So tell us, after a long absence from your hometown, why are you here and what are you planning for Beirut?
Raghida Dergham: I came to Beirut to receive a very special honor, the Murex D’Or for journalism, which is an honor that is always heartwarming because when it’s your own people that are honoring you it has a much different impact. There was also a tribute to Ghassan Tueini, which was something that touched my heart as it was marvelous for me to have been born in An-Nahar as a journalist.
At the Murex D’Or Awards, I offered the honor to every little girl, every young woman who dreams of arriving, I said, “Don’t fear arrival, don’t be afraid of your dreams, and don’t be afraid to dare, though in our society, we are raised to not dare and not to rock the boat.” I wanted to give an example because I dreamt and I worked and I dared. And I used my brains, and thank God, I arrived.
Aren’t you also here to prepare the launch of the Beirut institute?
Dergham: Beirut Institute is registered in Beirut, but it’s for the Arab region, and eventually it is going to have focal points in several parts of the Arab region and New York.
Beirut Institute is actually an act of reinventing myself. I head Al-Hayat’s office at the United Nations in New York, and I’ve been a member of the Council of Foreign Relations, and I am always at the World Economic Forums. And then I just thought: Beirut deserves it. Beirut has always been this sort of [breath of fresh air] for the Arab region. So I called it Beirut Institute.
I also thought that one gets to an age where it’s important to give back. The idea is to see if we can get people to think of positive scenarios for solutions. It’s a solution-oriented, independent think tank that hopes to accomplish something that I call the 40/40, in which we would have 40% of the community of Beirut Institute under the age of 40, so that it’s not about those established people lecturing down at the young. We need to listen to the youth, and I think that it is important to give the youth of the Arab region a place to collectively think of solutions that impact their future and impact the Arab world. [We need to] take ourselves seriously in this region, and then the world will take us more seriously.
Solutions for what?
Dergham: Well, we will have different councils: councils on policy, on women, on innovation and aspiration, and on youth. The theme for this year is about investing in transition. It means that the whole region is going through a transition.
Investing in the transition of the Arab region requires us to think where we are and where we are going so that we don’t just get caught with the consequences and say, “Oops, I was not there to do something about it.” We have this culture of blame, and we have to stop that.
We will be holding a conference in Beirut in December with the board of directors and the advisory board on investing in transition as a conversation with the future. The whole idea is to impact policy makers and the public. There’s also the necessity to know where to invest in our region. We can be the place to offer that sort of analysis to make sure that there is a continued interest in helping the direction of the region.
We have something called the Arab Brain Trust. We invite people to come and participate in conversations with people from different fields. The idea is to find the opportunities and identify the challenges and [figure out] what we can do about it. We have a partnership with the Foreign Policy Association in New York.
Women and nationality is an issue that we would like to tackle with solution-oriented approaches. And one of our board members is very keen on the issue of nationality.
In addition to the conference, we will do a series of lunches with the UN Security Council, and we will be having retreats and public meetings in collaboration with others or alone.
And we are planning to deliver recommendations to either policy makers in individual countries or in collectives of countries, and we also plan to use the media to get the word out. Because in order to impact public opinion, we need the public to be aware. And I tell you shamelessly and unapologetically that for the moment, Beirut Institute will look like – and is – a bit of an elitist body. And shamelessly I call us the community of excellence.
How will you link regional challenges? Can we have one regional policy for all sectors and issues?
Dergham: We will not have one regional policy. What we will have are focal points. Now we have a focal point in Tunisia: a wonderful woman called Nadia Bou Lifa. We have a focal point in Jordan headed by Shahm al-Werr, who is the president of the Harvard Arab Alumni Association. Those two, along with Nahla Haidar, are co-chairs of the Arab Brain Trust, so there’s an engaged effort.
We will also be having a focal point in Egypt and hopefully in some other places.
Building a think tank is a very lengthy process and very challenging. I’ve been working hard for the past two years, but I think that pretty soon we will take off. But financing is always difficult.
We are relying on individuals. At the beginning we had nothing. We don’t mind taking money even from governments as long as it’s very clear that we are independent. But we prefer not taking money from governments.
The private sector matters a lot to us, because we want to engage the corporate world in impacting its place and in helping the new generation. That’s a social responsibility.
I hope that we at Beirut Institute succeed in presenting a forum for intergenerational activity, debate or action. It is about listening to one another. We are about moderation and modernism. This is not for the extremists to put their views on the table. This is about people who think alike.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length.