Ebrahim-Khalil Hassen

Islamic charities make positive changes

Ramadan is the Islamic fasting month. Most Muslims use the fasting month to discharge the obligatory charity, called Zakaat, for those with the means. Ramadan is also a time when voluntary charity is given more freely. I am nowhere close to being versed with the rules and regulations covering all these charities, but having done a scan of Muslim charities I am pleasantly surprised by the innovation shown by some of the charitable institutions.

These improvements mark a change from a tradition of delegations visiting homes during Ramadan requesting donations. The delegation would consist of all the important men involved in the project or institution. They would sit for a few minutes, enquire about the family, motivate their cause and then request a donation. If the person asking for the money was close to the family, they would even “request” a 10% escalation from the previous year. This system worked well, building an amazing set of institutions — ambulance, burial services, schools and bursaries.

In case you were wondering, this was primarily a charitable system of men requesting donations and other men providing the donations. There has, however, been a societal change with women now being entrusted to collect donations, organise seminars to educate themselves of laws of Islamic finance. It is recognised that women earn money and are the financial managers of households (unpaid, of course). At the same time, donations in days gone by had a strong racial bias. The celebration of a closely knit community that gave abundantly was primarily determined by race, due to the spatial separation of different races, among other causes.

These are the bigger changes in society that have a firm foundation, but must be sustained. This obvious need for inclusion in giving and receiving charity has occurred together with significant drivers of change. These drivers include that old systems of collecting charity were based on kinship ties, which are being eroded. There has been the rise of bogus collectors. Charitable giving is also driven by global events, with charitable donations going to Palestine, Afghanistan and if possible to Iraq. There are other reasons, of course, but it is the response that is more important.

Four shifts stand out, among the leading Islamic charitable organisations:

1. Shift towards accountability and transparency: The registration of these charities as non-profit organisations, with some being given tax-exempt status. For people wanting to provide charity this means that financial statements are readily available, and some organisations go a step further provided costs for operations in relation to funds distributed.

2.Managing operational costs: Organisations like the South African National Zakaat Fund (Sanzaf) have over the years published a popular diary with both an Islamic and Gregorian calendar that funds a portion of administrative and salary costs. The al-Imdaad Foundation tries to fund all its marketing and administrative costs through donations. Most charities have negotiated cheaper rentals and receive free services from lawyers, auditors and development workers. But, managing costs is not only about reducing costs, it is also about doing things cost effectively.

Islamic Relief is one of the most important international charities. One of the current projects is to purchase equipment to build boreholes. Previously, charities used to contract out the digging of boreholes, and in rare cases where the required equipment is available, these require replacements. By breaking up the cost of the machine into “shares” of R1 000, Islamic Relief hopes to purchase and manage borehole-digging equipment. This makes the project sustainable not only from a financial perspective, but also because development workers will work in these communities.

3. Sustainable development: Increasingly, the projects are being designed with the perspective of not providing a meal for a day, but rather to uplift and empower communities. This approach is closer to the view held by some Islamic jurists that poverty is about more than income, and that development work must create assets and opportunities.

Muslim Hands — another international NGO that operates in South Africa — runs an amazing set of projects across the globe that seeks to provide poor people with real opportunities.

Another area, linked to sustainable development, is about reviving waqf (endowments). A waqf is a voluntary, irrevocable, and permanent gift. The National Awqaf Foundation of South Africa is a key advocate of these sustainable donations, The revival of these forms of donations — which were a pillar of the Muslim world — is vital to ensure that projects are sustainable, and that charity means more than just a meal for the day. Even in areas like Palestine, where there is a strong and justifiable reasons to give for daily sustenance, charitable organisations are focusing on projects that emphasis education, agricultural development and other income-generating activities.

4. Going online: While still in its infancy, most charities are likely to provide online payment systems. The more traditional usages for the web of providing information and profiling the organisation are already a standard feature. Most innovative are university students and those recently graduated who use Facebook as one of the means to coordinate and inform volunteers about their activities and responsibilities. These are mostly students linked to the Muslim Student Association.

Because there are these changes, many people can actively look to find organisations to donate to, in addition to waiting for delegations to visits. Many thanks to these organisations.

This is not to paint a rosy picture — most Islamic charities are finding making the transition to transparent organisations and sustainable development very difficult. A handful of charities are resistant to change, taking umbrage at being asked to improve accountability.

Moreover, even among the leading Islamic charities there is much work to be done to provide projects that are sustainable.. This post is focused on Islamic charities, but across every sector, society, religion or whatever affiliation, there are these amazing people who are doing so much development work. And I am certain that across our society, these development workers are grappling with the same question: how to make charity more sustainable.

In South Africa this is a crucial question, given that between 40% and 50% of our people live in poverty. The wealth of experience that these development workers have must have an imprint on the national anti-poverty debate.