Global Policy Forum

As Crises Mount, Global Aid Groups Tap Islamic Money


By Roger Thurow

Wall Street Journal
December 3, 2004

In his zeal to feed the hungry, Tarek Shayya has come to an unlikely source: the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. There isn't much food growing here, but that isn't what he is after. "Please, for the hungry children," Mr. Shayya pleaded as he trolled for cash donations in one of Dubai's upscale malls. He is the World Food Program's first donor-relations officer in the oil-rich Gulf region. And on this night he was also a pioneer of the door-to-door fund-raising method common in the West. Wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the slogan "Join Me," Mr. Shayya approached shoppers with a simple request: Dial a phone number and donate 30 dirhams, or about $8.20, to the WFP.

Ibrahim Hamid, a perfume distributor, eagerly noted the number. "I know your organization. I've seen the TV spots about feeding the poor," he said, promising to make a donation. Mr. Shayya, a 44-year-old Syrian, smiled broadly. "Progress!" he proclaimed. As humanitarian crises multiply across the globe, straining Western contributions, relief organizations are moving in on a source of money that has eluded them in recent years: the Islamic world. Muslim governments and individuals have long been generous donors to charity, heeding the Islamic obligation to give a portion of annual savings to the poor. Most of their giving has flowed through Islamic charities that fund their own projects, or directly from one government to another. Relatively little has gone to the international organizations that do the bulk of the feeding, housing and healing in crises around the world.

Last year, the World Food Program, a United Nations agency that's the world's largest humanitarian organization, fed 104 million people. A full 57 million of those were in Organization of the Islamic Conference, or OIC, countries. Yet less than 2% of the WFP's $2.6 billion in donations came from these countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the leading agency caring for displaced people, received less than $4 million from Arab donors in a budget of nearly $1 billion. Of the $3.1 billion raised since 1988 by the global coalition to eradicate polio, less than $3 million has come from OIC states, even though most remaining cases of polio occur in predominantly Muslim countries.

Now, these organizations' appeals are getting a better reception in the Islamic world, and they cite three main reasons. Investigations into terrorist financing after the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. have brought more scrutiny on donations to Islamic charities. In response, donors are looking for more globally respected recipients. Arab governments believe that greater contributions to multinational humanitarian efforts can improve their image in the West. And they see that their charities alone can't relieve the massive humanitarian crises in their own regions, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Palestinian territories and West Africa.

In recent months, Malaysia has donated $1 million and the United Arab Emirates $500,000 to the polio-eradication drive. A foundation in the Emirates contributed about $200,000 to the UNHCR for water wells and a purification unit at camps for Sudanese refugees in Chad. Last month, the Saudi Committee for the Relief of Palestinian People donated $6.3 million to the WFP's feeding programs in Gaza and the West Bank. "It's the first significant cash donation from Saudi Arabia since perhaps the 1980s," said Mr. Shayya. "We hope it will be the catalyst for more."

Abdul Aziz Arrukban, a 32-year-old Saudi businessman who has participated in some of his country's aid missions, hopes so, too. "We want to make it clear to everyone that we help the hungry and the needy, and not just in the Muslim world," he says. "We like to see ourselves in Africa, South America, Asia. And the WFP reaches the most people." Another young businessman, 34-year-old Ali Abdullah Al-Futtaim from Dubai, has begun promoting the WFP after seeing the organization's food-distribution operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and hearing concerns about charitable donations going to support terrorism. "After 9/11, people are scared to give because they don't know where the money goes. I heard it from my own father," he says. "But if you give to the WFP, you're protected. You know where the money went. I saw it for myself."

The push by humanitarian agencies to widen their donor bases goes beyond their need to scratch together more resources. They believe that wider exposure in the Islamic world will garner greater respect, and perhaps better security, for their field workers. They also hope that a global effort to heal human suffering may also begin to heal the rift between Muslim countries and the West. "If there's one set of issues that it ought to be easy for the world to come around, where we have a common interest, it's the humanitarian agenda," said James Morris, the WFP's executive director. "Whoever you are, wherever you are, you don't want people to starve."

Mr. Morris carried this vision to Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates during a September visit. He also delivered a stark message: "We desperately need a substantial engagement from the Gulf countries to do our work." This desperation is palpable in the struggle of humanitarian agencies to contain the catastrophe in Darfur, Sudan, where brutal clashes between rival factions have uprooted nearly two million people and killed tens of thousands, almost all of them Muslims. The WFP, scrambling to feed 1.6 million people in Darfur, has received donations ranging from $116 million by the U.S. to $24,760 by Slovakia. Donations to the UNHCR to care for the displaced population range from $32 million by the U.S. to $80,000 by Liechtenstein. Neither organization lists OIC countries among its top 20 donors for Darfur.

As the Darfur crisis escalated this summer, a number of Arab countries rushed to help with planeloads of medicine, tents and food. Many of the donations came directly from emirs, sheiks and princes who often quickly dispatch relief supplies when they hear of a crisis. They believe such aid is distributed faster and they get the credit for direct donations to a government. In most cases in Darfur, though, this aid was distributed outside the networks of the main humanitarian agencies. They question whether aid given directly to the Sudanese government, which has been accused of backing Arab militia attacks against African farmers, reached the Darfur region. And while such aid helps with a quick infusion of relief materials, the main problem in most humanitarian efforts is sustaining the aid over months or years.

When he traveled with a Saudi delivery, Mr. Arrukban noticed that the WFP already had warehouses and distribution lines. He told his delegation: "Why are we having a warehouse? Why waste the money? The WFP is already out there, why not work with them?" The Saudis were significant financial supporters of the WFP in the agency's early days in the 1960s and '70s. By 1986, Saudi Arabia was making annual donations of about $27 million. But then donations declined to about $3 million worth of dates and about $1 million in cash in recent years. Last year's $3.3 million donation placed Saudi Arabia 32nd, behind Honduras and Kenya.

What happened? "We had a recession, a huge drop in oil prices...then the Gulf War," says Ahmad Alaquil, the permanent representative of Saudi Arabia to the U.N. organizations in Rome, which includes the WFP. At the same time, he says, the Saudis developed their own ability to deliver humanitarian relief and began nurturing their own aid projects. Now, he says, "You have high oil prices, but also high demand for assistance from countries next door to us." Some countries and individuals have been reluctant to send aid through the U.N. relief agencies because of anger over U.N. sanctions against some Arab countries and the Security Council's politics over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year's bombing of the U.N.'s Baghdad headquarters showed the aid organizations that their humanitarian work is sometimes perceived as indistinct from the U.N.'s political entanglements. And this year the image of the U.N. has been further tainted by continuing allegations of corruption in its oil-for-food program, which was intended to allow monitored sales of Iraqi oil to pay for humanitarian supplies amid economic sanctions imposed on the country.

The large international humanitarian agencies try to maintain political and religious neutrality. But some Muslims see them as being at odds with Islamic charitable work that often builds mosques and religious schools while distributing food and medicine. The heavy American and European donations that support the U.N. aid agencies, as well as independent organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross, prompt claims that they are tools of the West.

But the agencies note that, the less Arab countries give, the more they have to rely on Western donations. "Sometimes they say we're funded by Western money, and we say, 'Well, that's your fault,' " says Red Cross external-resources head Jean-Daniel Tauxe. Aid officials concede that they also share the blame. They thought the oil-fueled donations of the 1970s and early '80s would keep flowing without much attention. They haven't wooed the Arab donors as persistently as they court Western donors, by, say, advertising in the Arab world.

"They shouldn't sit and wait for someone to give them something," says Lamya Ahmed Al-Saqqaf, Kuwait's representative to the U.N. organizations in Rome. Last year, Kuwait donated $1 million to the WFP, placing it 41st in the list of donors, behind China and Malawi. Ms. Al-Saqqaf said some of the aid organizations aren't well-known in her country. She recalled that when Kuwait's agriculture minister visited WFP officials last year, he said, "We've never heard of the WFP. Please, tell us what you do." In the past year, the aid agencies have been working to reverse these attitudes. Both the WFP and the UNHCR have hired Egyptian actors famous throughout the Arab world to make public-service announcements on television and radio. And they are looking to employ more Arabs. While OIC countries occupy 11 of the 36 seats on the WFP's executive board, the management staff largely resembles the Western face of the biggest donors.

"If you ask me how many Saudis work in the WFP, I won't be able to give you a very long list," says John Powell, the WFP's deputy executive director. "Bottom line, we haven't invested sufficient time and attention to build relationships as we have with other states." The polio eradication coalition, spearheaded by the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Health Organization, Rotary International and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, took its plea directly to the Organization of the Islamic Conference, with its 57 member states. Coalition officials lobbied ambassadors and cabinet ministers in Geneva and New York and pressed their case at OIC summits. Their argument was powerful: More than 120 million children under the age of 5 live in OIC countries where polio is endemic or at risk of being re-infected.

"They were shocked when we told them this," says Anand Balachandran of the polio coalition. At its summit meeting in Malaysia a year ago, the OIC called on its members to "provide resources necessary to eradicate polio from all OIC member states by 2005." The WFP is the first tenant in Dubai's Humanitarian City, which, along with another nascent project called Aid City, aims to provide transport logistics and office and storage space for global relief work. From its modest two-story office, a WFP team has already scrambled to catastrophes in more than 60 countries -- and Mr. Shayya scrambles to fund them.

Set on desert land beside shopping malls and ritzy hotels of this commercial oasis, Humanitarian City is the pet project of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and president of the Dubai Development and Investment Authority. "He wants Dubai to be a good role model for the region," says Saeed Al Muntafiq, director general of the Investment Authority. Dubai, says Mr. Muntafiq, has prospered from a commercial strategy centered on its location within a four-hour flight of 1.8 billion people stretching across the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and northeastern Africa. He adds that's also the scene of "the biggest natural and man-made disasters in the world: earthquakes, famine, wars, disease."





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