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Egyptian ad sparks ethics debate on charitable donations

An Egyptian foundation ended up taking its Ramadan commercial off the air when it was accused of insulting the poor, then undermining government policy.

A TV commercial that aimed to show how Egyptian people’s donations were used to make a difference in the lives of people in need was accused of humiliating the poor. It has also rekindled a debate on whether commercials that showed the poor and needy were the best or the most ethical way to ask for donations.

The commercial showed dirty water bottles carried by a woman called Afaf, who lives in Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, explaining to actress Dalal Abdel Aziz the difficulties of bringing water to her family. The commercial then invited the public to donate money to Beit al-Zakat (House of Alms) so that families like Afaf’s can have access to water.

Beit al-Zakat, which is affiliated with Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam’s oldest seat of learning, ran the commercial to point to concrete cases of how the foundation uses people’s donations. The sheikh of Al-Azhar, Ahmed el-Tayeb, ordered that the commercial be taken off the air after the public dismay.

The commercial by Beit al-Zakat was only one of similar commercials that charity foundations air on TV during Ramadan, when Muslims are inclined to pay Ramadan zakat (an amount of money paid by enabled people to the poor, which is one of the holy month rituals). Seventy-five percent of donations are collected in Ramadan, according to Maissera Ellaithy, who currently leads the Corporate Social Responsibility arm of TA Telecom’s MegaKheir, an online app for charity activities. “For many charity organizations, these donations will be used for their projects most of the year, as the other months hardly match the amount gathered during this single month,” Ellaithy said.

In the case of the Beit al-Zakat commercial, many of the viewers thought that the advertisement was instrumental in humiliating the poor, rather than helping them, or the image of the foundation.

One of the strong voices against the commercial belonged to Mahmoud Haggag, the founder of 1000-Writer Initiative, a project to support Arab writers. In a statement to Al-Monitor, he said that although access to water was a very acute problem in the poor villages in Beni Suef, the issue was tackled in a counterproductive way.

Statistics show that the poverty rate is high in Upper Egypt and this leads to many socio-economic problems, including clean water access and water shortages. According to Egypt Network for Integrated Development (ENID), “The poverty rate is highest in Upper Egypt and specifically rural Upper Egypt (51.5%), followed by urban Upper Egypt (29.4%), and it is the least prevalent in urban governorates (9.6%).” ENID report maintains, “The current priority for Egypt is now to redress the balance in government budget allocations on a geographic basis and in favor of the country’s most deprived regions. Overall poverty masks differences in welfare among regions and among governorates within the respective regions of Egypt.”

Haggag told Al-Monitor that the commercial is an indirect abuse of poor families in the way it tried to raise funds from viewers. “It is ironic that you ask people to give money for the poor and then spend money on expensive ads,” he said.

The statement also said that superstar Aziz’s conduct with poor people showed the huge gap in society, particularly with the people who live below the line of dignity.

Both clerics and public relations experts criticized the Beit al-Zakat commercial and other similar ads. Salah El Din Aloui, a public relations and marketing specialist, told Al-Monitor, "Those kinds of advertisements are very disappointing and disgusting. All of them are either exploiting poor people or children to obtain funds.”

Aloui said, "It is better to use infographs and ads that show figures and facts of what we are facing, instead of exploiting poor people, even if the problems they face are real.”

Aya Kader, the founder of Insanyah (Humanitarian), an online platform for volunteers and charity, told Al-Monitor that only big nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can put out advertisements because they get huge donations. “The costs of such advertisements also come from the budget of the donations itself," she said, adding that Insanyah creates ads online at low costs and guarantees that donations go to the right place. The NGOs show their charity activities on Insanyah in a credible way, which helps donors know where the money is going.

"We see ads like that by Ahl Masr [People of Egypt], an NGO for treating burn victims, [and] the ad of 500 500 Hospital for treating children suffering from cancer. [They] are successful examples. Both ads are creative and show positive impact," Kader said.

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