When Khalid Al-Yahya set out to track how much money Gulf countries have given in aid, he knew it would not be easy.
“It is almost impossible for a lot of people to have access to this,” the director of the Arab Public Management Research Initiative at the Dubai School of Government told IRIN.
First, he looked for significant research that had already been published on the subject: “I could not find much.” Then he asked for annual reports from donor countries assessing their own work: “There are almost none… Nobody was asking these questions.”
Al-Yahya spent six months scouring local press and interviewing reticent Gulf aid officials, sometimes having to meet five or six different people in the same ministry to get the full picture.
“One official will say, ‘I know there is another unit in the ministry that also gives money, but I don’t know what they are doing.’… The units don’t report to one another.”
What he came up with is the first real estimate of the depth of the region’s role in humanitarian aid: Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have given US$120 billion since the early 1970s, he says.
International aid officials working within multilateral mechanisms recognize that Gulf countries give significant amounts in aid, but have long complained of a lack of information on where, when and how that money is spent - a result of a lack of professionalization amid their rapidly growing role in the aid industry; and decades of mistrust between the mainstream humanitarian system and aid agencies from the Arab and Muslim worlds.
At a recent conference in Kuwait City, organized by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO) of Kuwait to promote partnerships, aid agencies from the region spoke with unprecedented honesty and frankness about that mistrust. But there is now increasing recognition within Gulf aid communities of a need to better communicate and coordinate their international aid.
A new bilingual web portal, launched by OCHA at the conference on 12-13 September, aims to help fill the gap by bringing news of UN activities to Gulf donors in Arabic, and the actions of Gulf donors to a UN audience in English, including profiles of all the major aid agencies in the region and updates on funding. But buy-in from the region’s players will be key to its success.
“If we want partnership, we have to have basic information,” Majed Abu Kubi, OCHA outreach manager in the Gulf, told the participants. “This is not OCHA’s project. It is yours.”
There are already some efforts to coordinate. The Arab Red Crescent and Red Cross Organization gathers all Red Cross and Crescent societies from the region on an annual basis.
Progress and impediments
In the United Arab Emirates, the Office for Coordination of Foreign Aid, operational since 2009, tracks all foreign aid - governmental and otherwise.
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“We’re trying to raise awareness among the UAE donors about the importance of coordination and focusing more on development assistance,” said Director-General Hazza Alqahtani. “Humanitarian [crisis] is something that we have to deal with. But… we don’t want to just go and deliver the emergency items, then leave. There is a recovery stage that we… in the Muslim and Arab countries, need to pay attention to.”
Saudi Arabia, the largest Gulf donor and one of the largest in the world, is similarly trying to do a better job of communicating its aid internationally, according to a 2011 study by the Global Public Policy Institute. It is partly a reaction to criticism of incoherence and regional bias in its aid, and a “heightened sense of confidence and national pride in its growing regional and global economic influence.” In response to the study, which outlined problems of coordination, governance and accountability in Saudi aid structures, the Saudi Red Crescent and other bodies are restructuring, Al-Yahya said.
Every Gulf country now has or is in the process of establishing some kind of a central coordination unit that will supervise and coordinate humanitarian and development activities, he added, though he insisted lack of capacity will continue to pose a problem in implementation.
At the Kuwait conference, some participants called for a regional body that would track and coordinate all Gulf aid.
But past efforts at coordination have been hampered, Gulf and Arab officials say, by a desire of each country or institution to promote itself.
“Each country has its own institutions and there is competition between them - not only at the level of GCC but within the countries themselves,” Al-Yahya told the conference.
One senior Arab diplomat told IRIN the Arab League has failed to create any real humanitarian coordination branch because “countries don’t want it. They do things bilaterally so that they can raise their own flag.”
Emergency response and preparedness
In the areas of emergency response and preparedness, there is perhaps more of a willingness to coordinate.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister is behind a new global initiative to strengthen civil and military coordination in response to natural disasters. The so-called “HopeFor” initiative aims to create centres of excellence around the world that would collect and exchange best practices and lessons learned, link into early warning systems, manage a database of contacts and promote regional and sub-regional agreements. The aim is to ensure that military and civil defence assets are used in a coordinated manner, in line with the UN’s humanitarian emergency response mechanisms.
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“There is coordination; there is partnership. But it is limited between some organizations. How can we benefit from these experiences and make them common?” Ahmed Al-Mereikhy, director of the Department of International Development at the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs, asked his peers at the conference.
In the coming months, the GCC secretariat is opening an emergency management centre in Kuwait meant to: coordinate between national disaster management centres in the Gulf; support national responses to challenges like epidemics, oil spills, climate change and water scarcity; and build preparedness across the region.
Changing the culture
“There is not much focus on preparedness here,” Abdul Aziz Yousif Hamza, head of the new centre, told IRIN. “You need to spend a lot of money for preparedness. The norm here is that they spend the money when the crisis happens. We are trying to change the culture of the people… In times of crisis, all countries come together. Why don’t they come together before the crisis?”
As early as 2013, several universities in the Gulf, including King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, are planning to introduce tracks in non-profit management as part of master’s degrees, to better prepare the region’s next generation of aid workers.
But observers question whether all of these initiatives will really move from vision to implementation.
Participants at the Kuwait conference also suggested a few other ideas: exchange programmes in which Gulf aid workers can be seconded to the UN; a meeting specifically focused on addressing the lack of trust; the introduction of institutional incentives for collaboration and cooperation; and a legal framework mandating accountability processes in these institutions.