MENA+SocialGood Summit: Innovative technology transforms philanthropy in the Middle East


By Hyacinth Mascarenhas

There is more to social activism than clicking “like” on a post.

Philanthropy and social giving has long been an important cultural and traditional aspect of the Middle East and North African region building stemming from Zakat in Islam, where a person must give away a percentage of their income to charity. Using innovative technology and social media, entrepreneurs and startups in the region have now taken this tradition to a whole new level of social good and positive impact in the region to catalyze change in their communities.

Despite daily news reports of political and social turbulence in the Middle East, the region is slowly rising as an entrepreneurial and technological force to be reckoned with. Last year, the Arab Spring showed the world a new way of utilizing the internet and social media as “forces of democracy” for political activism, intercommunication and the organization of groups and events. Since then, new media in the region has reinvented social activism, the transmission of knowledge and cultural tradition of philanthropy and giving regionally.

Dedicated to “exploring this nexus and identifying how technology can enable engagement to catalyze positive impact in MENA,” Al-Mubadarah: Arab Empowerment Initiative has announced the inaugural MENA+SocialGood summit, an interactive virtual global summit to examine the role of the internet, social media and technology in enabling social good in the Arab world.  Held in Washington D.C, the summit will gather entrepreneurs, philanthropists, technology developers, NGOs and other thought leaders to “collaborate, share best practices, influence local and global agendas and find new ways to translate their vision into action.”

The brainchild of Hazami Barmada, MENA+SocialGood is part of a larger global initiative of the UN Foundation, United Nations Development Programme, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Case Foundation and Mashable. After being approached by the UN Foundation about possibly hosting a “small event” about diasporas, Barmada in turn organized a global event with more than 25 speakers participating virtually from around the world, over 21 independently organized meetups in over 17 countries and more than 300,000 online participants including industry and regional leaders.

“When you think of the Arab world, most conversations are dominated with voices of frustration, despair and hopelessness. We are talking about ‘news,’ but not engaging in how to create news that is positive, engaging and inspires growth,” said Barmada. “I fully understand that the Arab world has a lot of challenges and obstacles. By no means does MENA+SocialGood try to simplify or dismiss that. What it aims to do, however, is look at what can be done to identify potential and opportunities amidst all the despair. There are amazing people doing great work in the region, but they lack an international microphone. MENA+SocialGood is uniting a global community around a shared vision: The power of technology and new media to shape the future of the Arab World and make it a more productive, vibrant and better place.”

Catalyzing change in the Middle East

When Jacob Korenblum visited Palestine ten years ago to do research on youth employment, he discovered that everyone is looking for information but only a few can access it. According to Korenblum, there is a problem in most countries within the Arab World and South Asia where people looking for work and local businesses in search of recruits have a hard time finding each other due to the lack of access to information. In response to the issue, Korenblum founded Souktel (which means “bazaar” or “market” in Arabic), a mobile tech venture that matches job seekers and employers using basic mobile technology.

Using Souktel, job seekers and employers can reach out to one another via text messages to connect and exchange profiles or CVs. A job seeker can sign up by sending a series of messages about their location, skill set, experience and availability to work which creates a profile that becomes searchable by employers. Employers, on the other hand, can post job information on Souktel’s website that gets converted into a text message that job seekers can search for and view on their cell phones.

The company has matched more than 20,000 people with jobs especially in countries suffering from poverty and conflict and is present in about 20 markets across the Middle East and parts of South Asia including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The company also hosts campaigns, especially during the month of Ramadan, encouraging job seekers to do community service.

“Preparing for a job is not just about work experience. It’s about experience in your community and when an employer looks at your background, they want to know you are a responsible and committed citizen beyond being simply a graduate of a school,” said Korenblum. “Through our platform we get job seekers and employers to do community campaigns so young people could gain experience managing a budget, running a project or seeing an activity from start to finish and a community benefits from these charitable works.” Korenblum will also be one of the speakers at the MENA+SocialGood summit.

Another venture aiming to alleviate the unemployment situation in the Middle East is Nabbesh.com. Launched in June 2012 by Loulou Khazen Baz and Rima Al Sheikh, Nabbesh is the Middle East’s first virtual skills marketplace that helps more than 30,000 skilled men, women and youth find flexible job opportunities.


“Our goal at Nabbesh.com is to enable wealth creation for individuals, particularly those who are not economically active today, by providing work options that fit around their lifestyle and not the other way round,” said Baz who will also be a speaker at the MENA+SocialGood summit. “We want to empower women across MENA who are becoming increasingly educated yet face barriers to find suitable jobs and help these women choose projects to work on remotely and earn an income for doing so or provide youth with options to work on projects, gain work experience and hopefully open up job opportunities for them beyond their city our country and they can use Nabbesh.com as a transition to full time employment or even for extra income.”

Technology and social media allow for Nabbesh and Souktel to offer creative solutions and services that more viable, cost effective and flexible for users in the region and create profound change in their communities in a unique way. According to Omar Elsahy, general manager at Souq.com, the largest e-commerce site in the Arab World, these media allow for “volatile growth in social engagement.”

“Charities and philanthropy stand to benefit immensely on several fronts. Contributions are no longer limited to a monetary basis or specific communities. They can now come from around the world via social media, in any sizable donation via tech-based projects such as crowd sourcing, while also allowing for contributions of expertise from global experts,” said Elsahy, another scheduled speaker for the summit. “Through various social media channels, the discussions or message in itself becomes a two-way communication allowing further awareness, sustainable engagement, commitment, support, and thought leadership. As a result, majority of barriers to contributions in several fashions becomes minimized, thus increasing the overall impact.”

Expanding the notion of giving

Although philanthropy in the Middle East is a part of the culture, the traditional notion of giving is often seen a secretive endeavor where many people abide by the saying: “What the right hand gives, the left hand should not know.” Technology and social media, however, is expanding this traditional notion.

“Many are also quick to judge others online as ‘boasting’ about their contributions if they do so publicly. However, as we know with social media, people drive others to care and give,” said Barmada. “As Khalil Gibran famously said: You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give. Many people are realizing they don’t have money to give. But they have creative talents, time and passion.Many organizations need intellectual and human capacity and that is where technology can be a big catalyst. Our entire notion at Al-Mubadarah: Arab Empowerment Initiative is built on this notion – the power of diasporas to contribute to knowledge transfer and innovative philanthropy in their countries of origin and the MENA region at large. If we are able to harness international capacities via online tools, we can help advance the region in ways we were not able to before the technology boom.”

Organized by Al-Mubadarah, the inaugural MENA+SocialGood Summit will be held on Thursday, November 7, 2013 from 8:00am – 4:00pm in Washington, DC (Newseum – Knight Studio). To learn more about the event or to register, check out the website here.




  1. This was a great Summit and I love how everyone signed in from around the world. There are some great trends developing in the Middle East around social enterprises and I’m looking forward to seeing how those businesses continue to transform communities.

  2. I hope summits such as these lead the great good in the region. The Middle East has so much potential and so many great ideas. We need to show the world what we are truly made of.

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