Fellow Since 2008
This profile was prepared when Wael Hmaidan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
The New Idea
Wael is engaging young people in challenging social campaigns that reflect the intelligence, inspiration, and commitment they see performed by leading local heroes working to improve the environment, human rights, and more. Seeing a generation of youth motivated by profit, Wael wanted an opportunity to change the current measure of societal success, namely money and power, which he believes have led to the disappearance of engagement and “social conscience.” At the core of Wael’s “social activism” is an entrepreneurial principle: To identify and provide support to local heroes will increase the value of these sectors, where there are few available career choices—motivating future entrepreneurs to accelerate the development of a robust citizen sector.
Wael addresses a number of structural and societal problems in Lebanon, the Levant, and the Gulf regions. First, there is a lack of incentives for youth to choose a career in social development or the citizen sector. In the last two decades, more appreciation and prestige have been afforded to careers in the private sector. With the increase of consumerism, parents and youth have turned from non-monetary self-satisfaction. Young people and university graduates were encouraged to enter the private sector as the means to recognized achievement, and few incentives were offered to those who preferred to volunteer or work in the social sector. This has stalled the growth of a vibrant and committed social sector. In addition, the citizen sector is overrun with development workers seeking donor-driven projects that ensure sizable—if uncertain—unsustainable income. With the increase in rates of unemployment and economic regression, the generations of young Arabs in the Levant and Gulf regions lack incentives to invest in society. Pervasive corruption also reduces pride in their identity. The absence of local heroes and positive role models affects how young Arab adults view themselves and their region. They begin to look to the West and their Islamic past, which affects their sense of self-worth, work ethic, and commitment to inspire their communities.Committed and uplifting individuals—social entrepreneurs—who challenge such an environment are left to fend for themselves. Given the lack of access to information and resources, they face major challenges in establishing their citizen organizations (COs). In addition, a considerable number of new COs dissolve due to a lack of managerial, financial, and legal capacities.
Wael is changing the values of society by modeling a clear, concrete representation for young Arabs that shows them how people can make a difference and achieve real impact through their social engagement and committed action. Wael is “extracting the Gandhi” from committed Arabs. The key for Wael is protecting and leveraging their entrepreneurial, how-to passion. First, Wael established the League of Independent Activists (IndyACT) to serve as a platform for “inspiring individuals” in different fields of the social sector who will serve as role models in a community. When Wael registered his organization in February 2007 he identified three veteran activists who became the first League Members: Nadine Mawad, Zeina El Khalil, and himself. By highlighting the achievements of their citizen engagement, Wael showed how the three League Members were excellent role models to inspire others. As he develops and expands IndyACT, Wael will follow a process of due diligence to identify and select local heroes to become League Members. Through IndyACT, Wael provides League Members with office space and logistical facilities (training, access to government, marketing, and local aid) to help them achieve their goals. IndyACT also provides a platform to work from in addition to providing a variety of resources: Human capital through trained volunteers—the initial training group had more than sixty volunteers (Indy Activists); technical training to conduct campaigns and deal with the media—promoting them as exemplars of compelling career choices and success; and other logistical and legal assistance. With the professional support provided by IndyACT, League Members are changing the norms and deeply rooted values of money and power; as living examples of success within a growing citizen sector. To build his strategy in the culture, Wael knows that professional local heroes need a corps of young people. Through his volunteer program, university graduates—Indy Activists—are selected and trained to work with the League Members. They become inspired and their core values are affected. To date, IndyACT has two hundred Indy Activists who work in conjunction with members on environmental, cultural, and social projects. Wael has established another program Indy Youths that targets ten to eighteen-year-old adults in schools. He visits various schools and gives presentations about IndyACT. Through his presence at the schools, Wael finds committed youth who are invited to self–organize and come up with environmental and cultural campaign ideas. These groups of students must then apply to IndyACT for training and technical assistance, coaching, and monitoring. Indy Youths can graduate to Indy Activists when they reach the age of eighteen. Similarly, Indy Activists can graduate to become “inspiring heroes” or League Members if they meet the IndyACT criteria of complete commitment to a social cause. Wael has established partnerships with several highly respected, international networks and organizations to provide League Members with international expertise and an opportunity to grow. He uses his contacts to design and provide training seminars on campaign management, and project management. To support the League Members professionally rather than only with the provision of volunteers and intellectual training seminars, Wael hired a fundraiser, a communications expert, a logistics coordinator, and an administrator. Beyond that, he created an advisory board that includes veteran lawyers, CEOs, and international campaign directors to provide strategic advice and guidance to the campaigns and League Members. In the eighteen months he’s been operating IndyACT, Wael has organized seven local, regional, and international campaigns with the League Members and the volunteers. One particularly successful campaign was a media campaign to promote the concept of “Role Model”—depicting societies’ benefits as a result of having role models. He also delivered two media trainings for university students to promote social activism through role modeling and to instill the passion of becoming active social workers committed to making a change in the region. Wael’s goal was to change their perception about social work and alter their understanding of success. He aimed for students to recognize social entrepreneurship and activism as respected professions.By 2008, the sixty volunteers grew to over two hundred operating through IndyACT. In return, League Members helped strengthen IndyACT as they worked to support independent activists and networks. As Wael worked with the young volunteers, he witnessed an enthusiasm to better their communities. Using their enthusiasm, Wael was able to develop Indy Youth to further promote the “role model” concept within social activism. Within three months, Wael expanded his Indy Youth network to twenty young activists.In addition to supporting leading citizen activists, IndyACT aims to increase the number of environmental, social, and cultural activists throughout the country. Therefore, Wael initiated two projects to promote activism. One project trains youth under the age of eighteen on environmental and social activism by creating youth campaigning groups across Lebanon. The other is a reality TV show on environmental activism. Wael has designed a group of trainings and capacity building modules in a set program he delivers via IndyACT including: Training and Capacity Building, Project Management, Team Management, Leadership Skills, Campaign Building, and a special Advocacy Program. Wael currently operates four campaigns and the two activism projects. The campaigns are Arab Climate Campaign, Zero Waste, Save our Seas, and a No-Smoking campaign in which he uses his network of League Members and social activists to inspire others and deliver messages to change the world. The first six months of operation finished with a turnover of US$200,000, a record for a CO that began with an individual donation of US$10,000. Over the next five years, Wael will recruit fifteen League Members: Ten from Lebanon and five from neighboring Arab countries. He will increase the scope of support to League Members with a professional capacity-building department within the organization to train League Members on a more diverse skill-set. Wael’s mid- term plan is to strengthen and consolidate his organization, continue to provide campaign tools to League Members, develop a research and science department, and establish a policy and legal department to support League Members. In the long-term, Wael will expand the provision of volunteers in three Arab countries: Palestine, Syria, and Jordan.
During his youth in conflict-laden Lebanon, Wael’s primary escape was reading the Superman, Spiderman, and Batman comic books. He was drawn to the idea of a larger-than-life hero that made personal sacrifices for the good of others. The idea that stuck with him; remaining in the back of his mind as his attention shifted from comics to focus on school, friends, and family. At fifteen, while watching an MTV “Featured Activist” program, the hero model came rushing to mind. The segment was a group of environmental activists in an inflatable raft positioning tiny inflatable rafts under nuclear waste barrels that were to be tossed into the sea; they were peacefully but fiercely engaged in an effort to prevent the dumping of nuclear waste. It was the first time Wael experienced an example of positive, direct action and he was amazed by people willing to fight and work for the betterment of society, often risk their lives for a cause utterly remote from any personal stake. This was a defining moment for Wael.Two years after the television program, Wael heard that Greenpeace opened an office in Lebanon and he rushed to become one of the first volunteers. Soon, Wael headed the volunteers and the Action Team—a position he held for his seven years as a volunteer. In 1999 he joined the Greenpeace ships to participate in campaigns to protest and prevent the destruction of marine life and resources.During his seven years of apprenticeship, Wael was ridiculed and undermined by his college peers and family members. He also experienced the lack of understanding and appreciation by the media and university students about the mission of Greenpeace and the reasons behind his commitment to a career with a different measure for success. He noticed that fewer and fewer young Lebanese entered the social sector or considered it as a respectable career path.In 2006, when he and a group of his limited friends went to monitor, report, and campaign against the oil spill on the coast of Lebanon, Wael discovered that other committed social entrepreneurs were facing the same challenges and were disillusioned with the citizen sector due to the social, legal, and cultural challenges they faced. Wael decided to establish IndyACT to address the problem.