Analysis: Arab and Muslim aid and the West - “two china elephants”
KUWAIT CITY/DUBAI, 19 October 2011 (IRIN) - Among the aid agencies that
poured into Somalia after famine was declared in July were organizations
such as the Arab Federation of Doctors, the Mohammed Bin Rashid
Establishment of the United Arab Emirates, and the Deniz Feneri Association
They came with their own style.
National Campaign for the Relief of the Somali People, a project of King
Abdullah, sent planeloads of food, including jam and cheese. The
International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO) sent 600 tons of dates.
Turkey’s IHH (Foundation for Human Rights, Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief)
even ventured outside Mogadishu into territory considered a no-go zone for
most international aid organizations because it is not under government
They also came with a lot of money.
In an emergency meeting in August, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation
(OIC), pledged US$350 million for Somalia - “numbers we dream of”, one UN
aid worker in Mogadishu said - though it is still unclear how much of this
is new funding.
it has collected more than $280 million for the Somali effort, while Saudi
Arabia’s contribution to UN agencies alone was $60 million, and Kuwait, a
country of 3.5 million, contributed $10 million. The United Arab Emirates
(UAE) Office for Coordination of Foreign Aid, too, received confirmation of
$62 million in contributions to the Horn of Africa emergency.
Gulf countries were able to raise funds with remarkable speed and ease. In
the span of three hours, a TV telethon in Qatar raised nearly 25 million
riyals ($6.8 million). In a couple of weeks, Kuwait’s International Islamic
Charitable Organization (IICO), raised 80,000 dinars ($290,000) in cash by
asking for donations in malls, while aid telethons in the UAE reportedly
raised an additional $50 million for the Horn of Africa.
With many Western donors cutting budgets amid fears of another recession,
this region has gained influence in aid, especially in countries with large
Muslim populations. Both in terms of funds and action on the ground, the
effort in Somalia has put Muslim and Arab donors and organizations onto
But their relationship with the broader humanitarian system has been limited
at the best of times, and rocky at the worst. For example, most OIC funds
for Somalia are not being channelled through multilateral mechanisms, like
Players from the region say they are accustomed to working on their own -
due to a history of mutual mistrust, a lack of awareness on both sides, and
a perception by some Muslims and Arabs that they are better placed to help
under certain circumstances.
The UN is now actively trying to improve that relationship, but the road to
cooperation and coordination faces many challenges.
How did we get here?
The history of mutual mistrust between the predominantly Western aid system
and its counterpart in the Muslim and Arab world is long, say analysts.
“These are two china elephants looking at each other,” said Abdel-Rahman
Ghandour, development and humanitarian worker, and author of Humanitarian
Jihad: Investigation into Islamic NGOs. “They see each other; they know that
they’re there; but they can’t move towards each other,” he told IRIN.
Some Muslim aid workers see in the UN system a certain arrogance. “They
don’t want to understand us,” one Muslim aid worker said. Others speak of
undertones of neo-colonialism in the way aid is delivered and in the
relationship between the Muslim aid community and its Western-dominated
“They only involve us when it suits them,” the aid worker told IRIN. Often,
he added, they are invited to meetings and conferences as “an afterthought”.
“You feel you’re being used like window dressing,” he said. “Things are
hatched and cooked in the West and then brought to people to eat.”
Some NGOs from the Arab and Muslim world are afraid of being “swallowed up”
by the UN system and don’t feel confident they can engage with the UN on an
“It’s not about experience,” one Arab aid worker said. “The UN has the
experience and the upper hand when it comes to everything - information,
communication, movement on the ground. There’s no question. But to give them
money and let them implement activities, we have to rest assured that we’ll
like what comes out in our name.”
He called for a kind of code of ethics or framework of understanding that
would outline what both sides mean by certain fundamental principles and
outline boundaries of action.
For example, terms like women’s empowerment need to be defined, he said.
“How we understand it is not how the UN understands it,” he added.
Organizations from this part of the world would fear partnering with the UN
if women’s empowerment is understood to mean “removing the hijab [covering a
woman’s hair], destroying the family institution and throwing religion out
Some aid workers and donors from the Muslim and Arab world are also
sceptical of the real motivations behind the Western system’s desire to
partner with them.
“Everyone knows they’re [engaging with us] for the money, not for unity,”
another Muslim aid worker said. “Islamic NGOs were a black box that nobody
wanted to touch,” he said. “Then they [the UN] realized they were missing
Others do not easily differentiate between the UN Security Council, which
has authorized Western interventions into Muslim countries and is seen to be
unwilling to tackle the Palestinian question, and humanitarian aid agencies
like the World Food Programme (WFP) or the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
For these reasons, many Red Crescent societies in the region, according to
one senior aid worker, sometimes try to avoid working with the UN system.
“We try to coordinate with - and not be coordinated by - the UN because of
neutrality issues,” he told IRIN. “The UN is not considered to be a neutral
organization, especially in a conflict set-up.”
Some Muslim organizations have been doing emergency relief work for decades.
But many others had until recently focused more on developmental work -
building schools and mosques or helping orphans.
And they have ramped up activities. The Qatar Red Crescent, for example, has
seen its annual international budget jump from less than $250,000 to more
than $45 million in the last decade, according to Khaled Diab, its
international cooperation adviser. Turkish NGO IHH, which used to operate
projects of $600-700,000 dollars a year for the Horn of Africa has increased
its budget to more than $20 million – one of its biggest campaigns ever,
according to its vice-president, Hüseyin Oruç.
But the UN and the broader humanitarian system have their reservations too.
And with the influx of programming have come some clashes of ideology.
“Their awareness and subscription to commonly-understood best practice isn’t
necessarily there,” one senior Western aid worker said of NGOs from the
region, citing neglect of environmental impact or nutritional balance as
examples. Distributing powdered milk, for example, is no good in an area
where there is no clean water, while dates are not ideal in cases of
malnutrition because they are high in sugar, low in nutrition, and hard to
Other humanitarians say aid workers from the region do not follow normal
security procedures. The aid worker in Mogadishu told IRIN that many of them
have a “naïve view” that “nobody would hurt a fellow Muslim”.
“I worry we’ll see a Muslim aid worker being shot,” the Mogadishu aid worker
said. “It’s a huge concern for all of us.”
Lack of coordination?
There are also complaints about lack of coordination. The Red Crescent
societies, said one aid worker, send in piles of goods without coordinating
with the humanitarian community or checking the needs outlined in the
Consolidated Appeals Process.
Planeloads of food arrive from the Gulf - much of the assistance from the
region comes in the form of food aid - and “we have no idea where it goes,”
the Mogadishu aid worker said. Much of it is sold by its recipients on the
open market because the value of some of the food, like jam and cheese, is
so high, he added.
The 9/11 attacks also affected the relationship.
“A lot of Western charities are still afraid of being associated with
Islamic charities because of the stigma that hangs over their heads since
September 11th,” the author, Ghandour, said.
US laws about the financing of “terror” have
> further complicated the
relationship between Muslim charities and the West because NGOs working in
designated “terrorist” countries, like Iran and Burma, or areas controlled
by organizations like militant group al-Shabab - deemed a “terrorist”
organization by the US - fear being accused of complicity and so keep quiet
about their activities.
Financial transactions to fund work in these areas through the conventional
banking system are not possible and the movement of large sums of cash could
create problems with some governments.
“They can’t afford to be transparent,” said Haroun Atallah, finance and
service director at UK-based Islamic Relief Worldwide. “How do you expect
them to be transparent if it could come back and bite them?”
Some Muslim and Arab NGOs see close dealings with the UN as possibly
jeopardizing their access in al-Shabab areas, and so they keep their
Understanding each other
But observers say mutual mistrust stems from a lack of insight on both
“There is still a lack of in-depth knowledge and understanding about the
culture of emerging donors towards giving,” according to the Global Public
Policy Institute (GPPi), which is currently researching
> the universality of
Part of the reluctance on the part of Muslim organizations to broadcast
their actions comes from a culture that sees charity as something private
and humble - that should not be paraded in front of everyone for
“We do things without saying that we’re doing it. It is part of Islamic
culture,” said Naeema Hassan al-Gasseer, a native of Bahrain and assistant
regional director of the World Health Organization (WHO) for the Eastern
Similarly, many NGOs from the Muslim world do not understand the UN.
Acronyms like UNHCR and WFP can be unfamiliar terms. One Muslim aid worker
described the UN as having a “branding problem”. Many aid workers from the
region have never heard of the UN Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) - charged with coordination of all aid in
emergencies - and have no idea what its cluster system is.
“We have become, as a system, so jargonized, so inward looking in terms of
how our system works, that hardly anyone else understands it,” Ghandour
“The discussions about humanitarian assistance are still taking place in
rather exclusive clubs,” GPPi research associate Claudia Meier told IRIN.
And “if you want to be a member of that, you need to play by the same rules
and speak the same language,” Ghandour said. “Not everyone has the will or
capacity to do it.”
UN officials acknowledge, for example, that few senior UN staff speak
Coordination has also been a challenge logistically. In Saudi Arabia, for
example, “it’s difficult to identify who is responsible for which decisions,
because decisions are usually taken at very high levels, usually at the
Office of the King, known as the Royal Court,” Meier said, based on the
nitarian_assistance/> case study on Saudi Arabia.
At the field level, many Muslim aid workers are willing to coordinate, but
simply don’t know how to do so.
The Mogadishu example
Mogadishu is an example of the complexity of the relationship. There, the
OIC has opened a coordination office and created an alliance of 27
organizations that operate across the country, including areas in the south
controlled by al-Shabab.
The OIC conducts agency meetings and has set up a mini-cluster system - with
the Arab Medical Union (also known as the Arab Federation of Doctors)
leading work in the health sector and the Qatar Red Crescent leading the
food distribution effort.
While OCHA has expressed its satisfaction with the move, some UN officials
told IRIN of a concern - especially at headquarters - that the OIC is trying
to create a parallel coordination structure.
But the OIC said it was not in competition with the UN.
“No one will say that we’ll do better than the UN in humanitarian [work],”
Atta Elmanan Bakhit, OIC assistant secretary-general for humanitarian
affairs, told IRIN. “You have the know-how. You have more means. You have
more access. You have a long history in humanitarian [work]. The main
[player] in humanitarian [work] will be always the UN.”
Ahmed Adam, head of the OIC’s Mogadishu office, said one of the aims of the
OIC was to fill the gaps left by the UN with regard to inaccessibility of
aid to certain areas of Somalia that are off-limits to international UN
“UN coordination is facing difficulties in covering most of the affected
areas due to security challenges,” he told IRIN. “That is why we are trying
to play a complementary role in order to improve the humanitarian
activities. We are sharing information and challenges with OCHA in our
regular meetings. The cooperation between the OIC and UN agencies is
addressing the problems that the humanitarian actors are facing,
particularly in this emergency period.”
Addressing this coordination problem has become an increasing priority,
given the recent explosion of involvement in aid by the region.
“We are seeing a gradual but steadily increasing engagement by Middle
Eastern countries in international humanitarian action, both as donors and
as policy supporters,” said Robert Smith, chief of the Consolidated Appeals
section at OCHA.
In a <http://www.irinnews.org/IndepthMain.aspx?reportid=94004&indepthid=91
shifting aid landscape that increasingly features non-Western states like
Brazil and India, a collection of Arab donors (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar,
Kuwait and Oman) account for nearly three-quarters of the contributions by
countries not included in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee, giving more than $3.2
billion in aid in the last decade, according to a
> report by
Development Initiatives, a research and advocacy organization.
“Gulf countries are leading an important new phase in humanitarian affairs,”
Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian
Affairs Valerie Amos told an <http://direct-aid.org/english/?p=1777
information sharing meeting in Kuwait in September, noting the humanitarian
community was facing “unprecedented challenges - many in the Islamic world.”
Many of the crises of recent years have affected Muslim people, including
the Bam earthquake in Iran in 2003, the Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004, the
Pakistan earthquake of 2005, the attack on Gaza in late 2008, and the
flooding in Pakistan in 2010. In all of these crises, Muslim and Arab donors
“These states want to position themselves regionally and in the
international arena as contributors to the humanitarian effort, seeking
recognition as rising - if not equal - powers on the world stage,” Meier
In 2008, the OIC created a humanitarian affairs department. The same year,
the UAE created an Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid. Qatar has
appointed a state minister for international cooperation.
In recent years, the UN’s efforts to engage this part of the world seemed to
be paying off.
According to Smith, member states of the OIC have contributed $594 million
to appeals for humanitarian aid to Muslim countries in the last decade.
In a sign of increased willingness to channel funds into multilateral
agencies, Saudi Arabia gave WFP half a billion dollars in 2008 during the
global food crisis. In 2010, it was the largest single contributor -
globally - to the Haiti emergency response fund, with $50 million. In 2011,
Kuwait gave a record $675,000 to the Central Emergency Response Fund, whose
advisory group it and Qatar are now members of.
Somalia changes aid dynamic?
But the famine in parts of Somalia seemed to have changed the dynamic. If
aid is counted as a percentage of GDP, several Middle Eastern countries have
been more generous than so-called traditional donors, but contributions to
the multilateral system have been limited.
The $60 million contributed by Saudi Arabia to WFP and WHO for the Somali
crisis was “a start” according to WHO’s al-Gasseer, but was not the
multilateral engagement UN agencies were hoping for.
Of the $62 million UAE donors have reported to the government Office for the
Coordination of Foreign Aid as contributions to the Horn of Africa
emergency, only $10,000 are recorded as having been channelled
multilaterally, through the International Federation of the Red Cross.
Instead, observers say, competing powers like Qatar and Turkey have seen
humanitarian involvement as an opportunity to pursue foreign policy
interests and flex their muscles. In a
recent article in ForeignPolicy.com, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip
Erdogan boasted of the more than $280 million worth of donations for Somalia
that were collected in Turkey in the last month.
And in the midst of their efforts on the ground, coordination has not always
been a priority.
“All the people on the ground are very busy,” Oruç of Turkey’s IHH told
IRIN. “They couldn’t find time for cluster meetings.”
Others acknowledged that a culture of working with others simply did not
exist: “It’s a new thinking, at least in the Gulf,” WHO’s al-Gasseer said.
She pointed to another problem as well: Charitable giving is a requirement
in Islam, but people often want to give their zakat, or charity, to
“Everybody we talk to [wants] to build hospitals, because hospitals are a
physical, visible thing. And distributing medicine is something everybody
likes,” she told IRIN. But in their rush, many of the NGOs and charities do
not consider whether there are staff to man the hospitals, enough storage
space, electricity, how materials will be distributed and to whom, she said.
In Somalia and Libya, she said, this has resulted in hospitals being built
next to one another, medication expiring, and an excess of services in one
area while others are neglected altogether.
“If we don’t take a serious step, the result will be very, very dangerous,”
she told fellow Arab participants of the conference in Kuwait.
Despite the challenges, there are renewed efforts now to reopen dialogue
between both sides. NGOs from the region have acknowledged that they have
lacked professionalism in the past. They believe their cultural and
religious background gives them a unique ability to help, and have appealed
to the UN to build their capacity.
“Arab and Muslim organizations have got the access which others do not have
and the culture which others do not have. What we need is to equip them to
become permanent international players,” Hany El-Banna told conference
participants. He is head of the Humanitarian Forum, an organization that
aims to improve dialogue between organizations from Muslim countries and
their counterparts in the multilateral system.
“We need to learn from UN experience,” the OIC’s Bakhit added. “We need the
help of UN. We cannot deny that.”
“Greater inclusiveness would make the humanitarian system more legitimate,”
GPPi wrote in its research. “It would also provide the humanitarian system
with a broader range of cultural knowledge and thus support dignified and
effective interaction with affected populations and governments.”
In the aftermath of the pro-democracy protests of the Arab Spring, such
engagement is all the more important.
“The uprising in the Arab world requires new ways of thinking and working,
greater collaboration with NGOs and civil society from the region and
support from regional organizations such as the OIC and [League of Arab
States],” Abdul Haq Amiri, head of OCHA’s regional Middle East and North
Africa office, wrote in the <http://www.odihpn.org/report.asp?id=3222
issue of the Humanitarian Exchange magazine.
“We should make an effort to meet these organizations on their own terms,
listen attentively to their interpretation of humanitarian affairs and,
importantly, speak their language.”
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Received on Wed Oct 19 2011 - 16:07:24 EDT