Marwa El-Daly

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Marwa El-Daly's work was prepared when Marwa El-Daly was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Marwa El-Daly is generating sustainable resources for development by reviving and modernizing the traditional model of giving and local resource mobilization known as waqf. Marwa’s community-led trust, Waqfeya, shifts the giving paradigm from charity to development and from external to internal sources.

The New Idea

Looking at almost two generations of reliance on external, donor-driven development aid and the collapse of indigenous philanthropy, Marwa concluded that support of Egypt’s deeply rooted, but largely lost tradition of giving provides a way to institutionalize sustainable local resources to meet local priorities. Her analysis of the field of giving led to the insight that broad and deep promotion of the long-neglected history of organized giving is possible by deploying modern business techniques and emphasizing development rather than charity. Marwa’s idea is grounded on a comprehensive and sophisticated appreciation of the social, institutional, and national policy elements necessary for the revival of philanthropy based on the cultural heritage of the waqf, or trust. To work, it must include an informed citizenry at home and abroad, and molding favorable public opinion of the modern waqf model. A second critical component is the actual establishment of the first modern model of the waqf (waqfeya) to demonstrate and examine successful methods of establishing waqfs in local communities. A third component comprises two parts: Exploration in the management of the trust, and gaining the interest and involvement of business partners, citizen organizations (COs), media, and public figures who will be able to replicate the model in other areas.

The Problem

A large number of COs in Egypt have been adapted from Western models. While it is a structure that functions in the west, here such systems are riddled with problems, the largest of which is the structure of funding. Egyptian COs based on Western models lack sustainable sources of local funding, relying, instead, on direct donations from individuals and governmental support.

Sustained local giving ceased with the nationalization of the waqf system in 1952, thus inhibiting the creation of new foundations, diminishing the national spirit of organized giving and the disappearance of common knowledge regarding this once highly esteemed system. As a result, COs and development initiatives in general have had to turn to foreign aid and foreign funders for support and proceeding with projects that are based on a top-down decision-making structure: Foreign funders have become the decision makers about what the people of Egypt need without ever setting foot within the country’s borders. Meanwhile, local philanthropic efforts have progressed in an unorganized manner, often with no long-term objectives in mind.

Waqf, the traditional form of institutionalized philanthropy, used to be the backbone of a strong and vibrant civil society not only in Egypt but also throughout the Arab and Islamic world, practiced by the Muslims, Christians, and Jews of the region and dating back hundreds of years. It originated from the endowment of property to support a variety of religious motives: Supporting orphans, research and development, infrastructure, feeding birds, guest lodgings for strangers, and many other purposes. Its loss in the middle of the twentieth century ushered in an era of dysfunction and citizen disengagement from social problems.

The nineteenth century in Egypt saw an extremely strong waqf structure: Thirty percent of agrarian land was endowed and civil society exercised immense authority in fulfilling social obligations, assuming many burdens and responsibilities for themselves rather than relying on the government. Simultaneously, the waqf during this period was a considerable economic power and a large partner in the development of society.

In the middle of the 20th century, a socialist regime in Egypt quickly nationalized all aspects of life, including philanthropy. The ahly waqf was officially banned and the Ministry of Awqaf took over the charitable waqf (waqf kheiry). As wealthy philanthropists started losing possessions under the nationalization policy, the charitable waqf lost its social investors. Soon the waqf was all but forgotten and the practice of organized philanthropy in Egypt ceased.

All nobility waqfs in Egypt were confiscated by the state under the Ministry of Religious Affairs in 1952. The confiscated funds were then used by the state in any manner that was deemed appropriate at the time. As a result of this abuse of power, Egyptian citizens turned to supporting philanthropic attempts in an unorganized manner, putting billions of Egyptian pounds into a system lacking structure and clear development agendas and plans. At present, local businesses and citizens contribute roughly US$1B annually on charitable activities, but do so in a largely uncoordinated, unfocused manner.

The Strategy

Marwa’s strategy aims to address three problems at the core of development sustainability in Egypt: Reliance on foreign funding and technical assistance; the national government’s appropriation of the waqf institution; and the lack of cohesive, sustainable giving by vast numbers of Egyptians across different socioeconomic levels.

Following her initial research and advocacy efforts, Marwa decided to take two crucial steps toward transforming COs’ dependency on external funding: Designing and implementing a modern Waqfeya. The Waqfeya she designed places the collective communal trust into the hands of a specific community, Maadi. The organization began with five board members (omana’a al-waqfeya) and a group of waqfeya partners (shoraka’a al-waqfeya). The Waqfeya partners group is made up of businesspersons or corporations who implement projects within the waqfeya and tie a certain percentage of the profit to the trust. These profits go to the waqfeya’s salaried staff and the maintenance, growth, and philanthropic activities of the organization. Through this process, the waqfeya provides a self-sustaining model of the feasibility of autonomous, traditional yet modern, structured philanthropy. Marwa’s model overcomes existing obstacles that confront the formation of awqaf independent from the Ministry of Awqaf.

Marwa created the Waqfeyat al-Maadi al-Ahleya as a community-based foundation that sustains itself by an integrated set of links. The first is the waqf, or trust, which is dependent on the donations of business entrepreneurs. This provides the basis of continuity and sustainability of the waqfeya. The second, and more innovative, is a campaign to engage the more well-to-do members of the Maadi community. This campaign provides a method for them to donate to the community foundation in a regular manner, making it possible for the foundation to carry out concrete development initiatives in the less advantaged parts of the same community. As a result, the foundation creates/revives a form of social responsibility in Egypt under which “regular” citizens (average socioeconomic levels, not only the wealthy) contribute to their own communities in an organized manner with the aim being development rather than charity. The third aspect of giving for the Waqfeya is the development of business enterprises within and associated with the waqfeya. These enterprises serve as a smaller trust whose profits are used to support the waqfeya and its development initiatives in the same community.

The waqfeya is secular in nature yet quite aware of the strength of faith-based giving, Egypt’s traditional heritage as a fabric of Muslims and Christians and is open to all with no religious symbolism.

Marwa’s strategy involves first launching of the model and then developing evidence of its impact. Her choice of Maadi as the first community for the implementation of her idea met two criteria she established: A compact district inhabited by both the privileged and the poor, and proximity of both populations to tap into the tendency of Egyptians to give to the needy close to their own societies. Maadi, the least densely populated neighborhood in Greater Cairo, is a suburb resided by well-to-do and wealthy Egyptians as well as a large expatriate community. Maadi is also, however, surrounded by neighborhoods where the less financially stable citizens live. As a result, Maadi is a perfect representation of the many cross-sections of Egyptian society, all of whom wish for a better community. Marwa also chose Maadi because of the large number of companies, embassies, and clubs in the area that give an advantage to the emergence of a community foundation seeking to provide services for both the rich and the poor.

Marwa has involved the various communities in Maadi in the waqfeya. Each community has a “give and take” relationship with the waqfeya, guaranteeing that support and participation with the foundation will continue. Involvement from the business community comes in the form of respected and capable board members, investors, and those whose gifts form the endowment (endowers). This group of society not only donates the larger sums of funds for the foundation, but they also have the opportunity to host programs at the center.

The donations support the waqfeya as do the classes/programs offered (give), and in return the businesses receive the opportunity to have their name affiliated with the foundation, giving them an additional air of legitimacy and some advertising (take). The middle-class community becomes involved in the center in two ways as well: They participate in the activities provided by the business community through the waqfeya, and will offer smaller donations when they can. With the middle-class, the waqfeya provides an outlet and a safe haven for socializing and the formation of communal bonds.

The third community involved with the waqfeya is the low-income community, which is involved in a largely participatory manner as they trigger the foundation’s developmental desires—this level of the community comes together to discuss and select the developmental strategies. This gives the waqfeya a decision-making process that is bottom-up and completely different from the models of development so prevalent in Egypt. As a result of the participation of the lower-income community, the population feels a bond with the community and with the waqfeya, leading them to provide in-kind support whenever they are able. Rather than monetary donations as with the other parts of the community, they will donate their time, effort, and skills to support the future developmental activities of the trust.

Marwa plans to step up her efforts both in terms of the Waqfeya’s fundraising and programming, as well as in advocating for the waqf model in Egypt and the region. Regarding the former, Marwa plans to draw in a greater and greater number of businesses to become members of her Partnership Program. She will also expand the number of fundraisers and awareness campaigns, similar in structure to the Pen Templars marathon, but even larger in scope.

In terms of awareness, Marwa plans to work with local schools in Maadi to begin integrating knowledge of the waqf and its philanthropy into curricula so that the young are taught the benefits of such a system of giving. Regionally, Marwa will continue to attend conferences, speak with the media, and utilize the internet to spread her message. News of the Waqfeya’s success has spread quickly: The Waqfeya is hosting two summer interns from the United States who contacted Marwa after reading about the Waqfeya online and were interested in the modern version. In the long-term, Marwa will continue to push the Ministry of Social Solidarity and the Ministry of Awqaf to reform the laws regulating the creation and administration of awqaf.

Marwa has utilized several media outlets to disseminate information on the Waqfeya. She has appeared on local Egyptian television to discuss her efforts and change perceptions of the waqf as simply an antiquated religious phenomenon and has made arrangements for an award-winning web designer to launch Waqfeyat al-Maadi’s website free of charge. In addition, Marwa has created a group on for the center that serves as an outlet for advertising upcoming events.

On a policy level, Marwa seeks to gradually lobby for a change in the current waqf law which limits the registration of awqaf under the Ministry of Awqaf. In addition, Marwa will use constant lobbying techniques to demand the reform of endowment laws and regulations.

The Person

Marwa began displaying an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age—as a child she developed a mobile “super market,” selling chocolates and candies to neighborhood kids and her parents’ visitors. Once she had earned enough in profits, she went out and bought a popcorn machine and hired someone to work it. On another occasion Marwa partnered with her cousin, running a small “workshop” to fix bicycles.

As a student at the German School in Cairo-Bab el Louck, she was elected head of the social activities committee and mobilized students to give through organizing various campaigns in support of people with mental disabilities. Marwa was also elected as “speaker of the class” for three subsequent years. She held a key role in launching Die Antenne, a periodical journal that announced news and promoted knowledge.

Marwa was nominated by a Rotary member to join Rotaract, Rotary’s elite youth club. Soon elected as head of the community service committee—a post she held for six consecutive years—Marwa mobilized local resources to achieve multiple projects and managed fundraising campaigns in Maadi, collecting material and in-kind donations from children, adults, and the business community.

Her academic work laid the foundation for insights about the potential for reviving the lost tradition of waqf to capture resources for development that were not being realized. Following her BA in Political Science with a minor in Economics at American University in Cairo, Marwa earned an MA with an emphasis on Professional Development in December 2001, with her thesis entitled, “Private Philanthropy in Egypt: Alternative Funding Mechanisms to Achieve Sustainable Community Development,” which has become a primary reference for the field in Egypt.

As she began her career, Marwa created opportunities to concretely build the idea of community-led development. She became a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York, and she won a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship and went to New York to become the first Fellow representing Egypt and the Arab World.

After completing her studies and a brief stint in the private sector specializing in marketing, she joined the ICA, acing as coordinator of the Program Development and Monitoring Unit. At ICA Marwa organized national and regional workshops on alternative finances and giving mechanisms, aiming to spark interest and fundamental change in the available systems moving from charity work to giving that would secure sustainable community development.

Returning from New York, Marwa designed a program at the Center for Development Services, where she coordinated a program on consolidating participatory development in the Arab World, to promote local philanthropy for development. With support from the Ford Foundation, Marwa was selected as program manager.