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Through its Aid, the UAE can be a 'Soft' Power for Good

Published on: August 2008​
Genre: Dubai Model​ Category: Op eds​

The United Nations has just launched its first quarterly funding update for this region that shows in just three months (from April to June) this year, the UAE gave an astonishing $33.9 million in foreign aid. It’s clear however, that this still doesn’t reflect the tremendous actual amount of giving by the UAE.

As The National has been reporting, the exact figure contributed by the Emirates in aid has been in question, and it’s clear even from the latest report that we’re still a long way from knowing how much has been given by the state not to mention individuals. However, the establishment of the UAE’s office in cooperation with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to coordinate overseas donations will mark a significant step forward.

The office will also hopefully structure donor support toward prioritised beneficiaries (if all goes well, the days of benevolent officials writing blank cheques should soon be over) and ensure effective aid delivery. Aid, after all, is rather more than just a matter of publishing the figures. Underlying this development is a unique opportunity in Emirates history. The UAE can use the creation of the new office as a chance to introduce an unheard of level of "soft" power to create goodwill around the globe at the same time as examining the impact of its interventions.

The UAE itself has moved from poverty to affluence in less than 50 years, and in that time its leaders have given vast sums to more than 93 countries. Yet, it always steered clear of the international donor system, wanting to ensure that its dirhams were spent efficiently. Although the intention was a noble one (after all, who would want their charity to go to waste?) that was never the real problem. The flip side of this approach is that it is impossible to monitor the socio-economic impact of aid over the long term. The urgency arises when we consider that not all aid is beneficial.

Let’s take the UAE policy on giving to fragile states. Paul Collier, an Oxford economist specialising in African development, believes that fragile states need 43 per cent more aid than they currently receive. In this the UAE is setting the pace. Despite a global reluctance to become heavily involved in fragile states, the UAE has launched itself headfirst into developmental investment in the Comoros, Niger and Djibouti, all of whom qualify on various fragile state indices. A forthcoming set of figures yet to be published are predicted to reveal the UAE as a groundbreaker in this respect.

But with increased giving comes the responsibility to assess the impact of the interventions made. Prof Collier’s work questions the efficacy of long term aid, particularly in Africa, noting that it can often destablise communities.

There’s also a need to establish a clear policy agenda for giving. Every aid system should have a published set of criteria for where its money should go, particularly which vulnerability index they use. For example, several indices consider democracy as being a donor priority and on this basis decide where aid should go. If UAE charities outsource their giving via Unicef, they would appear to automatically adopt Unicef’s criteria. But do the UN and the UAE have complimentary donor agendas – and thus ways of figuring out who is needier globally?

The UN’s priorities range from fragile, crisis or failed states, while the World Bank and the UK adopt a Low Income Countries under Stress (Licus) index for deciding upon the neediest beneficiaries. Licus countries also happen to create regional instability and have twice the poverty and child mortality rates of other low income countries. So while UAE charities can partner different organisations with different priorities, the UAE must first set precedents as to which criteria it considers important.

Such transparent donor strategies are vital in a post 9/11 context where support from the Arab world is frequently subject to intense scrutiny. The UAE should take this opportunity to protect itself from criticism.

The new office will also prevent duplication. If, for instance, Italy gives towards quake relief in China while neglecting Kazakhstan, the UAE can see immediately and possibly redirect its own efforts.

All this proves that the international community has largely neglected the tremendous cooperative function it could be playing with the UAE. The UN’s recent offer of coordination assistance must be taken at face value; it need not imply wholesale adoption of UN criteria. But the UNs willingness to donate time, effort and resources to mapping the UAE’s humanitarian structure must be seized upon as a rare opportunity.

The evaluation of the impact of these huge sums of money upon fragile economies is essential – and this can be the UN’s gift to the UAE. On the UAE side, a firm commitment to the UN’s reporting procedures through the UAE Aid Office should be forthcoming from all Emirati aid organisations as each has thus far operated autonomously. Public and private giving can benefit from regulation; absent in a largely untaxed economy.
One of the UAE’s key competitive advantages is the openness of its economy and its willingness to deal with nations of all ideologies. The fact that it has avoided setting conditions for trade is to its credit. With aid, it can deploy its soft power as an extension of good foreign policy, to great and positive effect. In the future, the UAE’s voice will have to be heard – and not just to protect its strategic interests. The planning for this new role should be taking place now.

Habiba Hamid is a Research Associate at the Dubai School of Government.

This article was originally printed in The National, and can be accessed here.

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