How Did Ramadan Influence Hunger Conversation? Promote the Spirit of Global Development?

Dear Pitaconsumers,

For those of you who celebrated the end of Ramadan on Eid Al-Fitr: a belated Eid Mabrook and Greetings to you all.  We at PITAPOLICY recognize that this is among the most blessed months for those who follow Islam and observe the month of fasting.  In fact, for those who who do not necessarily practice Islam, we also applaud those who emulate some form of fasting (abstaining from food, drink, etc) to stand in solidarity with their Muslim friends—or to simply experience the feeling of hunger and thirst that is endemic to the cycle of poverty.  Therefore, it is truly disheartening to see the upswing of violence in the three days of Eid: bombings in mosques (Iraq and Pakistan) and attacks on churches (Egypt and Syria) as the Ramadan theme of poverty alleviation falls to the wayside.  What is equally disturbing is overhearing the conversations of policy wonks and certain social and development advocates COUNTING and COMPARING their numerous invites to high-profile iftars–be it the White House, U.S. Department of State, and embassies…

The concept of fasting heightens other activities:

  1. Volunteering time at food kitchens,
  2. Feeding the poor,
  3. Donating towards less fortunate communities,
  4. Allocating Zakat towards orphan-sponsorship programs, for example, and
  5. Raising awareness about the global development disparities thrives in Ramadan–which is great!

However, there are groups who co-opt the specific opportunity to “break bread” and “break fast” in Ramadan, which only dismisses the larger objective of Ramadan: to connect with communities out of socially conscious–not political–needs.  I can’t count how many iftars are held in capital cities around the world that only amount to formal dinners, which invite the “Who’s Who” among Muslim leaders (a significant amount that are self-appointed, not community recognized).  Such iftars amount to photo-opportunities for social media junkies, and truly deflect from the conflicting images of how iftars are experienced by the masses in countries ranging from Morocco to Pakistan.

What Does it Mean?

Aside from spiritual and religious reasons for fasting, it is an exercise in increasing empathy for those who face hunger around the world, the classic global development challenge–regardless of how “globalized” our world has become or interdependent our economies are with one another.  Look at Egypt, it used to serve as the “bread basket” of the Middle East & North Africa region.  NOW it imports its wheat, receives development assistance aid packages (packed with controversial pre-conditions) and struggles with providing bread subsidies across all income groups.

Here are some iftar examples that call into question the opportunity of engagement to “cooportunity” for public relations…

1) Iftar hosting of Military Attaches representing dozens of embassies at the Mayflower — the most prestigious hotel in Washington, DC.

  • We would love to know what the welcoming speech covered regarding how military efforts combat poverty alleviation or delivers food packages in conflict zones.)

2) July 25th: White House Iftar hosting Muslim American community leaders.

  • Why is the guest list such a secret? Should we not know who has decided to carry a message back from the White House to their respective communities?
  • Wouldn’t it be great for this forum to hold a national conversation on hunger.

3) July 16th: Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. hosts an iftar, which happens to fall on the same day of a traditional Jewish holiday.

  • As the Washington Post stated: “But the questions still remained. Does such an evening do any good? Do such events, playing out throughout the world, have any real effect on the politics of Jewish-Muslim relations? “
  • How much of the effort is a public relations gesture?
  • Does Tel Aviv host interfaith iftars that invites Israeli Palestinians as well as those living in refugee camps and settlements? and at this scale?

4) Embassy iftars hosted by: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Turkey, Qatar, United Kingdom among others…

  • Does Bahrain entertain media inquiries into its human rights abuses at these free weekly iftars?
  • Are certain embassy iftars limited to interfaith connection, or is it more a political rapport building activity that dismisses the synergistic power of relating to the hunger/poverty dilemma within their own countries? Why not demonstrate how their communities approach poverty challenges?
  • Yes, many countries outside of the MENA region and Muslim world now participate in this trend of hosting iftars.  Ask them why…then engage.

On this last question, two positive examples serve as a counterpoint to the unfortunate circumstances of “iftar-hopping” or “invitation comparison” that have evolved from the unnecessary symptoms of Ramadan events.  Many countries do have local charities and civil society activists that organize significant humanitarian efforts–be it through providing food for 30 days to impoverished communities and mosques as I observed in Egypt back in 2006.

One example is taken from the UAE, where they launched a specific Ramadan campaign “End Poverty, Education Now”.   A dozen pita-consuming countries also linked their development goals to the spirit of Ramadan–and invest in similar Ramadan campaigns.  I am tracking these programs in the hopes that the results are more than just public relations strategies.

A second example, is the global charity Islamic Relief.  Ramadan is among their most busy months in fundraising for Because Islamic Relief in the US is a a recognized Combined Federal Campaign participant, they are able to leverage this designation to increase donor support.  I hope next year we see more charities and development efforts build on the models for poverty alleviation programs before next Ramadan…which will hopefully outshout those who brag about the numerous high-profile iftars attended.  Ramadan is about recognizing community challenges and uplifting impoverished communities– which is a global development challenge– not whether one was invited to eat with a head of state or note which dishes were served.

Why Does it Matter?Until next Ramadan…may the impacts of fasting continue to influence and reinforce our ability to give and cultivate opportunities to address hunger, not just in MENA, but whereever we reside.  The comparison regarding which institutions held iftars should only promote the spirit of global development if we hold institutions accountable.  For all those who indulge in fruitless comparisons of which high-profile iftars he/she was lucky to attend: now what are you going to do about poverty and hunger? Will you hold those governments accountable to promoting social welfare in their own countries?


Mehrunisa Qayyum

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Filed under Analysis, Interests, PIDE (Policy, International Development & Economics)

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