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 contributed significantly.
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 of Turkey.
They came with their own style.
The Saudi 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 control.
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.
Turkey says 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), 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 centre stage.
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 the UN-administered Consolidated Appeals Process.
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. “They only involve us when it suits them”. Some NGOs from the Arab and Muslim world are afraid of being “swallowed up” by the UN system, 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 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 the window.”
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.”
But the UN and the broader humanitarian system have their reservations too. “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 digest.
There are also complaints about lack of coordination. 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.
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?”
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 recognition.
“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 Mediterranean.
Similarly, many NGOs from the Muslim world do not understand the UN. Acronyms like UNHCR and WFP can be unfamiliar terms. 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 said.