How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 23 April 2021

How Islamic charitable giving during Ramadan provides a vital social safety net

A picture taken on November 12, 2018, shows Maareb (3rd-L) sitting with her family in their tent at a (UNHCR) camp for displaced people in Hammam al-Alil, south of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Zakat schemes help ease suffering in Muslim-majority countries as the COVID-19 crisis deepens economic hardship
  • Donor agencies, including UNHCR, are tapping into Islamic charitable giving to help fund their response in conflict zones 

BERNE, Switzerland: Charitable giving is part and parcel of the holy month of Ramadan for any Muslim who can afford it. Zakat, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, is levied on the property of those who meet minimum wealth standards (nisab).

In most Muslim-majority countries, zakat is voluntary, but in six (Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Sudan Libya and Yemen) it is collected by the state.

When the state is well organized and zakat is applied systematically, it has the potential to become a fiscal policy instrument at the macroeconomic level, enhancing institutional capability in the social and welfare sectors. At the microeconomic level, its allocation to the needy serves income (re)distribution, reducing overall indebtedness alongside it.

However, in many countries the state lacks the institutional capability to perform this function, and in others zakat duties are performed on a voluntary basis.

Dr. Sami Al-Suwailem, chief economist of the Islamic Development Bank’s (IsDB) Islamic Research and Training Institute, says where the prevalent zakat channels are well organized and enjoy public trust, they can work well to alleviate poverty. Where this is not the case, informal philanthropic schemes automatically take precedence.

An IsDB study on charitable Islamic finance in North Africa found that “worsening social inequality and the governments’ need for additional financial resources in the region have created great opportunities for the zakah and waqf institutions” — a trend which is supported by civil society advocacy.

Well-developed laws pertaining to zakah and charitable giving are furthermore seen as an enabling factor for the sector and its ecosystem. These observations are general in nature and apply well beyond North Africa, going hand in hand with the greater need for charitable donations as poverty levels increase.

Some observers fear that zakat schemes can be opaque, lacking transparency. Al-Suwailem puts great store in blockchain and fintech applications to bring more transparency to the sector, enable more straightforward administration of charitable donations, and render the money transfer to recipients more efficient. These technologies are also helpful in raising additional finance.

The average wealth or income level in a country matters a great deal, because it will determine how much charitable giving comes from within and what comes from abroad. In a country such as Bangladesh, it would be impossible to raise sufficient funds, because the socioeconomic segment that meets nisab standards is too small to meet the huge requirements for social spending. This is where internationally active charities come in.




Indonesian women display their coupons as they queue to receive ‘zakat,’ a donation to the poor by wealthy Muslims, during the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jakarta. (AFP/File Photo)

Multilateral organizations such as the UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP and IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) have recently started to tap into the generosity of Islamic charitable giving in an organized fashion. Indeed, these organizations play a vital role in many countries where the state has ceased to function due to conflict.

In those countries, charitable giving is one of the very few ways of distributing food, health care, shelter and income to the destitute.

The UNHCR has been able to instrumentalize zakat giving for its purposes. The numbers of zakat beneficiaries rose from 34,440 in the period 2016-2018 to 1.03 million in 2020, which represents a multiple of nearly 30 times within just four years.

The purpose of zakat is to support the truly needy. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased inequalities between rich and poor within countries and also between countries. Nowhere is that more evident than in the poorest segments of the population and in the poorest and most conflict-ridden countries, which lack institutional capabilities, be it in the health care, finance or any other sector.

In its report “COVID-19 and Islamic Finance” the IsDB has recommended that zakat, waqf and other methods of Islamic social finance should be coordinated with the fiscal efforts of governments to provide a social safety net. They had the potential to play an increasing role when governments started to unwind their COVID-19-related spending programs.

ZAKAT: THE NUMBERS

* 25% OIC member states’ share of the global population.

* 54% Share of displaced people hosted by OIC member states.

Source: UNHCR

These countries are where institutions that are able to deliver zakat to the end user, be it in-country or at the international level, become very important. In order to understand the needs, we should look at the suffering and how populations in Muslim-majority countries are affected.

Refugees and displaced people rank very high on that agenda. They make up roughly 1 percent of the world’s population. According to the UNHCR, OIC member states are host to 43 million, or 54 percent, of the world’s displaced people. This stands against their share in the global population of 25 percent.

The league table for “people of concern” (refugees and internally displaced people) is led by Syria, followed by Turkey and Yemen. Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia are in places 5, 6 and 7 while Iraq and Bangladesh rank number 9 and 10.




A Muslim man offers ‘zakat,’ given to poor people during Ramadan, to an indigent man living under a plastic cover along the railway-line in Fordsburg, Johannesburg, on April 23, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

We can see similar trends looking at food security: Zero Hunger is after all the UN SDG (Sustainable Development Goal) number 2. Yemen tops that list with 15.9 million people facing food insecurity or outright hunger. All in all, five of the top 10 countries are OIC member states.

The UNHCR report highlighted the adverse effect of COVID-19 on food security in countries affected by the crisis of refugees and internally displaced people. In Syria the number of people struggling for survival increased by 1.4 million, bringing the total to 9.3 million.

In Pakistan, those suffering from food insecurity rose by 2.45 million people to 42.5 million. In Yemen, 9.6 million people potentially face starvation and 11.2 percent of all children in Bangladesh are severely malnourished. These numbers are shocking.

The countries listed above have neither the institutional capability nor sufficient ability to generate tax revenues or charitable donations in-country. They will rely on multilateral aid from organizations such as UN agencies and multilateral development institutions to finance part of the social expenditure required. However, given the enormous hardship and need, charitable donations become pivotal to lessen the suffering.




A displaced Yemeni family are pictured next to their makeshift shelter on a street in the Yemeni coastal city of Hodeidah. (AFP/File Photo)

The uses and sources of zakat funds at the UNHCR are telling: Yemen receives 55 percent of the organization’s zakat money, followed by Bangladesh and Lebanon — all countries where there is a huge need for funds from whatever source.

The UNHCR receives 97 percent of its zakat funds from the MENA region and 3 percent from elsewhere. This makes sense given the religious composition in the Middle East, which is predominantly Muslim, as well as its culture. MENA countries also have the ecosystems of charities that raise funds via zakat and other avenues of social Islamic finance.

Eighty seven percent of funds are received from institutional partners and philanthropists, and 13 percent are raised through digital channels. We can expect digital giving to become more prominent in the future.

The above information leaves us with four key takeaways:

* The needs for charitable funds are high in many Muslim-majority countries, particularly among less developed ones, for example, Bangladesh, and regions in conflict such as Yemen or Syria.

* The global refugee crisis is a case in point as OIC countries are disproportionately affected.

* Charitable Islamic finance is an important sector providing funds to development and potentially the redistribution of income on a regional basis.

* With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening inequalities both between countries and within them, the need for charitable funding has increased, necessitating the cooperation between state, multilateral and charitable actors.

Several donor agencies, including the UNHCR, have started to tap into the zakat system to widen their access to funding, which is a growing trend.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the pressing need to fund the poorest in the weakest countries. Indeed, the needs are so great, we should all give generously.

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* Cornelia Meyer is a Ph.D.-level economist with 30 years of experience in investment banking and industry. She is chairperson and CEO of business consultancy Meyer Resources. Twitter: @MeyerResources


Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea
Updated 8 min 6 sec ago

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea

Philippines’ Duterte bans officials from speaking on South China Sea
  • ‘This is my order now to the cabinet... to refrain (from) discussing this West Philippine Sea (issue) with... anybody’
MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has banned his cabinet from speaking out in public on the South China Sea dispute, after key ministers engaged in a war of words with Beijing.
Tensions between Manila and Beijing over the waterway – which China claims almost entirely – flared in March after hundreds of Chinese boats were spotted inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone.
While Duterte has been reluctant to confront China over the issue, his foreign and defense secretaries have repeatedly criticized Beijing for its refusal to withdraw the ships from the disputed waters.
Earlier this month, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin tweeted an expletive-tagged demand for the Chinese vessels to leave the area.
His online swearing prompted a rebuke from Beijing and Locsin later apologized to his Chinese counterpart.
“This is my order now to the cabinet... to refrain (from) discussing this West Philippine Sea (issue) with... anybody,” Duterte said in a recorded speech late Monday, using the local name for the sea.
“If we have to talk, we talk only among us,” Duterte told several cabinet members, including Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana who previously described the presence of Chinese boats as an “incursion.”
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque was allowed to address the issue in public, Duterte added.
China has ignored a 2016 international tribunal decision that declared its historical claim over most of the South China Sea to be without basis.
Duterte has set aside the ruling in exchange for promises of trade and investment from China that critics say have largely not materialized.

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths
Updated 18 May 2021

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths

India reports record for single-day coronavirus deaths
  • India has recorded nearly 280,000 virus deaths since the pandemic began
  • The government on Monday announced that 17 new labs will help track variants

NEW DELHI: India’s total virus cases since the pandemic began swept past 25 million as the country registered more than 260,000 new cases and a record 4,329 fatalities in the last 24 hours.
The numbers reported Tuesday follow a trend of falling cases after infections dipped below 300,000 for the first time in weeks a day earlier.
Active cases in the country also decreased by more than 165,000 on Tuesday – the biggest dip in weeks. But deaths have continued to rise and hospitals are still swamped by patients.
India has recorded nearly 280,000 virus deaths since the pandemic began. Both the number of deaths and total reported cases are thought to be vast undercounts.
The government on Monday announced that 17 new labs will help track variants, boosting India’s genome sequencing abilities as concern grows over a potentially worrisome variant first detected here. The variant may spread more easily but the country has lagged behind in doing the testing needed to track it and understand it better.
The variant first identified in India has prompted global concern – most notably in Britain, where it has more than doubled in a week, defying a sharp nationwide downward trend in infections.


127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
Updated 18 May 2021

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy

127 missing after vessel sinks in India cyclone: navy
  • The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday

MUMBAI: Some 127 people were missing Tuesday after a vessel adrift off Mumbai’s coast sank during Cyclone Tauktae, the Indian navy said as two ships and helicopters were deployed to assist in the search.
The vessel was carrying 273 people when it started drifting on Monday as strong winds battered India’s western coast, sending huge waves crashing onto its shores and turning roads into rivers.


Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
Updated 18 May 2021

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan

Hong Kong temporarily suspends operations at representative office in Taiwan
  • Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s representative office in Taiwan has temporarily suspended operations, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said on Tuesday, adding only that the decision was not related to the rise in coronavirus cases there.
Tensions between the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government and Taiwan have risen since pro-democracy protests erupted in Hong Kong in 2019 and China imposed a sweeping national security law last year to quell the unrest, prompting many activists to leave the city.
Taipei has criticized the law and opened a local office to help people who may want to leave Hong Kong.
Last year, Taiwanese officials in Hong Kong were told their visas would not be renewed unless they signed a document supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan under its “one China” policy, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
Hong Kong’s Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau announced the decision to suspend the Hong Kong Economic, Trade and Cultural Office in Taiwan without providing an explanation. It said requests for assistance would be handled through hotlines and via the Hong Kong government website.
“The suspension is not related to the pandemic situation in Taiwan. We do not have anything further to add,” a Hong Kong government spokesperson said.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said it was working on a response on the matter.


Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
Updated 18 May 2021

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition

Afghan Taliban ready for talks — on one condition
  • Group insists final negotiations to end Afghanistan war are held in Doha

KABUL: Afghan Taliban delegates were on Monday reportedly ready to take part in US-sponsored talks with the Kabul government in the Turkish city of Istanbul.

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

Zabihullah Mujahid told Arab News: “The talks should not pave the ground for interference from any side.

“This matter is under deliberation ... we, without doubt, say that the Istanbul meeting should be conducted in conformity with the wishes of the Afghan people and should have no imposition aspect.”

However, he said that the final negotiations should be held in Doha, Qatar where both sides resumed stalled discussions on the peace process several days ago.

“This is an opportunity for peace, and we will participate in it on the basis of our conditions ... continuation of the talks in Doha is a good point for ending the war,” he added.

The development follows the group’s decision to snub the Turkey talks after American President Joe Biden said he would be extending the US-led foreign troops’ presence in Afghanistan until Sept. 11.

Initially, all troops were to have left the country by May 1 based on a key condition for a landmark accord signed between the Taliban and US delegates in Doha more than a year ago.

Mujahid did not elaborate on the conditions for the talks to resume and said that the Taliban leadership was “pondering over them.”

He pointed out that the two conditions demanded by the group for participation in future discussions included the “release of the remaining 7,000 Taliban inmates held by Kabul and delisting of their leaders from the UN blacklist.”

Mujahid added that the Taliban had discussed the conditions with Washington which had “pledged to facilitate” the group on both issues, although no date had yet been set for the talks. Fatima Morchal, a spokesperson for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, welcomed the news.

HIGHLIGHT

A Taliban spokesman confirmed the negotiators’ position, making a U-turn on the group’s recent decision to boycott the long-awaited discussions.

“It is a good thing; we have always said we will participate. The agenda and timing of the meeting have yet to be finalized, and we will attend it,” she told Arab News.

The Istanbul talks were rescheduled for April 24, before the Taliban announced that they would not participate in any meetings on Afghan peace until all foreign forces withdrew from Afghanistan.

Under Biden’s announcement, US-led troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11, ending the most protracted conflict in America’s history, which began nearly 20 years ago with the Taliban’s ousting in 2001.

The group has accused Washington of breaching the deal by delaying the troops’ exit, resulting in an escalation of violence across Afghanistan – with hundreds of lives lost, including civilians – which both the Taliban and the Kabul government have blamed each other for.

Fighting resumed on Monday in a number of major Afghan provinces at the end of a three-day ceasefire announced by the Taliban during the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday.

Two weeks ago, US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the Doha deal with the Taliban, warned that Washington would abandon its push to form an interim government to replace Ghani if the Taliban insisted on boycotting the Istanbul talks.

The Istanbul meeting, under the auspices of the UN, seeks to draw a roadmap to end more than four decades of conflict in Afghanistan, ahead of the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.

Wahidullah Ghazikhail, a Kabul-based political analyst, told Arab News that recently Washington had “secretly shown flexibility to the Taliban” on the date of departure for the remaining troops and could “complete the pullout process either in June or July.”

The Taliban, in return, had to “express leniency for attending the Istanbul meeting,” he said.

“The Taliban would have been blamed by ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the Istanbul talks. They now have a condition, want to begin the initial talks in Istanbul, but that the serious decisions and last decisive decisions be taken in Doha,” Ghazikhail added.

Torek Farhadi, an adviser for former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News: “The Taliban are making sure they have a diplomatic presence in the (Istanbul) talks because the process of delisting them from the UN sanctions list requires to continue talks and for freeing their 7,000 prisoners.”

He said that Kabul also wanted to attend the Istanbul meeting to “give people hope that peace talks are continuing,” but added that in reality “the positions are so far apart that peace talks might continue for years. Both sides are preparing for more war. But it is clear that both sides have actors in the peace theaters as well … the sad part is civilians will suffer.”