Community conversations, which took place in parallel with the Wikimedia 2030 Working Groups activities, were the occasion for different communities to provide their views, needs and wishes in relation to the future of our movement. Having worked with the Arabic speaking community, these are the most important points and areas that I collected in different discussions in various channels between March and September 2019. In total, over 50 people from different Arabic speaking countries, and even abroad, mostly men, participated in the discussions.
Localization of Power and Decision-Making
Global governance of the movement was one of the most important aspects discussed by the community, as it affects it directly. Most of the members, if not all, lean towards greater localization of power and decision making in movement governance. The current context suggests that the Wikimedia Foundation is more American than international, meaning that several members and affiliates in the MENA region are negatively affected in terms of receiving grants, support or organizing conferences because of this centralization in USA.
Because of the Wikimedia Foundation’s status as a US-based non-profit organization, governments in the Arabic speaking world are often suspicious of allowing financial or other forms of support for local affiliates. In some cases, receiving WMF support is banned, in others it is frowned upon and puts local volunteers at various forms of risk. Local Wikimedians believe that a more decentralized funding and support structure would help address these barriers. In this same vein, the community also voiced a strong desire for more tailored support to grow the Arabic speaking Wikimedia community, and wanted more localized and/or decentralized support to enable this growth. Possible approaches include local offices, having full time staff based in the region, and/or finding other pathways for financial and institutional support.
Clear boundary between volunteering and employment
The community believes that growth in both content and the number of editors in the Arabic world requires salaried financial support or other forms of payment, similar to the way that many Western countries have chapters with fully funded staff positions. Relying solely on volunteer time capacity is seen as not a sustainable option, especially for offline and administrative tasks. This has historically been a barrier to growth as core volunteers face other time priorities related to work and personal lives. People also felt that highly involved volunteers in each community or affiliate shall be compensated for time spent on activities such as Wikimedia travel planning, securing visas, and reimbursement efforts and that this is not the same as volunteer editing activities.
Regional staff focused on growth
Many regions such as the Middle East and North Africa suffer from lack of content and editors, particularly for content creation in non-English languages. The Arabic speaking community believes that hiring a local Wikimedian in the region would empower their community and help them grow. This approach is seen as having many benefits: First, this person will be more dedicated to the Wikimedian work (as it is now their main activity) and, second, the person is the one knowing the field better than any external, which guarantees a better outcome. It is however important to clarify that the role of this person should be to help work on community growth, and not to edit articles, as paid editing is not appreciated within the community.
Improved affiliate governance
Local affiliate governance is one of the central concerns of the Arabic speaking community.
User Groups in the Arabic speaking world struggle with self-organization and self-management. Greater institutional support for the creation and implementation of bylaws, for example, would help with these challenges. Volunteers also agreed that there is an ongoing risk of dictatorships in User Groups and even chapters that they would like support understanding how to address. Lastly, affiliate leaders shared that feedback on reports sent into the Wikimedia Foundation would be helpful, in addition to more generalized forms of governance support.
There is no Wikimedia affiliate in the whole MENA region with legal status (registered as an association) in their country. This is a challenging situation, as it is a blocker for many partnerships and funding operations to happen. Community members stress that it cannot be solely the responsibility of user groups to solve these challenges, especially given that most volunteers are not legal experts. With this in mind, affiliates are interested in receiving greater capacity building and legal support to help navigate issues such as affiliate status, censorship, and other problems with legal systems in countries where challenging political situations make Wikimedia work more complicated.
Improve neutrality in the encyclopedia
By nature, Wikipedia is more accessible for both editing and reading to people privileged to have internet access, technology devices, and technology skills. These traits are not representative of a society of 400 million Arabic speakers across the world. Gaps such as gender and political ideology are accentuated as the encyclopedia reflects the dominant opinions in society and is therefore not neutral. Loopholes (when a majority of administrators agreeing on an opinion for instance) are exploited to suppress the voices of various minority groups to promote viewpoints that are currently widely accepted in the society even when they are not being neutral. For example, articles related to the Islamic religion are often written about with Sunni Islamic lens, but some other religious minorities complain that their perspective is missing, and they are not even allowed to edit the content, usually controlled by Sunni administrators.
Community members suggest to work on two areas to tackle this issue: (1) Community health, by having mechanisms preventing authoritarianism within the encyclopedia and its administrators (more control, follow-up), and (2) Diversity, by encouraging a more diverse participation in terms of gender, social class, religion, identity, the Arabic Wikipedia will become more neutral, exactly as the English example shows.
Ideas and feedback from the Arabic speaking community were not limited to these five areas, and extended to various suggestions in community health (make contributors feel safe and welcome, have clear rules to respect), capacity building (especially in local languages and exchange of experience between affiliates), bridging different gaps, and working on even more outreach towards who do not know Wikimedia and its projects. Wikimedia 2030 and its related community conversations are an important milestone in our path towards a better future.
The Arabic speaking community is looking forward to seeing how these ideas, and others, are considered in the 2030 Movement Strategy process. Inevitably, some of these areas will be touched upon in the final recommendations, while others can be addressed by the community itself or greater collaboration with the Wikimedia Foundation. As a community, we are excited to take these ideas forward into a future of the expansion of free knowledge for all in the Arabic speaking world.