Marwa is reviving and modernizing the traditional model of giving and local resource mobilization known as the waqf in order to develop a more organized culture of philanthropy in modern Egypt. She is reworking these indigenous giving structures to make them engines of development, not charity, to decrease the dependence of Egyptian development initiatives on foreign funds, and ensure the sustainability of local development initiatives.
Marwa is promoting and advocating for a strong culture of philanthropy in Egypt in which giving is common and supports sustainable development. To encourage Egyptians to engage in philanthropy, she is drawing on the cultural heritage of waqf or trusts. A waqf in centuries past was an endowment or a piece of land the income from which went to sustain community projects. Waqf giving, like zakat and other traditional forms of giving, was usually charity. The idea of a waqf that funds and promotes development is at the core of Marwa’s innovation.
To revive organized giving in a way that addresses the needs of contemporary Egypt, Marwa is creating more informed and favorable public opinion around organized local philanthropy, reaching out to relevant officials and policy makers, CSOs, academia and the business sector. She has established the first modern model of a waqf, the Maadi Waqfeya, in order to test her idea and show by example how a local community foundation in the waqf tradition can succeed. She is involving business partners, other CSOs, the media and public figures in this initiative in order to gain supporters who will then replicate the model in other areas. The Maadi Waqfeya is working on issues central to the well-being of the Cairo district of Maadi. Marwa sees waqf as an idea for sustainability that can be applied to a range of issues.
Waqf, a traditional form of institutionalized philanthropy, was once the backbone of a strong and vibrant civil society, not only in Egypt but throughout the Arab and Islamic World. It sprang from religious motives to assist others. While pioneered by Muslims, waqf were created by Muslims, Christians and Jews in this region, dating back hundreds of years. The charitable goals of a waqf varied widely, depending on the needs of the community in which it was created. Some waqf endowed property and channeled the profits to support orphans or the hungry. Others supported research, infrastructure, feeding birds, hosting strangers, or another goal chosen by the creator of the waqf. During the 19th century, the waqf culture was so strong that 30 percent of the agrarian land was endowed as such. Civil society at the time exercised immense authority in fulfilling social obligations, lifting responsibilities off the government’s shoulder and wielding considerable economic power as an active partner in development.
Under the 1950s socialist regime in Egypt, the government became the sole entity responsible for all aspects of life, including philanthropy. Charitable waqf (waqf kheiry) were taken over unilaterally by the Ministry of Awqaf. At the same time, rich philanthropists started losing possessions from the nationalization policy, which meant that the waqf lost both their independence and their investors. The concept became forgotten and the practice practically stopped. Recent national research on philanthropy reported that 30 percent of the Egyptian public has no familiarity with the term, and the majority confuses it with government property.
Under Abdel Nasser, Community Development Associations (government entities) were responsible for community development. Communities themselves were not involved in a substantive way. Most charitable or development work undertaken by communities themselves was related to religion: people would come together to build a mosque and then to run programs out of the mosque.
Most forms of civil society organizations prevalent in Egypt today have been adapted from the West. These structures do not have sustainable local sources of funding. They rely on direct donations from individuals or on governmental support. Because waqf were nationalized by the state in 1952 and the creation of foundations was inhibited, the spirit of organized, sustainable giving diminished and the knowledge about such innovations in Egypt’s cultural heritage disappeared. This led to heavy dependence of civil society organizations and development initiatives on foreign aid and foreign funders.
According to a landmark study Marwa conducted, about a billion dollars a year is spent by Egyptians on charitable activities. This giving is rarely directed toward development initiatives, nor is it coordinated to deliver maximum impact. The charitable donations given by rich donors often go to short-term solutions of food or money, and do not profit their community in a sustainable way.
Aiming at changing the citizen sector’s operating mechanisms and ending its aid dependency, Marwa decided to establish a waqf independent of the Ministry of Awqaf (Religious Affairs). The Waqfeyet al-Maadi al-Ahleya she has established as a model is the first independent waqf for 50 years. The waqfeya creates collectively-put trusts in the form of a community-based organization. It works with waqfeya partners–business people or corporations who implement projects within the waqfeya and tie their profit to the trusts and the organization’s maintenance, growth and philanthropic activities. It is the first community-based foundation to diversify its revenues through a main trust funded by major business entrepreneurs, contributions from community members, and a series of business enterprises to ensure a flow of income and continued active involvement of the business sector. Marwa’s waqfeya and its activities in the Cairo district of Maadi are proving that an autonomous, traditional yet modern structured philanthropy is feasible in Egypt.
Marwa’s strategy began with years of researching and documenting the origin and history of local giving and waqf in Egypt. She used this information to inform her overall strategy and to raise awareness of philanthropic traditions among different groups to revive these institutions. She helped the start-up efforts of the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy at the American University of Cairo. The Maadi Waqfeya is the culmination of her ideas and intended to serve as a model for other waqfeyas in Egypt and across the Arab World.
Marwa chose Maadi to implement her idea because of its small size and mixed-income population, and because Egyptians tend to give to the needy close to their social circles. Maadi is known for its population of well-to-do Egyptians and its large expatriate community, but it is now surrounded by very poor areas.
Marwa’s efforts are currently focused on getting the Maadi Waqfeya to scale. Her three integrated revenue strategies are designed to secure long-term sustainability for the waqfeya and its projects and to maximize community participation. The core “waqf” or trust funded by business entrepreneurs will ensure continuity and sustainability of the waqfeya. The second strategy is a campaign to get the more wealthy residents of Maadi to structure their charitable activities through the waqfeya, funding concrete development initiatives in the less advantaged parts of their own community. Less wealthy residents will follow this example, generating a new form of social responsibility. Thirdly, Marwa is partnering with new business enterprises offering them the waqfeya’s space and its credibility in return for a share of their profits to support the waqfeya and its development initiatives.
Marwa has already been able to establish several partnerships in different fields. The first partnership is with a business seeking to run an art center. It is an entrepreneurial activity that aims at human development while making a profit. The art center, now hosted by the waqfeya, includes fitness, computer, and storytelling classes, handicrafts training and cultural exploratory trips. It operates as any other art center, but provides a set of other activities that take place within the waqfeya. In addition, patrons are aware that part of the money they pay will support the fund of the waqfeya and another percentage will go to pay the salaries of art teachers of public schools in Maadi. .
Marwa is also developing partnerships with commercial ventures in Maadi, such as banks and restaurants. .These private organizations will partner with the waqfeya in fundraising and sponsoring marketing events. This kind of cooperation promotes the message of philanthropy for development. In addition, she will publicize techniques of tax-deduction and encourage systematic fixed income deduction from private sector profit hopefully generating contributions to the waqfeya for its endowment and for scaling up its range activities and outreach.
Among the missions of the waqfeya in the future is to create a fund to support CSOs in Maadi and assist people in subscribing to social insurances. It will also offer several endowments targeted at community needs.
The waqfeya is secular in nature, unaffiliated with religious institutions, yet quite aware of the strength of faith-based giving. It is open to all with no religious limitations. Marwa is the founder and a member of the board of trustees. Ultimately, she aims to have over half of the board be from the private sector and all to be residents of Maadi.
Marwa plans to help spread the model to other communities in Cairo and across Egypt. Her research on philanthropy across the Arab World has identified traditions and potential in Turkey, Syria, Kuwait, and across the Gulf. She intends to spread her model across the region in the years to come, working wherever possible in tandem with indigenous philanthropy models and projects.
Marwa is also committed to reviving a cultural heritage of philanthropy in other ways. Starting with Maadi schoolchildren, she is introducing philanthropic education, including information in curricula on responsible giving, sustainable development, and historical models. She plans to establish small waqf funds in schools, giving youth the opportunity to learn philanthropy by doing it. This will be a win-win situation new to Egypt and a pioneering venue for social change on the macro-level.
At the policy level, Marwa will lobby for a change in the waqf law to allow the creation and registration of waqf independent of the control of the Ministry of Awqaf. She will push for reform of the endowments laws and regulations using the waqfeya.
Marwa is holding a conference with the Minister of Social Solidarity to release a publication on philanthropy.
Marwa comes from an upper-middle-class background. Her father is a chemical engineer and her mother is a university professor and artist. As a child, Marwa was entrepreneurial; she used to run a mobile “supermarket” (as she called it) selling chocolates and other items to neighbors’ kids and to her parents’ visitors. She also bought a popcorn machine and hired someone to staff it. Her cousin, with whom she partnered, ran his own small “workshop” to fix neighbors’ bikes.
As a student at the German School, she was elected head of the social activities committee, mobilizing students to give and organizing campaigns to share food and shelter with patients in a hospital for people with mental disabilities.
When she joined the American University in Cairo (AUC), she co-founded and was the first-elected president of the German Club, which had a social agenda of “share your bread campaigns”, in which a huge number of AUC students participated with sharing food with orphanages. The core idea was to involve AUC’s students in community work through an idea transmitted by Marwa from her school to her university. To sustain the Club’s activities, German classes were offered to AUC students. She contracted teachers from the Goethe Institute, and the profits from these courses supported different social activities of the club.
Marwa was nominated by a Rotary member of the area of Maadi to join Rotaract, the Rotary’s elite youth club. Shortly afterward, she was elected by the Rotaractors of Maadi as head of the community service committee, which she held for six successive years. During her presidency she embraced the practice of mobilizing local resources to achieve projects. She carried out fundraising campaigns in Maadi, collecting material and in-kind donations from children and adults. With the children of Maadi’s contributions of their books and toys, and with material granted by the private sector, a series of libraries were built in the Cancer Institute and in different orphanages for children with special needs.
Marwa received her MA in Professional Development from AUC in December 2001 with her thesis entitled Private Philanthropy in Egypt: Alternative Funding Mechanisms to achieve Sustainable Community Development. This thesis was one of the first references on this topic. It influenced several initiatives and programs conducted by CSOs and socially responsible corporations aiming to integrate CSR approaches and to embrace methodologies of local strategic philanthropy.
When Marwa graduated from AUC she worked for the private sector in the marketing department. Realizing that development was where her heart lay, she decided to start her master’s degree in professional development. She did her internship within the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) where she was instantly offered a job. She quit her job in business and joined the ICA, as the coordinator of the Program Development and Monitoring unit. At ICA, she organized national and regional workshops on alternative finances and giving mechanisms. She also managed to get funding for ICA from the private sector to fund developmental projects– a leading initiative then.
Marwa was nominated to become a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York (CUNY). She won a Rockefeller scholarship and went to New York where she became a fellow representing Egypt and the Arab World for the first time.
Upon her return from New York, she joined the Near East Foundation where she worked at the Center for Development Services (CDS) as a Senior Program Specialist, coordinating a program on consolidating participatory development in the Arab World. After less than one year Marwa developed a proposal for a program to promote local philanthropy for development. CDS embraced this initiative and appointed Marwa as the Program Manager of this program. The program’s overall goal was to understand and mobilize local philanthropy in order to attempt to shift indigenous initiatives from charity towards social investment. Marwa also developed a proposal on mobilizing philanthropy in partnership with Dr. John Gerhart (former President of AUC) who had plans to link Marwa’s work with a program at Harvard University and to establish a university-based center for studying and mobilizing philanthropy in Egypt and the region. After Dr. Gerhart’s death, the Gerhart Center for Philanthropy was established in his honor at AUC.
Aiming at raising public awareness, Marwa created the seed for the first web-based and physical resource center on philanthropy in Egypt: www.philanthropyfordevelopment.org, which serves as a one-stop-portal for philanthropy in Egypt.
Marwa is married and has one child.