Seven million children and counting: Dubai Cares reaches out

Dubai Cares, celebrating its fifth anniversary this year, has so far reached out to seven million children living in desperate poverty.

Aissata TelyCooks, an 8-year-old child in Mali washes her hands with soap the Dubai Cares installed next to school latrines.
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"This job rarely makes you feel good at night because it is such a huge responsibility," admits Dubai Cares programme officer Asma Malik. "It's one thing to do a job from a desk but it's another thing when you are accountable to lots of people, and not just any people, but young children."

Miss Malik is one of five country programme officers who work at Dubai Cares, a foundation with almost $1bn to spend on improving the lives of children living in desperate poverty.

"A lot of times you have to detach to get the work done because you simply can't help everyone," says fellow officer Maria Al Qassim, 27. "It is very difficult to reject certain needs and fund others, and you have to detach emotionally to be able to do it."

Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organisation, is celebrating its fifth birthday this year. It was set up in September 2007 under the directives of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, who donated $480 million of his own money, matching the figure raised by the local community at the first public fundraising event. This far surpassed the initial goal of Dh200,000.

The organisation's purpose is to help the world achieve three of the eight Millennium Development Goals, which were determined by the UN in 2000. It focuses on achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, and developing a global partnership for development.

"Sheikh Mohammed's goal was for Dubai Cares to reach out to one million children," says its chief executive, Tariq Al Gurg. "That was the target, the only target.

"But because we raised such a lot of money, we realised we could serve much more than that. And when we did our research we saw that one of the main problems was access to education and not the education itself so this is our focus."

The organisation has helped seven million children in 28 countries so far.

Its money and manpower has built or renovated more than 1,500 schools and classrooms, set up dozens of Parent Teacher Associations and distributed more than two million school books. Almost half a million children are also receiving nutritious meals everyday thanks to its work.

"When you sit at a desk, it is hard to keep yourself going. All you see are statistics and they hardly ever change," Mrs Al Qassim says. "You can feel like your work has no impact, but then you go to the field and you see the impact it has. It's so much easier to connect to their stories."

Choosing the most worthy causes is not simply a case of spending a few days on the internet. The team examines indicators from the UN, World Bank and the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook before taking any action.

As a philanthropic organisation, it builds programmes from scratch and hands them over to the relevant NGO or government to manage.

"We always keep a couple of years as a buffer support to make sure it is supported properly," says Mr Al Gurg, a father of three young girls. "We are not about temporary solutions. This is about making permanent differences to millions of people. It does not happen in one year, or two years. It takes time."

The four main issues are infrastructure; water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH); health and nutrition; and quality of education. The aim of each of the 40-odd programmes is to do whatever it takes to get children into education, focusing on these four criteria.

In Mali, for example, where only half the population has access to an "improved water source" such as a household connection of rain water collection, there are five WASH in schools programmes, helping 225,000 children get fresh water every day.

Working with five partners, Dubai Cares' money has been used to build more than 650 latrines and almost 700 water sources, including working wells, in about 1,000 schools. Each programme is expected to last four years and will be handed over in 2014. By giving children access to fresh water, Dubai Cares hopes to cut down on the huge number of water-related sicknesses which can prevent a child from attending school.

The shorter but no less effective initiatives include a two-year project in Bangladesh to provide supplementary nutrition to underprivileged children aged 5 to 11.

It has established a feeding programme using local produce and local skills in every part of the chain. The food comes from local producers and is transported using local drivers. It is then prepared, usually in one of the schools, by a core group, often mothers, who send it off again to be delivered.

"Most families don't believe in education because it's money that they need," says Mr Al Gurg. "But when the father realises the school is giving their child food for the day, they might send them to school just for that reason. This is all part of improving access to education.

"You can also give incentives to encourage school attendance. Like for every girl that attends 30 days of school, we will give the family a sack of rice."

The programme officers visit the countries a handful of times each year. "We have to understand that, yes, these communities are unfortunate, but you can't feel sorry for them," says Miss Malik. "They may have little means but at the same time they are rich in other ways. We don't want to talk down to these people or say 'we know better than you'. We learn as much as we can from them, they understand their needs better than we do."

The 27-year-old architecture graduate from Dubai joined Dubai Cares after giving up her job in real estate, which she now admits she found rather pointless.

"I was working in real estate just when the crisis happened. Let's say it was a difficult time, and I realised there was much more to this world than buildings. At the same time I was interested in aid and politics.

"But leaving quite a secure field of engineering and architecture and going to something that people associate with charity is not the best conversation to have with your parents. Fortunately we have really supportive families, and they have never stopped us from doing what we love, and they encourage us to see the world."

The idea of development as a concept is still relatively new here, she says, but the country is slowly realising it has the ability and opportunity to change millions of young lives.

"It is important that people understand we are not a charity," says her colleague Mrs Al Qassim, who joined Dubai Cares two weeks after she graduated five years ago. "Giving a child one meal is charity, but giving the child an education is developing the child so they will be better off in the future."

According to the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid, the country donated Dh7.74 billion in foreign aid last year and pledged another Dh674.9 million for future projects.

"It is a very wealthy and generous country," Miss Malik says. "And very slowly it is starting to ask questions, for us it is great to see more and more people come to understand about giving aid and how much of an impact it can have."

Despite its success, Dubai Cares plans to continue long past the 2015 deadline for the UN's Millennium Development Goals.

Having weathered the storm of the global financial crisis, the team is now keen for more people to donate.

"The crisis hit individuals and companies here very hard," says Mr Al Gurg, "and it has been tough since the crisis days. People are starting to give more now but not as much as before the crisis. Some people have just stopped."

As the former boss of a corporate banking department, Mr Al Gurg is in a good position to handle the funds. The money does not sit idly in a bank, he says, it is instead invested so it returns more money.

The majority of individual donors are high-net-worth individuals such as the founder and chairman of Gems Education, Sunny Varkey, who has pledged $10 million a year for the next decade.

Most of the organisation's funds are spent abroad but a very small amount is put aside for Volunteer Emirates, a smaller operation working on education projects on home soil.

In May, more than 100 volunteers helped install 630 chairs and desks, 21 whiteboards, 15 bookshelves and 10 air conditioners, as well as painting more than 50 classrooms at the Sheikh Rashid Pakistan School.

"I'm feeling very positive about the future," Mr Al Gurg says. "We have reached a stage where we can set and design our own programmes. Everyone here is very passionate about what we do.

"I want others to learn from us so we can do even more good."