Saba Almubaslat, director of the Ford Foundation’s Middle East and North Africa office, looks at culturally sensitive issues like women’s empowerment from a wider angle, one of inclusivity. She believes in evolutionary change and investing in people to guarantee sustainable change.
In an interview with Al-Fanar Media, Almubaslat said that working with academics helps the foundation ensure that the programmes it is designing or carrying out in the region are relevant to what is needed.
Almubaslat started her position as the Ford Foundation’s regional director for MENA in April 2022.
“One of Ford’s key concerns is focusing on natural resources and climate change,” Almubaslat said. “Ford identifies the right grantees, provides them with grants, and allows them to contextualise solutions to their reality,” she said.
The foundation seeks to address issues from multiple aspects, she said. “How do you focus on one aspect—for instance, resources management, energy transition or climate change—but also see that as an integral part of the overall attempt to be inclusive, promote social protection, and make sure that the civil society is part of the overall change that we advocate for?” Almubaslat said.
It is important to address problems we can predict and see right now, she said, rather than deal with them retroactively in the future.
“The world is going to witness a lot of conflicts caused by nature, which we are not paying enough attention to,” Almubaslat said.
“We need to prepare for a future where mobility becomes a necessity because of a lack of natural resources, and for how we reutilise people as they arrive, not to push them back and witness them sink in the Mediterranean.”
Climate change, lack of water and lack of livelihood are going to cause “a huge mobility of people from one continent for another,” she said. “We need to prepare for a future where mobility becomes a necessity, because of a lack of natural resources, and for how we reutilise people as they arrive, not push them back and witness them sink in the Mediterranean.”
Founded In 1936, the Ford Foundation’s mission has been to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.
In her interview with Al-Fanar Media, Almubaslat said she often struggles between a specific focus on women’s empowerment or a broader focus on gender. “These two are not exactly the same, but sometimes they get misinterpreted as one and the same,” she said.
“Through the lens of inclusivity, you cannot exclude more than half of a society,” she added. “If you are genuinely keen on advancing your economic, political and social agenda, you cannot do that with half of your population being put on the side.”
She stressed that “from an inclusivity point of view, of course women are an integral part of the change we try to advocate for.” She added that it is also important to understand the cultural sensitivities and other obstacles that may hinder the women’s ability to fully participate in every aspect of life. “A contextualised, localised approach to overcoming obstacles that stop women from participation becomes a must.”
The Ford Foundation works with grantees to ensure they understand the norms, culture and the religious aspects that may arise. “We work with our grantees to resolve these obstacles one by one, in way that is respectful to women, understanding of the specifics of every community or society, and most importantly in a sustainable, evolutionary way.”
Almubaslat explained that evolutionary change takes time. “You have to build deep understanding, be informed, connect with stakeholders and influencing individuals, and participate with all the women involved, to create sustainable, suitable cultural change … to ensure a sustainable inclusion of women in every aspect of life,” she said.
Almubaslat thinks we cannot empower women and create an enabling environment for their participation without equally empowering men. “I feel that behind every oppressed woman there is an oppressed man. How do you build or rebuild the capabilities and capacities of both of them, so they understand it is not a competition, and it is not one cancelling the other?”
Refugees and Host Communities
Almubaslat thinks that programmes that assist refugees must be careful not to separate refugees from the social fabric of the place where they are.
“I feel that behind every oppressed woman there is an oppressed man. How do you build or rebuild the capabilities and capacities of both of them, so they understand it is not a competition, and it is not one cancelling the other?”
“If you exclude the host community from services, and you provide grants for partners who maybe focus on refugees, you are creating tension between the hosting communities and refugees,” she said.
When the Ford Foundation receives a proposal, “we see how inclusive it is. Is it able to challenge and hopefully change the system? So, it understands that refugees are not a burden but are an asset, how do we include them to enrich the place that hosting them?” she added.
Almubaslat believes that refugees bring new sets of skills, new mind-sets, to the places they move to. “It is that paradigm shift, from wanting to contain refugees in an isolated place, to making sure that you are engaging them to become a productive part of society for as long as they stay.”
“Unfortunately, some of those efforts are hindered by the fact that the host communities are exhausted themselves. Most of the place’s refugees are hosted by the most vulnerable and fragile side of society.”
“When you bring hundreds of thousands of people into already poor, exhausted and underserved place, you are bringing the entire population of both refugees and host communities down,” she added.
So, the question becomes, How do we restructure the place to be kinder to both the host community and refugees? And how do we introduce a human being to human beings, to see each other not as a threat but as an asset, she said.
Investing in People
Almubaslat also discussed a recent grant that illustrates the Ford Foundation’s work to support local civil society organisations.
In May of this year, the American University of Beirut’s Non-Governmental Organisations Initiative, which is part of the university’s Global Health Institute, received a $4.8 million grant from the Ford Foundation and the Asfari Foundation to establish the Arab Alliance for CSO Development (AACSOD).
“We are so proud of this programme,” Almubaslat said.
“The whole idea was to establish centers of excellence, that can invest in building the capacity of local and national CSO’s (civil society organisations) and CBO’s (community based organisations), so that they become professionalised and certified, meeting all aspects required by the donors, so as to unlock the funds and to make sure they go straight to local and national partners,” she added.
“The whole idea of the project is to invest in building the capabilities and upskilling the staff of CSO’s and CBO’s, so they can run the agenda of development. Investing in people is the only way we can guarantee sustainable change.”
Almubaslat believes that the region has a lot of human resources and is able to design the change it aspires to see itself. This is part of the broader localisation discussion.
“If you have a person from a community who can be trained and upskilled to match the global standards in a very locally aware way, why not? The whole idea of the project is to invest in building the capabilities and upskilling the staff of CSO’s and CBO’s, so they can run the agenda of development,” she said. “Investing in people is the only way we can guarantee sustainable change.”
Culture, Arts and the Media
The MENA regional office also deals with the question of how to diversify and democratise access to knowledge, Almubaslat said. “How do we ensure that knowledge is produced by people in a particular region and not produced for them?” she said. “How do we make sure that the Global South features as knowledge producers, not only knowledge consumers?”
Arts, culture and the media are very important areas for the Ford Foundation in the MENA region, she said. “This makes our programme in the MENA region quite unique from any other office of Ford around the world, because we do have that as a stand-alone part of our programme,” Almubaslat said.
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“We live in a region that is so rich with beauty, but unfortunately all the complications of conflicts and the lack of resources just oppressed this beauty underneath the surface. The least we can do is to make sure that the venues where culture can be protected, promoted and brought back up to the surface are protected.”
She believes that when a country faces economic challenges, unemployment, and the complications of global conflicts, beauty become deprioritised and culture gets lost. “Protecting this is definitely our responsibility,” Almubaslat said.
[Editor’s note: The Ford Foundation was one of the funders of Al-Fanar Media until the end of 2021.]