Charity in UAE: Donating money 'is simply not good enough', says top NGO official

New approaches are needed to address some of the biggest issues facing the Arab region

By Anjana Sankar

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Published: Thu 30 Dec 2021, 2:05 PM

Last updated: Mon 3 Jan 2022, 6:22 PM

While the pandemic has exacerbated challenges for NGOs working with vulnerable groups, new approaches to philanthropy and partnerships are needed to address some of the biggest issues facing the Arab region like social inequalities, digital divide and cultural barriers, according to the head of one of the biggest philanthropic organizations in the UAE.

"Donating money is nice, but it is simply not good enough," Dr. Sonia Ben Jaafar, Chief Executive Officer, Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation for Education, told Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview.

"If you are a high net worth individual, we expect now that you offer your time, your business acumen, your network and your ideas. I think that we have to move into a philanthropy that is not a photo op," she said.


As the head of one of the largest privately funded philanthropic education initiatives in the Arab world, Ben Jaafar vouches that addressing critical issues is about creating a strategy "so that all of us can survive together."

According to her, NGOs and philanthropic institutions have already shifted from an era of charity to an era of strategic, collective philanthropy to be able to meet those challenges.

"We cannot solve anything unless we work with an ecosystem, which means universities can't act alone, governments can't act alone, private sector can't act alone. We need to act together. We have over 38 partners from different entities including private sector, academia, volunteer groups, public sector entities."

The Al Ghurair Foundation aims to empower Emirati and Arab youth through education in over 17 countries. It also aims to impact 200,000 learners by 2025.

"It is a challenging region to work. The region has many barriers including social-economic inequalities, lack of access to affordable quality higher education, cultural barriers, and the gaps in the education to employment transition, and a deepening, digital divide, especially with pandemic," said Ben Jaafar.

According to UN figures of 2021, less than 60 per cent of Arab households have internet access, as per a 2021 study. Only 50 per cent of the refugee communities have one smartphone in a family, as per UNDP estimates.

"When the world moved to online learning, while it offered a solution to many, it created barriers to those who do not have access to technology. So, the Foundation needed to have very thoughtful responses.

"For instance, in Jordan we could provide 165 students with laptops, 100 students with internet bundles and we turned it into a successful transition to online courses," said Ben Jaffar.

Likewise, when Lebanon was reeling under power cuts, students were faced with digital poverty as well energy poverty. The Foundation partnered with Mashraq Al Islami, that contributed 500 devices,1200 power banks and 12,000 Internet cards directly to War Child Holland, (a non-profit organization in Lebanon).

With many young Arabs remaining jobless and unable to transition to the labour market, Ben Jaafar said the Foundation has realized what the region needs is not education for education's sake.

"We need education that can promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth so that the youth with relevant skills that will lead to employment, entrepreneurship, vocational skills.. whatever it is that will allow them to live honourably."

For that, greater connection between education and corporate leaders, career readiness and guidance are needed.

She said the Foundation's MIT Innovation Leadership Bootcamp has benefitted over 100 youth in the UAE. The Foundation also offers 37 tailor-made courses through the Al Ghurair Young Thinkers Program that will get them skill-ready for jobs.

"We are particularly proud that out of the 45,700 users on our platforms, 54 per cent are women. We have also done over 500 internships, and even more mentorship programmes," said Ben Jaafar.

Of the 1000 scholarships awarded by the Foundation, 39 per cent of them are first-generation university scholars, and 10 per cent are refugees. Females make 47 per cent of the beneficiaries.

"We, at the Foundation are striving to create those programs that address the complete spectrum of education to employment, or education to entrepreneurship. And the best thing is that we are not trying to do it alone. It is a collective journey and a collective that is guided by the vision of our founder Abdulla Al Ghurair," she said.

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