Free Thought and Social Change: Lessons from Iran

Over the last few days the world has paused to watch the protests against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Political figures speaking out against the government’s iron fist have been muted. Iranian football players making statements by wearing green wristbands during the FIFA qualifier have been retired. In addition to threatening, attacking, arresting, and detaining protestors and opposition supporters, the Iranian government has tried to block access to the internet. However, people in Iran are finding increasingly innovative ways to get their views known to the outside world. Academic institutions like Tehran University continue to be hotbeds of free expression. Social media tools like Facebook, Youtube, BlogSpot and Twitter are being used by the Iranian people to get around the internet blockade to broadcast their views on the election and images of the protest. Young Iranians are documenting the events with cell phones and cameras.The actions of those in power in Iran highlight a global problem of censorship and disrespect for freedom of expression. The Arab world is not exempt from this problem, with those in power in the region violating the individual’s rights to free thought and free speech everyday. Against the backdrop of Iran’s youth struggling to have their voices heard, the need for an environment that respects free thought to enable social transformation becomes clearer than ever.

The issue of censorship of free thought has motivated social entrepreneurs throughout the Arab world to protect the right to free expression. They are creating a safe environment for people to exercise their inalienable right to free speech so Arab societies can be transformed from within, just as the Iranian people are using their voices to express their desire for change. Emad Mubarak’ s organization, The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, is working to establish academic freedom as a right in Egypt, where the system of higher education is constrained by governmental and nongovernmental censorship. Emad’s strategy targets students by educating them about their freedom of expression. He also helps professors pursue research and teach without interference. These grassroots efforts to encourage healthy dialogue help combat injustice and give confidence to the next generation of leaders in Egypt.

The current situation in Iran shows us that social media and digital technology play a significant role in the struggle for change. Ashoka Fellow Ranwa Yehia is partnering with citizen sector organizations (CSOs) in Arab countries to hold Arab Digital Expression Camps that train young people in creatively using digital technology. Ranwa recognizes the importance of the internet in facilitating social change and free thought in the otherwise tightly-controlled public space in Middle Eastern countries. Through her camps, Ranwa is empowering youth by giving them the tools and the skills to use modern technology to communicate their opinions and to connect with others who share their views.

Ranwa and Emad, along with a number of other Arab social entrepreneurs, are helping young people see the value of their opinions and breeding strong leadership through their social ventures. Many thanks are owed to the brave people in Iran, who, instilled with the spirit of social entrepreneurship, risk their lives to tell the world their stories. Citizen leaders are helping people in the Arab world and across the globe to take a stand; these Changemakers are defending the right of every person to speak and to know the truth. When controversial views are stifled, people lose faith in their ability to change the status quo. Where freedom of expression is oppressed, the need to support social entrepreneurs that promote free thought and protect the individual’s right to speak differently is ever stronger.


2009 Silatech Summit introduces new strategies to empower Arab youth

A 2-day summit last week in Doha brought together regional and international experts on youth policy, organizations, thought leaders, policy makers and young people to discuss how to move forward for young people in the Arab world under the current dire economic circumstances. Participants included Martthi Ahtisaari, former president of Finland and the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ehaab Abdou, Ashoka Fellow and Founder of Nahdet el Mahrousa, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of Qatar. 50 Young business leaders representing 14 countries across the MENA region had also been selected to share their views on the obstacles that are prohibiting young people in the region from more active social and economic participation. Unemployment can be a multi-year problem here, one that is hard to overcome due to lack of opportunities, little social mobility, little access to suitable training, and structural patterns of inequality. The Middle East and North Africa experiences the highest rate of youth unemployment globally, higher even than that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Archaic education curricula throughout the region stifle independence and creativity, and lead to young people graduating without the necessary technical and interpersonal skills to compete on the international labour market.

The Doha Summit on Young People, Enterprise and Employment was organized by Silatech; a non-profit initiative founded by Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned which aims to find bold new solutions to economic hardships young people throughout the region are facing. In addition to bringing together leading opinion and business leaders, Silatech also unleashed a number of innovative partnerships through which they will address the problem of youth unemployment on a comprehensive, regional scale. Through partnerships with key actors that share their vision and have the power to revolutionize patterns across societies – such as multinational telecommunication corporation Cisco, the International Labour Organization, and the World Bank Global Partnership for Youth Investment – Silatech will implement a series of programs in countries across the region to improve the employment and economic opportunities of youth.

One of these is a regional technology platform sponsored by Cisco which will connect youth to entrepreneurs and businesses across the region. Silatech will also partner with the Mohamed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation to build the capacity of the region’s youth by offering incentives to support small and medium sized enterprises. Another outcome is the launch of Taqeem, a new program that will evaluate existing local and region-wide policies and programs targeting youth, in order to distill best practices and give support to ‘hidden’ innovative approaches that have the potential to scale-up. These programs could provide the crucial technical and financial resources that would enable the success of Ashoka’s Youth Venture. Once it is launched, Youth Venture will invest in and inspire groups of young people in the Arab region to start their own social ventures. An article in the Financial Times states that “the region needs to look beyond broad growth-generating strategies to tackle the unemployment problem, combining efforts to create greater competitiveness, more flexibility in labour markets and in access to credit, and training schemes that can compensate for weak education systems.” Region-wide and multi-dimensional social ventures like those of Silatech and their partners and Ashoka’s Youth Venture could be the most viable solution to helping Arab youth fulfill their potential.

Fellow Maher Bushra recipient of International Award

Last week in Dubai, Maher Bushra and his organization Better Life Association for Comprehensive Development (BLACD) were awarded with a Best Practices Certificate in recognition of the important contribution BLACD has made to improving living standards in a local community. The certificate was specifically rewarded for his outstanding initiative entitled “Comprehensive Development of the Eastern Bank Area in the Minia Governorate, Egypt”.

The Dubai International Award for Best Practices was established by the later ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid al Maktoum, to recognize best practices in social initiatives. Best Practices are those that can be held up to others as an example to improve public policy, increase existing knowledge on the topic and raise awareness of potential solutions to common social, economic and environmental problems.

Players in Minya local football team wear t-shirts that show their objection to FGM

Players in Minya local football team wear t-shirts that show their objection to FGM

The Better Life Association For Comprehensive Development was established in 2003, and currently works with marginalized communities in over 30 villages in the Minya governorate through a network of over 300 volunteers. Rather than focusing on one aspect of social development, BLACD is working to comprehensively improve the quality of life of marginalized communities by empowering them. Their strategy is to support democracy at the village level, improve the livelihood of fishermen, install water and sanitation and improve housing in poor villages, empowering women, and improving the situation of child labourers.

President Obama and the Real Potential for Change

On June 4th U.S. President Barack Obama will address the Muslim World in a speech from the grounds of Cairo University. The U.S. administration’s choice of venue for Egypt as the location for a long awaited speech on Muslim-western relations has been celebrated by Egyptians as an opportunity to receive the world’s attention for their country, including its problems, for a day. The spotlights of the international press will most probably cover the general fanfare surrounding Obama’s visit that day. What most likely will receive some attention as well are the demonstrations that syndicates, students, and political opposition have declared they will hold that day. When Thursday June 4th comes to an end, however, so will the short-lived interest of the international community in opportunities for social change in Egypt and the Arab world.

Obama’s speech this Thursday is bound to be full of promises of change; change in US-Muslim relations, but also a change in the future of the Arab region. The wry thing is, is that the very movements that have the most potential to realize these promises of change, are receiving the least press coverage. They are those movements for social change that are taking place in the Arab region right now. They consist of civil society leaders, activists, organizations and associations that are committed to tackle systemic issues that their societies face using home-grown and innovative ways. Regardless of which of the twenty-two Arab states you look at, there are movements underway to address pressing social issue. In Egypt, for example, Ehaab Abdou is mobilizing disaffected young professionals to positively contribute to their country. Ehaab established ‘Nahdet el Mahrousa’ to engage young social entrepreneurs in Egypt and abroad and to push them to be responsible for creating the change they themselves hope for. Hisham el Rouby is another example of a committed leader that is giving youth a strong taste of civic engagement and social responsibility. Through his Youth Association for Development, Hisham is popularizing the concept of volunteer-service, an idea that has already led to the establishment of youth volunteer centers in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia since 2003. In Lebanon, Selim Mawad is creating a cadre of “agents of change” by providing young people with the skills  and knowledge necessary to teach their communities about the need for transparency and accountability in government. His country-fellow, Wael Hmaidan, is inspiring youth to become engaged in realizing social change by identifying and promoting ‘local heroes’. In the occupied Palestinian territories, Abdelfattah Abusrour is introducing Palestinian children in refugee camps to a non-violent form of channeling their frustration and anger by promoting a ‘Beautiful Resistance’ that uses arts and theatre.

Who are these civil society leaders, other than inspiring individuals? They are but some of Ashoka’s Fellows and the base of social entrepreneurs in the Arab world that are harnessing the talent and power of young people. These citizen leaders are showing the Arab youth that “Yes We Can” is not just a slogan that was popularized in the current U.S. President’s election campaign. It’s an unquestionable fact for young people in the Arab region. On this occasion here at Ashoka we are reminded of what is represented by the Ashoka Fellows, the social entrepreneurs of the Arab world, and the thousands of people they affect. They are the potential for a society controlled by the citizenry rather than a citizenry controlled by society. They are the hope for a better future free of injustice and fear. They are “Yes We Can.” They are the Changemakers.