Social Change Blossoms at AWSIF: The Next Step After Obama’s Entrepreneurship Summit

Twittering with excitement

The buzz on the Arab World Social Innovation (AWSIF) is hot, and our office is running to keep up with Cairo’s chattering classes.

Help us spread the word on AWSIF and Ashoka by following us on Twitter @AshokaArabWorld, and joining our Facebook Group, Ashoka Arab World.

At Ashoka Arab World (AAW), a big part of our mission is to strengthen the concept of social entrepreneurship in the region.  Following on the heels of President Obama’s Entrepreneurship Summit, AWSIF will further advance the agenda of social innovation in the Arab World.  AWSIF will both showcase the dynamism of Arab social entrepreneurs today, as well as articulate new paradigms for social and economic development in the region.


Globally acclaimed musician, Naseer Shamma, poses with his favorite instrument, the oud.

Social Change Blossoms

Print and mainstream media have picked up on the importance of AWSIF.  Among others, the Daily News Egypt will be a media sponsor at AWSIF.  The Daily News is Egypt’s only independent newspaper in English, and is distributed with the International Herald Tribune (New York Times’ global edition) within Egypt.

What are they so excited about?

Mostly, the people.  AWSIF will bring together a host of business, academic, and social leaders, who have impacted the Arab World.  Among them is Naseer Shamma, the featured AWSIF VIP of today’s blog.  (Blog about more VIPs to come)

Naseer Shamma is a globally acclaimed Iraqi musician.  On AWSIF’s first evening, 14 May at the Cairo Marriott Hotel, Naseer will launch his groundbreaking “One Million Flowers Initiative”. Through art and music, the Initiative will establish development projects to generate income for Iraqi widows.

At a later date, the project’s official celebration will be held at the Abu Dhabi Emirates Palace, under the patronage of the wife of the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in cooperation with the U.A.E. Red Crescent.  The event will bring together twenty acclaimed musicians from around the world, and will feature a display of over one million flowers, the largest arrangement of flowers in the world. The flowers will be sold to help Iraqi widows establish income generating projects to support their children and themselves.

– Listen to Nasseer Shamma’s song, Hilal Al Siba, on Youtube

Naseer Shamma has dedicated his life both to the music of the oud and to his humanitarian work.  Born in 1963, at al-Kut, in southern Iraq, Naseer studied at Baghdad’s Institute of Music, where he specialized in the oud.  In 1998, Naseer founded the Beit al-Oud al-Arabi al-Harawi, at Cairo.  Following his discovery of a ninth-century manuscript of the musical theorist al-Farabi, Naseer reconstructed the 8-string oud, which expanded the range of the instrument from the 6-string oud, giving it a “distinct tonality”.  Most recently, he established an “Eastern Orchestra”, composed of seventy musicians playing rare instruments from the Arab World.

Naseer’s belief that art is an integral part of the human soul is evident in his humanitarian work.  He has established an organization dedicated to the education of talented and creative children in Iraq.  He has also worked to alleviate the plight of Iraqi refugees, including at a concert organized by the UNHCR at the Damascus Opera House in June 2008.

As expected from an Ashoka honoree, Naseer is an innovator in spirit.  Naseer is testimony to his own belief that, “when an innovator is really cultured, he can choose to adopt any cause.”

Core Messages for the U.S. and the Islamic World

The following article, written by Ashoka Arab World Regional Director Dr. Iman Bibars, was published today in the Huffington Post.

The Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship has granted the United States and the Islamic World a historic opportunity to deepen mutual relations. At this turning point, I would like to articulate three core messages: 1) The Summit will give the two sides a crucial, promising chance to evolve their engagement, and depart from a focus on security and oil; 2) The Summit will use entrepreneurship to communicate, reduce tension, and empower societies, but the conversation must not be one-sided towards business entrepreneurship, and must incorporate social entrepreneurship equally, if not more-so; 3) In spite of this pivotal opportunity the Islamic world cannot wait for the U.S. to solve its problems, and must begin identifying and supporting entrepreneurs, particularly social innovators, in its own communities.

On June 4 2009, the world stopped to watch US President Barack Obama speak at the University of Cairo in Egypt, addressing Muslims around the world. He called for ‘a new beginning between the United States and Muslims’ and a relationship built on entrepreneurship. Nearly one year after his course-changing speech, President Obama is poised to write a new chapter in U.S.-Islamic relations. The Summit marks a departure from the traditional politics, oil and security-heavy exchanges between the two, and will allow a new group of individuals to play a key role in informing the American President and his Administration on the Islamic World’s needs and capabilities. The typical attendees of such high-profile gatherings – presidents, kings, ministers and other political figures – have been replaced by leading entrepreneurs, instilling hope that another side of the U.S.-Islamic story is emerging.

Entrepreneurship will become a new way of communication between the two sides as well as an opportunity to reduce tensions and empower societies. Although entrepreneurship is most often identified with the business sector, we cannot forget the vital role social entrepreneurs play in generating a thriving knowledge economy and civil society. Key development drivers, social entrepreneurs craft solutions to spur growth, opportunities and prosperity throughout the world.

What’s more, social entrepreneurs have a unique ability to work and succeed with scarce resources. Often faced with little funding and support, they find local sustainable solutions to systemic social and economic problems. Widespread unemployment (Arab youth unemployment stood at 20.4% in 2009), food scarcity, illiteracy, an absence of basic healthcare and education systems that do not encourage risk-taking and creativity, make their home in many Islamic countries. To cure these most pressing challenges, social entrepreneurs craft solutions that unite sectors and leverage scant resources to maximize both impact on and potential of local communities. Yet, their full potential has not been realized as many cannot acquire the necessary comprehensive assistance to have profound impact.

One organization that can help provide a model is Ashoka, which has supported over 3,000 leading social entrepreneurs across the globe, many of whom work throughout the Islamic World. The Summit needs to recognize the social entrepreneurs in these countries, and must also call for increased search and support of nascent social innovators. The Summit has called social entrepreneurship to the center-stage, and Muslims cannot miss this opportunity to embrace it, and provide its practitioners with the financial and technical support they need to prosper.

Given this historic opportunity, and the need to identify and support social entrepreneurs throughout the Islamic world, Muslims cannot rely on Obama to single-handedly bring change. The Summit may very well mark the beginning of a new relationship with the U.S., but if they cannot equip themselves to embark on such a partnership, they will miss a golden opportunity.

In order to make the most of the Summit, the Islamic World must first strengthen its own economies and societies. Entrepreneurship is first and foremost a mindset that can only be developed internally rather than imported. The seeds of entrepreneurship are planted at schools and in societies that encourage creative thinking and social commitment, which must become a top priority in any Muslim majority country’s development agenda.

The Islamic World cannot wait for Obama to stimulate entrepreneurship, nor can it wait for its own business and social entrepreneurs to reach scale on their own. In order to work in tandem with Obama on improving the entrepreneurial climate in their countries, Muslims must first prepare themselves to receive and capitalize on the assistance they are offered. They must shoulder the load of change to ensure that the spirit of entrepreneurship grows and expands beyond national borders, and that it is fully recognized and given every opportunity to thrive.

Dr. Iman Bibars, Ph.D

Vice President, Ashoka Global

Regional Director, Ashoka Arab World

Empowering our youth: Ashoka Sports Day and Concert for Social Change

On Saturday, 17 April, Ashoka Arab World (AAW) celebrated its Sports Day and Concert for Social Change.  Excited children, youth, Ashoka staff, athletic coaches and teams gathered at the Gezirah Youth Club in a spirit of good sportsmanship and fun.

(See the day’s photos in our previous blog post)

The day was a featured event of our Sports for Social Change campaign.  We raced, we fenced, we shot hoops, and we relaxed in the cool grass to the tunes of our favorite bands.  The sports on offer included:  basketball, fencing, field hockey, rugby, and running.

But what relevance, you may ask, do a field hockey stick or a bouncing ball have to social change?

AAW’s goal is to build a vibrant civil sector in the Arab World.  Ashoka and our Fellows are dedicated to creative answers to the challenges of social and economic development, ranging from urban housing to healthcare, rural development to women’s education.

Empowering youth is a crucial component of achieving this goal – especially in the Arab World, where 60% of the population is under the age of 30!

Sports empowers our youth.   Anyone who has experienced the exhilaration of a long marathon, the comradeship of a team, or the ebullient self-satisfaction of training the mind to push the body, knows that sports and sportsmanship build the character and fortify the spirit unlike any other activity.

The Kuwaiti sisters Balsam and Lulwa Al Ayoub understand the importance of the sporting spirit. On Ashoka Sports Day, the Al Ayoub sisters held an exceptionally well organized contest and class for the children, teaching them the competitive spirit and introducing them to the sport of fencing.

Balsam and Lulwa Al Ayoub will be inducted as Ashoka Fellows on 14 May, at the Arab World Social Innovation Forum.  Through their example, the Al Ayoub sisters are pioneering the change they want to see: working and excelling in the same arenas as men.  They are professional fencers who are among the few women dedicated to professional sports in the Gulf region, where laws and traditions inhibit girls from competing in sports .  The Al Ayoub sisters are paving the way for a new generation of women athletes, teaching their young students that the sky is the limit.

Ashoka Sports Day was another small step in producing an “Everyone a Changemaker” society.  As AAW Officer Inji El Abd said, “Instead of organizing workshops and lectures, we chose to introduce Ashoka to young Egyptians through our Sports Day and Concert.  As a result, we have increased interest in volunteering for Ashoka.”

Photos: Ashoka Sports Day and Music Festival for Social Change, 17 April, 2010, at the Gezirah Youth Sports Club

The American University in Cairo rugby team

Lycee Francais rugby team

Ashoka Development Officer Inji El Abd with Ashoka Fellows Balsam and Lulwa Al-Ayoub

Ashoka Arab World staff members Anna Irwin, Maha al Turk, and Mark Bonney

Balsam and Lulwa Al-Ayoub (far right) will be inducted this 14 May at AWSIF as Ashoka Fellows! At sports day, the introduced the kids to fencing.

The warm up race for the kids and sports teams begins!

At the ready for a morning's race

Arab World Social Innovation Forum Update … and AAW Director Flies to D.C. to meet President Obama!

The 2010 Arab World Social Innovation Forum (AWSIF) is only 3 weeks away!  AWSIF will take place 14 & 15 May, at the Cairo Marriott, EgyptClick to register now.

AWSIF will bring together the business, social, academic, and policy leaders of the Arab World.  Together, we will celebrate, discuss, and advance the agenda of social change and innovation in the Arab World.  Our confirmed guests of honor include:

During the Forum’s first day, attendees will have the opportunity to meet our guests of honor and VIPs over cocktails and dinner.  That same evening, Ashoka Arab World will also introduce 10 new Ashoka Fellows! Our Fellows are chosen after a rigorous search and selection process.  Ashoka Arab World will invest in our 10 new Fellows, providing them with the resources necessary to build a stronger civil society in their respective communities.

The Forum’s second day will feature 3 roundtables.  Check out what the great thinkers and leaders have to say on:

1)      Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship (moderated by Ahmed Younis, Gallup and Silatech)

2)      Developing a Social Investment Framework (moderated by Adam Said, Ace and Co, the Act on 8 Foundation)

3)      Market-Based Solutions (moderated by Dr. Dale Murphy, the Dubai School of Government)

The Ashoka Arab World (AAW) Cairo office has been a beehive of activity in its effort to organize the conference and raise awareness about the development of social entrepreneurship in the region!  We are happy to say that our work is paying off.

Yesterday, AWSIF received another pledge of support; the King Abdullah II Fund for Development offered to sponsor the round table on Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

Most exciting of all, Dr Iman Bibars will leave this week for Washington, D.C., to meet President Obama!  As Director of Ashoka Arab World and Vice-President of Ashoka Global, Dr Iman has been selected as a delegate and panelist speaker at the April 26-27 Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship. Dr. Bibars will be one of only 300 delegates chosen worldwide (150 delegates from outside of the United States), and one of the 30 panelists.

The Summit was announced during President Barack Obama’s June 4th speech at Cairo, and will highlight common ground and shared goals between the United States and the Muslim-majority countries (MMC).  Visit the Summit’s website.

The Summit will celebrate ties between the U.S. and the Arab World.  American and MMC leaders will identify ways to further strengthen ties between businesses, foundations, and social entrepreneurs bridging the two sides of the Atlantic.

Ashoka Arab World sits at the center of these ties between the American and Arab communities.   Ashoka Arab World is the regional office of Ashoka Global, which was founded at Washington, D.C., in 1983.

Today, AAW invests in projects for social change in over half-a-dozen countries in the Arab region, including: Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait, and the Palestinian Territories.  We couldn’t be happier to see that President Obama’s administration shares our belief in the power of social entrepreneurship to empower citizens and to build a vibrant civil society across countries!

What better prelude to AWSIF than the Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship!

Bon voyage Dr. Iman!


More information:

–          Read AAW’s latest newsletter

–          Visit Ashoka Arab World’s website

–          Visit the official Arab World Social Innovation Forum site

–          Follow us on Twitter @AshokaArabWorld

–          Check out our Facebook pages, for Ashoka Arab World and for AWSIF