for community development organisations and social enterprises to business owners, foundations, and institutions who want to reach social impact in Egypt’s society. So no matter who you are, if you want to contribute in boosting the development of Egypt’s society for good, you are invited to engage with Nahdet el Mahrousa – the ‘Renaissance of Egypt’.
Of course, engaged social entrepreneurs exist, but they cannot sustain their change on their own. They have proven to be able to mobilise tens of thousands of Egyptians to believe in positive change led by the society. Like Amgad, for example, who broke the Guinness World Record for mobilising 40,000 people within 4 days to donate their blood during a nation-wide blood donation campaign organised through his initiative: Hope. Egypt’s social entrepreneurs, like Amgad said, can motivate people. But they cannot survive in isolation from society and neither from the private or public sector. In addition to Marwa and Ehaab, Ashoka Arab Worldsupports 47 social entrepreneurs in Egypt and another 40 in 9 other Arab countries. Besides Amgad, there are four more candidates who have the chance to become Ashoka Arab World Fellows before the end of this year. Being part of Ashoka’s fellowship programme means a lot to the social entrepreneurs. Being part of Ashoka’s extensive international network consisting of more than 3,000 social entrepreneurs working in 89 different countries is only one of the benefits that have helped Egyptian Fellows to boost their initiatives and thrive social change. Besides this, Ashoka supports social entrepreneurs financially, technically, and legally. As important as Ashoka’s support is, without the contribution and engagement of citizens, Egypt’s social entrepreneurs cannot succeed. Society needs them as much as they need society.
The years following the Egyptian revolution have shown that to tackle society’s most pressing problems, change at an institutional level is not enough. At a highly-institutional level it is difficult to exercise lots of influence and even then, change is achieved slowly. Citizen-led change can be much faster as but it needs direction, however, and much endurance to be sustained. It is time to consolidate citizen-led change, support people who can lead this change, and thereby strengthen society to be capable of addressing its problems in a sustainable way.
Verena Ulrich is an intern at Ashoka Arab World, based in Cairo, as part of her bachelor’s programme, International Studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She focuses on the Middle East and North African region and Arabic with a particular interest in Integration and Immigration Management. Verena was born in Austria and has lived in Turkey, the Netherlands, and Egypt.
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