Why philanthropies should maximize impact: Sawiris Foundation’s journey towards effective altruism

Published on Wed, 05 Jan, 2022

Recently, there have been positive improvements in reducing poverty in Egypt. But can we find more effective approaches to our spending to reduce poverty and maximize our impact? Abdelrahman Nagy and Noura Selim at SFSD share their thoughts on the Foundation’s direction towards effective altruism

Based on the latest estimates of multi-dimensional poverty, 5.2 percent of Egypt’s 102 million population are multi-dimensionally poor, meaning that they are deprived from at least one third of their basic needs in education, health and living standards.[1] The UNDP shares in its latest 2021 report that Egypt’s human development indicators have improved throughout the last decade, specifically that Egypt has witnessed the first decrease in monetary poverty from 32.5 percent in 2017/2018 to 29.7 percent in 2019/2020.[2] While this decrease is promising, there is still a lot more that can be done to empower Egypt’s people and give them the opportunity to lead a decent life and have a better standard of living. 

People who are poor or at risk of poverty may suffer from many disadvantages simultaneously. These disadvantages, according to the multidimensional poverty index, can be one of the following: low nutrition, high infant mortality, insufficient or incomplete years of schooling, low school attendance, poor sanitation, little to no drinking water, little to no access to electricity, poor housing conditions, few assets to absorb economic shocks and/or little or no cooking fuel. The root causes of these deprivations are numerous and complex. The Egyptian government and the local and international non-governmental organizations have intervened for decades to support people who are disadvantaged and marginalized. 

At Sawiris Foundation for Social Development (SFSD), we have contributed to this effort since the Foundation’s inception in 2001. Some of these efforts include empowering young Egyptians in pursuit of a high quality education, supporting poor households in meeting their basic needs, helping young people find decent jobs and supporting the fight to eradicate widespread illnesses in Egypt. But is this enough? Are we putting enough measurement and monitoring into our work? Are we learning from our mistakes and listening to what global evidence can tell us and transparently sharing these learnings for the betterment of our development community? As the largest family foundation in Egypt, we continue to ask the question: Is there a more cost-effective and efficient way to reduce and eradicate multi-dimensional poverty? In other words, as Dean Karlan so aptly says it in his book, does Egypt’s development community need “more than good intentions”? 

In asking these questions, we [Abdelrahman Nagy and Noura Selim] invite you to join us on our learning journey at SFSD to investigate how impactful our funding is and how together, the Egyptian development community can best help others. This is at the heart of effective altruism, a philosophy that focuses on what are the most effective approaches and ways in which we can support others. 

We envision an Egyptian development community that uses rigorous evidence and reason to find the most cost-effective interventions that reduce multi-dimensional poverty, and that takes action by ensuring the high quality implementation of these interventions.

To get there, SFSD has already started making the necessary structural changes that will turn this vision into a reality. The Learning and Strategy (L&S) department was established in 2018 to measure the impact of the programs that the Foundation was supporting and to more effectively monitor the quality of the programs that are being implemented. Its objective has since expanded to supporting the Foundation in maximizing its impact and to ensure that we are continuously learning and improving the design and implementation of the programs that we support. 

Currently, the Foundation seeks to identify the most pressing needs in Egypt and match them with cost-effective interventions that can produce the greatest impact based on the scientific evidence. In doing so, we look to ask ourselves the following questions that have been outlined in William MacAskill’s iconic book, “Doing Good Better,”: 

  • How many people benefit, and by how much?
  • What is the most effective thing you can do?
  • Is this area neglected?
  • What would have happened otherwise?
  • What would success mean, and what are the chances of success?

Therefore, we want to measure the impact of our programs and establish mechanisms that ensure continuous learning. Finally, we hope that we can share locally relevant and globally insightful learnings that will help improve future program design. We anticipate that this will support the development community in overcoming the ignorance, inertia and ideology that Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee cite in their book “Poor Economics” as the main reasons for having ineffective policies and program design that address poverty. In addition, we learned from Michael Kremer and his co-authors that using this methodology is a great investment and the return for every dollar spent is five dollars. 

In order to achieve this, the L&S department has focused on the following targets for 2022: 

  1. Developing an evidence-based strategy for the Foundation
  2. Establishing a learning unit that institutionalizes organizational learning and capacity-building both internally and externally 
  3. Ensuring that all of SFSD projects are monitored and evaluated based on their theories of change and supporting evidence
  4. Creating a management information infrastructure for a more effective flow of information throughout the Foundation

In achieving these, we anticipate that our Foundation will be in a better position to address the root causes of poverty and empower those who seek to improve the Egyptian economy. 

In this blog series, we will share with you how the L&S department is supporting SFSD to becoming effectively altruistic, and in doing so, we open an honest conversation on how these approaches and subsequently the lessons learned can be adopted and adapted to other organizations seeking to do good better. Stay tuned! 

[1] This percentage was calculated based on the 2014 Demographics and Health Survey. Multi-dimensional poverty, in contrast to monetary poverty, is a measurement that was developed by Alkire and Foster in 2009 that includes dimensions in education, health and living standards and covers approximately 10 indicators from child mortality, to years of schooling, electricity, housing and drinking water. This measurement attempts to capture of more holistic picture of various forms of poverty that people may be subject to. You can access the Alkire and Foster method working paper here.  

[2] Egypt’s national poverty line was used as a reference for measuring monetary poverty – meaning those who live under $1.3/day or less than 8,282 EGP annually. 


Noura Selim

Executive Director at Sawiris Foundation for Social Development

Abdelrahman Nagy

Abdelrahman is a principal investigator for research projects with a focus on job attributes, the effect of subsidizing nurseries on female labor force participation, and improving teaching nurseries’ quality. Before joining Sawiris Foundation as Learning & Strategy Director, Abdelrahman was the Director of the J-PAL initiative in Egypt and the J-PAL MENA Associate Director for Research. He holds an MA in Quality and Statistical Control from Cairo University and an MA in International and Comparative Education from the American University in Cairo. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate researching at Maastricht University, Netherlands.