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UAE aid - a top 20 donor plans to get bigger

A member of the UAE (United Arab Emirates) Red Crescent distributes aid to Syrian refugees in the northern Jordanian border town of Mafraq. UAE has been active in providing aid in Jordan, but has not done the same inside Syria Heba Aly/IRIN
A member of the UAE (United Arab Emirates) Red Crescent distributes aid to Syrian refugees in the northern Jordanian border town of Mafraq (March 2012)
Atop a tall metal pole some 80km north of the Jordanian capital, Amman, a giant United Arab Emirates (UAE) flag flaps near the entrance to a Syrian refugee camp.

Opened in 2013 at a reported cost of US$10 million, and run by the UAE Red Crescent Authority, the Mrajeeb al-Fhood camp offers shelter and safety to several thousand Syrian refugees. But it is also an important symbol of UAE’s rapidly growing overseas aid portfolio.

While Jordan - home to more than 600,000 Syrian refugees - was the biggest recipient of UAE aid in 2012, Emirati aid also reached as far as Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Sudan.

During 2013 UAE donors also made generous contributions - both cash and in kind - to support victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and in April Sheikha Jawaher Bint Mohammed Al Qasimi, the wife of the Ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah and UAE Chairperson of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs, was appointed an Eminent Advocate for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The country has its sights set on allocating 0.7 percent of its gross national income to official development assistance (ODA), the target set in 1970 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

But while it has been praised for being the first Gulf country to set up a Ministry of International Cooperation and Development (MICAD), established in 2013, the UAE has yet to define exactly the kind of donor it wants to be. Its formal aid policy is still under development.

“The [forthcoming] foreign aid policy will set the road map for achieving the UAE’s vision in becoming one of the world’s top donors,” Minister for International Co-operation and Development Minister Sheika Lubna Bint Kahlid Al Qasimi told IRIN in an emailed statement.

“It will help the foreign aid sector develop and manage a quality aid programme, which helps to enhance the effectiveness and impact of development activities in partner countries, identify an aid programming framework, implement monitoring and evaluation standards, build international and regional partnerships, and improve humanitarian response.”

The UAE already ranks among the world’s top 20 donors, positioned somewhere between 16 and 20, depending on how “official development assistance” is measured and which numbers are used. [see side bar]

It is clear that the UAE - which in 2012 disbursed $1 billion in ODA, including $41.5 million in humanitarian assistance - is more than simply an “emerging donor”. But what direction its aid will take remains an open question.

“I think we are far from truly understanding the patterns of giving in the Arab world, and in the Gulf specifically,” Maysa Jalbout, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Centre for Universal Education and former CEO of Jordan’s Queen Rania Foundation, told IRIN.

“Donors are motivated by a number of reasons. Some of them are religious, some of them are personal. Others are motivated by the same reasons as philanthropists in the West - for recognition, an opportunity to create partnerships, etc.”

But she added: “The potential is massive for the way that the UAE can be contributing in the future. The possibilities of its strategic influence cannot be underestimated.”

A plethora of UAE donors

Unlike other government aid entities - such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) or the US Agency for International Development (USAID) - MICAD is not a direct donor or implementer. Instead, it describes itself as a “custodian” that coordinates its donors by providing training and reporting guidelines.

More than 40 private and government-run UAE entities implement overseas assistance. Government funding accounts for nearly half of the UAE’s total foreign assistance (all overseas funding from UAE governmental and non-governmental sources). For example, while ODA between 2010 and 2012 was $2.3 billion, the total foreign assistance over the same period was $4.5 billion.

Government aid is disbursed through bilateral government budget support and concessional loans or funding to the country’s various foundations and NGOs, including the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, UAE Red Crescent, Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Foundation, the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, Dubai Cares, Al Maktoum Foundation, Sharjah Charity Association and Noor Dubai Foundation.

The UAE also provides office space to UN agencies and NGOs free of charge at the International Humanitarian City (IHC), home to the IRIN Middle East office, and a UN humanitarian response depot, one of a network of global warehouses capable of shipping humanitarian stocks to any disaster zone within 48 hours. The UAE’s contribution to IHC was valued at $16 million in 2012.


One criticism sometimes levelled at Arab donors is that their giving policies can be opaque and aid flows can lack transparency, raising concerns about effectiveness and sustainability.

“There have been concerns about limited transparency regarding the amounts that are being given, to whom they are giving financing, and where they are spending money,” said Steve Zyck, a research fellow at the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London.

Between 2010 and 2012, the UAE’s ODA more than doubled, going from $410 million to $1.06 billion, according to MICAD.

The ratio of aid to gross national income (GNI) also increased, from 0.17 percent in 2010 to 0.22 percent in 2011 and 0.31 percent in 2012. In April 2013, the government proudly announced that the UAE was the world’s 16th largest aid donor.

OECD ranks the UAE 20th overall in terms of development provision, and 19th for its ODA-GNI ratio.

During the same period - 2010 to 2012 - MICAD reports that the UAE provided a total of $4.46 billion in foreign assistance, via a mix of government-run and privately controlled NGOs, foundations and charities, to over 130 countries.

In 2012, the UAE disbursed $1.6 billion. Nearly 87 percent - $1.4 billion - went to development projects, such as energy generation, agriculture, infrastructure, climate change mitigation, and water and sanitation projects. Nearly 7 percent - $110 million - went to humanitarian assistance, such as food aid, de-mining, shelter and health programmes. Six percent - $97million - went to charities such as religious education and seasonal religious programmes.

The leading recipients of UAE foreign assistance in 2011 were, in order:
Oman, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Yemen, Pakistan, Libya, Afghanistan, the Republic of Sudan, Bahrain and OPT.

The leading recipients of UAE foreign assistance in 2012 were (in order):
Jordan, OPT, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Eritrea, Mauritania, Morocco, Bahrain and the Russian Federation.

According to a January statement by MICAD, the UAE funded the response to the Syrian crisis to the tune of $83.5 million over the course of 2012 and 2013.

The UAE has pledged $360 million in 2013 and so far in 2014 towards the Syrian crisis, UAE state mediareported that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, deputy prime minister and minister of presidential affairs, said in January.  A MICAD spokeswoman said that $54.7 million of it has been disbursed so far.

According to the UN’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS), a global real-time database that records all reported international humanitarian aid - including that for NGOs, bilateral aid, in-kind aid and private donations - the UAE had dispersed $72.4 million to the Syrian response in 2013. A further $266.5 million was recorded as “uncommitted pledges”.

[Sources: MICAD, OEDC, FTS]
“I’m not referring here to terrorism - that is ludicrous when talking about official Arab development assistance,” he clarified. “What I mean is, it has been difficult for other stakeholders, such as UN agencies, NGOs and other donor agencies, to know what they were doing exactly, and hence that has made it harder in terms for coordination.”

Observers say sensitivity to these concerns prompted the UAE to launch the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid (OCFA) in 2008 to collect data. OCFA has been incorporated into the new ministry.

Since 2009, the UAE has published annual aid reports, available online, outlining how much money its donors gave, to whom, where and for what. And although not a member of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC), which represents the so-called “traditional donors”, MICAD actively reports this data to the DAC, as did OCFA before it.

“The UAE has made incredible strides when it comes to data collection. Not only are their reports very detailed, they are can be held up to international standards,” noted Habiba Hamid, an independent governance and aid consultant.

“In a very short space of time, there has been a massive leap. Four years ago, they didn’t have a reporting office. It was totally disparate, the aid just flowing from numerous different sources, and was not institutionalized, but they have turned that around.”

These annual reports are a window into UAE aid, but some believe they still lack crucial detail about project implementation, results and monitoring.

While the reports are a step in the right direction, one international aid worker in the UAE said, they focus too much on inputs rather than on outcomes.

“What’s important about aid is… the outcomes, not the top-line figure that is spent. That is just a number,” the aid worker said. “There needs to be close attention to impact assessments, which we are yet to see in these reports from MICAD, but I hope we will soon.”

Where does UAE aid go?

According to the 2012 MICAD report, the latest one available, Western Asia (which in MICAD’s terminology covers the Middle East, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia) and Southern Asia received the largest donations.

The top four recipients that year were (in order): Jordan, the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), Afghanistan and Pakistan, but significant amounts were also dispersed to Morocco, Yemen, Eritrea, Mauritania and the Russian Federation. [see sidebar]

With the ongoing crisis in Syria, Jordan is again likely to top the 2013 recipients’ list, when the MICAD report for 2013 giving is published later this year.

In addition to helping Syrian refugees in 2012, the UAE and its aid organizations provided humanitarian assistance in Pakistan, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan. It also invested in religious education and mosque-building in Muslim countries and sponsored people for the Hajj pilgrimage.

But while the bulk of media reports on UAE aid - including those generated by MICAD itself - appear to focus on this type of humanitarian and charity assistance, close to 87 percent of the country’s disbursements in 2012 were for development.

“People dwell on the charity side, but that is only a very small part of the aid budget,” said one Gulf-based aid specialist. “It’s very clear when you look at the numbers that the goals are development. The country does a lot more than deliver dates and jumpers.”

He added: “The UAE is misunderstood as a donor. Even some people at the UN seem to think it’s all about charity and humanitarian aid, and it’s not. It’s mostly development.”

One of the UAE’s biggest development donors is the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD). In 2012, it disbursed $350 million, accounting for more than one-fifth of the country’s aid portfolio.

It financed road, transport and water infrastructure projects in Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho and Sierra Leone. It gave grants for building projects in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Jordan and Morocco, and it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Asian Development Bank for programmes in Asia.

“The UAE has made incredible strides when it comes to data collection. Not only are their reports very detailed, they are can be held up to international standards”
ADFD also has a global investment portfolio valued at $267 million, with stakes in 16 companies, including hotels, real estate and private equity. In January 2014, it announced it would be providing around $41 million in financing for renewable energy projects.

These schemes, in partnership with the International Renewable Energy Agency, are part of a wider UAE government commitment to provide $350 million over the next seven years to support renewable energy projects in developing countries.

“We hope to be a partner and strong contributor in achieving sustainable development through offering concessional loans and administering government grants to finance development projects that affect vital sectors, including renewable energy, an important pillar to achieving sustainable development,” explained Mohammed Saif Al Suwaidi, director-general of ADFD, speaking at the launch of the initiative.


But some note that the 2012 MICAD report uses the word “development” rather loosely.

Close to 40 percent of all development funding went to “general programme assistance”, money handed directly to governments for budget and other financial support. For example, of the $101 million in concessional loans disbursed by the ADFD in 2012, nearly half went to the government of Eritrea to help it pay its fuel bill.

The funding towards “general programme assistance” was 53 percent less than the previous year, when a single $1 billion payment to the government of Oman represented more than half the total foreign assistance in 2011.

While this approach may have its critics, budget support is increasingly seen internationally as one of the more successful forms of development.

Still, reviewing these numbers and definitions prompts questions about the wider political strategies and policy aims of UAE aid.

Staff at MICAD said they could not answer specific questions about strategy because the official foreign aid policy was still being drawn up.

Multilateral engagement

One major question for UN agencies and international NGOs is whether the UAE will increase its funding through multilateral organizations.

In 2012, just over 12 percent of UAE aid was directed multilaterally (up from the 5 percent in 2011), with money allocated to groups such as Oxfam, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and Roll Back Malaria.

Last year, while the UAE did not contribute to central UN appeals for Syria, it did donate 600 caravans to a UNHCR-run refugee camp in Jordan. In addition, the UAE Red Crescent made a significant donation to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

A further $130 million, raised by the Big Heart Campaign led by Sheikha Jawaher, was given to the UNCHR to provide medical supplies and food for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.

However, despite this engagement, many recent projects by the UAE Red Crescent in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen suggest a preference for UAE organizations to run their own relief operations and camps.

Analysts say the UAE, like other Gulf donors, complains of UN agencies treating it like a cash machine, failing to recognize its ideas and capacities. Some Emirati NGOs see the UN as a threat to their funding streams.

For some, the Emirati position is perfectly legitimate.

“While UAE agencies do engage multilaterally, and Dubai Cares is a good example of that, they also choose to work with people they trust from their own networks,” said the aid specialist Hamid, a former fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics.

“I do think that as a country they have the right to decide how they should give their aid. Sometimes they may feel they can respond better directly themselves based on their own connections, which, in many cases, are long-standing,” she said.

But while not all donors may want to embrace the UN, it “sits at the core of humanitarian coordination and information sharing,” said an international aid expert who has worked at the UN in New York.

“So any donor that wants to see its money used effectively in a humanitarian response will have to engage with the UN on a coordination and information-sharing basis. Otherwise, donors risk duplicating efforts with others, or even working at cross purposes. Coordinated aid translates to more effective aid,” he said.

But Majed Abu Kubi, who until recently headed the Gulf liaison office of the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the UAE was an important partner and member of the regional and international donor community.

He praised MICAD for its annual report and said: “We have been working very closely with OCFA and MICAD since it was formed to assist in terms of sharing needs assessments and situation reports to enable teams to be better equipped to respond to humanitarian situations.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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