Charity in Qatar – how distinctive?

I am in Doha, Qatar, visiting for the first time. While the tiny Arab country is literally a dot on the map, for those from larger countries such as India or the U.S., Qatar punches way beyond its weight in international affairs of the Middle East, and arguably the world.

For starters, Qatar is one of the few countries that has given its media a lot of freedom, if Al Jazeera’s success is any indication. While there have been recent criticisms of recent media crackdowns, there is a general understanding that the small kingdom is quite open, by the standards of the Middle East. The freedom to inform the public of certain developments and also to shape public discourse is part of this freedom. While media is one part of the spectrum of ‘freedoms’ there are others as well – charitable giving being the other. In fact, scholars such as Bruce Sievers have called this freedom to participate in charitable giving as one of the ‘pillars of civil society.’

As I sat down to eat dinner with a prominent professional working in the field of charity in Qatar, I was not sure what to expect, in terms of the practice and even theorizing of philanthropy and charity in the region. From my own research, I have learnt that giving (charity and philanthropy) is largely motivated by religious motives. My friend pointed out that in his survey of over a thousand donors in the country, religious motives have been largely stated as the guiding motive for charitable giving.

This motive also is in tandem with motivations for giving among Americans – who give about a third of their charity to religious causes or institutions, according to Giving USA.

So, what makes Qatari charity distinctive? I would say the similarities between Qatari giving and giving in the West are quite large. At the same time, there are a few unique distinctions.

  1. Qataris give to strictly regulated channels – such as foundations or government regulated charities.
  2. The motive to give for ‘tax-incentives’ is very small.
  3. There are no foundations or charities that lobby for policies that go against the government policies. While in a Western style democracy, this is a common notion – think of Soros’ charities or those of other hundreds of foundations that take adversarial position with the ruling government, this is not a feature in the region.
  4. The motive to give to religious institutions is widely perceived as the leading motive
  5. The giving towards humanitarian needs dominates as the leading type of giving that is practiced. This is not surprising given the turmoil that the region is going through.


Nonprofit accountability – what does it mean?

Just last week, I taught a short class, as part of a visit to a Mid-western university. I chose the topic of nonprofit accountability and how it is conceptualized. I shared this paper by Alnoor Ebrahim, where he argues that nonprofits must focus on strategy driven forms of accountability that help organizations achieve their missions, instead of being accountable for everything, to everyone.

Ebrahim’s argument is important and we must pay attention to this simply because there is increasing demand for more accountability from all our public serving agencies. Right from donors who seek greater accountability for the money they give, to public agencies that seek to provide services such as healthcare or education, there is an increasing focus on accountability.

Where does this leave the nonprofit executive or leader? What areas should he/she focus on and to whom should they be ‘accountable?’. The answer, Ebrahim suggests, lies in being aware of the different kinds of accountability – horizontal, vertical etc. that is; being accountable to those whom the organization serves and also those who ‘oversee’ its work.

In other words, while some forms of accountability may be coercive, other forms are more peer-based and act as checks and balances. This means that many a time, a nonprofit must choose where it will focus and why. Ebrahim suggests four factors to identity accountability : Transparency, Answerability, Compliance and Enforcement.

This can make the process of being ‘accountable’ quite hard. For instance, is a soda manufacturer accountable to only its share holders or to the general public, given that its products have a negative public impact? what does it mean in to be accountable, in this context?

While this is not a perfect example, given that it is drawn from the world of for-profits, the principle still holds – who does an organization hold itself accountable to? In the class discussion, we spoke about the various stakeholders and their roles in the process of building accountability.

Ultimately, the narrative of accountability is about accountability to certain people or institutions and for certain actions. Unless one clarifies this, it makes little sense to talk about the concept. Depending on the nature of the organization, one can be accountable to one’s members, beneficiaries or donors.  This entire process is about building trust.

While one can use tools such as annual reports, disclosure documents etc. it will work in cases where there is a direct cause-effect relationship. But in more complex cases of rights based work etc. the business of accountability can be more complicated.

Accountability is about building trust and this means that being aware and putting into place practices that add to both internal processes that do this, as well as external ones. Ebrahim’s insight that the future of accountability is more in the realm of adaptive learning rather than enforcement seems poignant.