Iman Bibars: Social entrepreneur changing lives

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Iman Bibars with poor people in the favelas

While political turmoil grabs the headlines in Egypt, Iman Bibars and her team at Ashoka are quietly fostering social change through encouraging and enabling social entrepreneurship. Iman is the Regional Director in the Arab world of Ashoka, which actively promotes social entrepreneurship to tackle specific real-world issues.

Tell us about the type of social business Ashoka believes in

One of my favourites is Tamer Bahaa, who is deaf and started a programme to teach deaf and hearing impaired children sign language. He came from a poor background and was never taught sign language in school. He was treated as though he was mentally challenged.

Due to his mother’s dedication he went to night school, where he did learn sign language. He was determined to help deaf and hearing impaired children and he translated the government’s literacy programme into sign language. The materials were very primitive – just photocopies and photos he took himself – but it was enough to start teaching kids.

The government even tried to stop him so he set up an NGO. We elected him a Fellow of Ashoka and his work blossomed, with sign language being taught to court and hospital employees so that deaf and hearing impaired people can communicate in the most difficult situations, such as illness or divorce. Now he’s working across the Arab world.

How do you support social entrepreneurs like Tamer?

First, we can pay a stipend to allow time to focus ideas. Then we provide a wealth of practical help. This can be how to engage the corporate sector, and how to do important tasks like writing proposals. We introduce them to other entrepreneurs who can share knowledge and information. Then we help them to lobby and to network, and put them in contact with national, regional and international media. We send entrepreneurs to conferences and pay for training.

We provide continuing support. I like to think we create an enabling environment to expedite social entrepreneurs reaching their objectives.

These kind of driven guys will reach their objectives without us or with us, but without us it could take ten years and with us it might take three.

How did you become involved with Ashoka?

I have been an activist for a long time and started my own NGO, the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women (ADEW), with friends in 1985. It was the first organisation to work with microcredit and legal aid for women in the entire Arab world. Ashoka hires social entrepreneurs and that is what I am myself.

Before, I worked with UNICEF and other NGOs as a staff member and a consultant. Initially, I was asked to help find Ashoka Fellows – that was all. I was so fascinated by the concept of social entrepreneurship. This was after 9/11 and I was thinking about the message that was going out from the Arab world. I wanted to send a message that not all Arabs are terrorists, and that there are wonderful people in spite of a lack of democracy and too much poverty.

I thought that if only I could find these Arab social entrepreneurs they would become our ambassadors, and also role models for all those young kids who were disappointed by society. I was very excited by that.

What does ADEW do to help women?

At the time the only NGOs in Egypt were either charitable or religious. We were a couple of friends, Western-educated and we wanted to start an interventionist, feminist organisation to help very low-income women in urban areas by providing microcredit.  We were the first organisation in the Arab world to do that.

These women were the poorest of the poor in the favelas. At that time nobody even considered that Egypt had favelas: they thought we were crazy, stupid girls.

We still provide microcredit, aid and education and we have worked with more than 100,000 women. It is a matter of giving these women freedom of choice. Most of them are head of a household because their husband is dead or they are divorced or deserted.

We want to help them avoid going into a poor relationship just because they have no money. That can happen, and the new guy won’t take their kids. Or the women stays in an abusive relationship because she has no choice. With microcredit and training they can earn for themselves, selling items in the markets.

We’ve also lobbied for and won changes in the marriage and divorce laws.

What challenges does Egypt face after the Arab spring?

There are new challenges for us, particularly that there is now a campaign against NGOs. They are being undermined in the media. The other problem is with women’s issues: we are going backwards, and not even 25 years but actually 120 years. We are back discussing issues like whether women should work or not: some parties want to repeal all the laws that we managed to change.

Will you carry on in the face of these challenges?

This is our country and we’re staying. We are going on working with social innovators. On the women’s side we are starting another campaign. This is where true  entrepreneurial spirit comes in – we are entrepreneurs in the sense of being tenacious, not giving up, obsessed with our ideas and willing to take risks.

How does social media help you?

It is very useful for mobilising people and allowing them to speak. It lets us engage people who might otherwise be with us. Twitter is good for spreading the word.

But social media targets educated people and we need to target others: people in marginalised areas who are not very Westernised and have no access to computers, or the Internet is not part of their world.

Social media in the Arab world doesn’t always reach the business guys who have the money. You reach younger people who might be the future leaders, but they are not the ones making the decisions right now. But these younger, international people are the ones who know about cutting-edge services like and who introduced it to us. And now our stakeholders are gradually learning to use it.

That said, social media is unquestionably very, very important for our target groups.

 Iman Bibars working on behalf of women

What plans do you have for 2012?

We’re trying to raise funds for a citizen media competition. With the revolutions in the Middle East and particularly Egypt so many young people have come up with different types of online papers that we want to use a competition to map what is going on. It will give them exposure and share what they’re doing around the world.

We’re also fostering Ashoka innovation networks, where we reach young people on the ground. It’s a platform for their creativity. We have a theme, like health, and we bring together stakeholders around that theme. Young people come up with the ideas, there is a dialogue and maybe they will be mentored. And who know where the ideas could lead.


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