Fund culture to help repair scars of war: philanthropist

Culture is as important as infrastructure in rebuilding post-conflict societies, say AM Qattan Foundation’s Omar Al-Qattan

Philanthropy must invest in the “software” of development, namely education and culture, to nurture citizens ready to rebuild war-torn societies, according to one philanthropist.

Cultural development – such as support for libraries, art, dance and film – is just as vital for people to thrive as investments in hard infrastructure, said Omar Al-Qattan, chairman of the London-based AM Qattan Foundation (AMQF).

“Culture is not simply about nice concerts and exhibitions, but about education in the widest possible sense. It is about values, the attitude to self and others, and social cohesion,” Al-Qattan told Philanthropy Age. “We believe that education and culture are the means of overcoming conflict – especially civic conflict – and of creating the principle of citizenship rather than tribal or religious allegiance.”

“We realised culture was an underexploited route towards jobs”The foundation has funded cultural and educational programmes mainly in Palestine since 1993. Set up by Al-Qattan’s father, Jaffa-born Abdel Mohsin Al-Qattan, the foundation aims to foster knowledge, art and literature by working with children, teachers and young artists in Palestine, Lebanon and the UK.

A filmmaker before he joined AMQF, Al-Qattan launched the organisation’s cultural focus in 1998. The idea of investing in culture was then considered a “luxury” and faced resistance, according to Al-Qattan: “At the time, cultural development was very new in the Middle East… but [my father] was wise enough to let me try it for a year. It was so successful it quickly became one of the foundation’s main tracks.”

The Palestinian population has faced nearly seven decades of displacement. The UN’s agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA) caters to some 5 million people, one-third of whom live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries and Palestinian territories, according to the UN. With a crippled economy, joblessness reached 27 per cent in Palestine last year, according to the World Bank. Conditions are worse still in Gaza, where 42 per cent of the population is unemployed and some 58 per cent of young people are out of work. While 80 per cent of Gazans receive some form of aid, donor support has fallen significantly as other refugee emergencies have crowded in, the World Bank said.

Cultural aid can help open up job possibilities for young would-be artists or artisans, said Al-Qattan. The foundation held its first young artist of the year award in 2000, bringing together young people from Gaza and the West Bank – many of whom had never travelled to the other territory. “We realised culture was an underexploited route towards jobs,” he said.

AMQF has since backed Palestinian artists, including awarding 12 scholarships for dance, theatre and music students in 2016 and funding nine theatre and music performances drawing 33,000 Palestinian spectators last year, according to the foundation. 

Measuring the success of investments in behavioural and cultural change is hard, however, admitted Al-Qattan. Since 2007 AMQF has collaborated with the Royal Flemish Theatre, Belgium, on a Performing Arts Summer School (PASS) in Palestine to develop young dancers, choreographers and singers. A 2012 dance production – ‘Badke’, based on Arab folk dance – that came out of PASS has since toured in Palestine, Europe and Asia.  

“The success of that project is measurable in the number of people who saw [Badke]. It also created career paths for a number of people,” he noted. “But there are deeper levels of success to be measured, such as the fact a Palestinian group was able to compete on the international stage.

“As the foundation’s board of trustees, we need to have the sophistication of vision - while insisting on the rigour of measuring success – to allow spaces of development that take time and are difficult to define in numerical terms.”

“The grandchildren may not be interested in the foundation. So you need to either try and get them interested, or make sure the institution has enough assets and the governance structures to carry on”The foundation has contributed to more traditional education projects, too, with the goal of providing a wide-ranging education for Palestine’s youth. The foundation runs a child centre in Gaza, which hosts a theatre, IT lab and library that lends materials to 68 other libraries and trains librarians in the strip, for example. The centre hosts a raft of activities from little painters to the robot engineers club. It reached more than 50,600 children in 2015, according to the foundation.

Limited access is one of the biggest hurdles the foundation has faced since inception, with its staff in Gaza unable to visit projects in the West Bank and vice versa. “Last month I was able to visit Gaza for the first time in 10 years, as I couldn’t get a permit before,” said Al-Qattan. “Such fragmentation is a formidable challenge to any country, let alone a small institution like ours.” 

More broadly, AMQF has faced similar challenges as other family philanthropic endeavours, namely the issue of how to pass the reins to the next generation. “The grandchildren and great-grandchildren may not be interested [in the foundation]. So you need to either try and get them interested, or make sure the institution has enough assets and the governance structures to carry on, which isn’t easy in the Middle East where everything is very linked to the family,” he said. 

“We’re expanding our board so it becomes majority non-family and creating a trust fund to allow the foundation to become almost financially independent,” he added. External funding currently makes up 40 per cent of AMQF’s resources. Still, the disparate nature of the Palestinian situation creates an extra layer of difficulty as younger generations are more scattered – and removed – from Palestine, said Al-Qattan. “I was born in Beirut and I’m fluent in Arabic. But [the next generation] has a more tenuous link to Palestine.”

Al-Qattan also believes foundations need a limited lifespan. “[Philanthropists] should never forget they are not a state, nor a surrogate for the state,” he said. “If there were properly provisioned services in the countries where you work – democratically-elected bodies that distribute tax resources – there would be no need for you to exist.”