Haiti shows that Gulf states are not mere 'funders'

While relatively new in this field compared to Europe and America, these countries have been able to nevertheless launch fruitful initiatives.

Many residents of the Gulf were critical that neither donation points nor fund-raising initiatives were made available to enable them to help the victims of Haiti's recent earthquake. While the UAE is gifted with a large expatriate community able to mobilise resources quickly, locally based initiatives to facilitate donations were limited. This stood in contrast to the fund-raising and collection campaigns in the case of the Filipino flood, and similarly for the Gaza crisis, organised by NGOs, individuals, and private companies.

Nevertheless, the absence of a significant Haitian expatriate community may go some way towards explaining the lack of any significant community-based initiatives. It is worth remembering that Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. As such, many international NGOs have been working there for years. They were already present in the field and could mobilise their staff and their resources immediately after the earthquake, despite suffering losses in the quake.

Many countries such as the United States and France have strong historical and political ties with Haiti, explaining their very quick reaction and their important commitment to the country. It was not the case for the Gulf countries, which are geographically and culturally very far from Haiti.  Lately, countries such as the UAE and Qatar have affirmed their will to become not only major donors, but also major actors in the humanitarian field. Although not reflected correctly by the western media, Gulf countries have been active in Haiti; Saudi Arabia, though late, has especially donated significantly.

It is indeed worth noting that Qatar was relatively fast in sending a rescue team to Haiti immediately after the earthquake. A C17 plane, transporting 50 tons of relief supplies and a team of 30 people, left Doha only hours after the earthquake. The team was composed of doctors and rescuers, charged with finding and treating victims in Port-au-Prince and neighbouring areas. Team members were well versed in emergency relief, bringing experience from the battlefields of Gaza, Lebanon and Somalia, as well as from natural disasters such as the Pakistan earthquake of 2005 and Mauritania's flood in 2007.

Involved in humanitarian and philanthropic activities overseas since their creation, the UAE has undertaken active initiatives in the past years to become an international humanitarian actor and a global donor. Indeed, the country has recently established a co-ordination office in charge of assessing the volume of aid the country has provided in the past, in addition to co-ordinating field activities. The UAE has been the most active Gulf country on the ground in Haiti. Besides setting up an air bridge on the 15th of January, the country's largest humanitarian actors participated in the relief effort in Haiti. Abu Dhabi-based charities played a significant role in supporting the relief effort in Haiti. The Red Crescent Authority sent relief items, medical equipment and medical personnel.

The organisation established a field hospital and contributed financially to the emergency appeal launched by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). The Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, which also sent relief items, medical equipment, 500 tons of food aid and medical supplies, is estimated to be worth $3.5 million. From Dubai, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein travelled to Haiti to oversee a delivery of 90 metric tons of relief supplies provided by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Humanitarian and Charity Establishment. She met with Haitian and UN officials, and arrived in Amman, Jordan from Port-au-Prince, with 21 evacuees from the Middle East who had been left trapped after the earthquake.

Last but not least, the Saudi donation was one of the most important received. Indeed, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia contributed $50 million to support the United Nations' humanitarian response to the earthquake in Haiti. This made Saudi Arabia one of the main contributors to the Haiti Flash Appeal, launched on January 15. The funds from Saudi Arabia were transferred to Haiti's Emergency Relief Response Fund (ERRF), a pooled fund managed by the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on behalf of the Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Haiti.

The question must be asked whether the participation of Gulf countries has been largely underestimated, and subject to biased perceptions. The participation of these countries has taken place on many levels, and should be put in the perspective of their current will to contribute actively in humanitarian affairs. While relatively new in this field compared to Europe and America, these countries have been able to nevertheless launch fruitful initiatives.

The perception that GCC countries can only provide financial resources largely undermines their recent efforts to adapt their practices to international standards, and relegates them to a status of "funders" instead of empowering them to become global humanitarian actors. The financial and logistical support these countries can provide is critical for the reconstruction phase taking place currently. Though media coverage has been slowly decreasing, Haiti needs not only financial support, but also a commitment to rebuilding the devastated country.

Dr Luk N Van Wassenhove is the academic director at the INSEAD Social Innovation Centre. Hanane Cherkaoui is a research associate at the centre