Finding the Answer Within

Hassan Al-Damluji is Bill Gates’ eyes and ears in the Islamic world. GC finds out why he believes donating money to a wealthy Saudi university is a valid way of giving to the poor

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation does not need to rattle the charity tin in the Middle East – but if it did, donations would no doubt be plentiful.

Muslims are among the world’s most generous charitable givers, partly due to the religious obligation of zakat, or almsgiving. Rich Gulf states are themselves notable donors. The UAE, for example, ranks as the world’s largest provider of overseas aid relative to its gross national income, having donated almost $6 billion in 2013.

For the Gateses foundation – set up in 2000 by the Microsoft co-founder and his wife and which now boasts $42.3 billion in assets – such generosity means regional philanthropists and governments have become close allies in some of its key causes, such as eradicating polio and boosting agriculture.

Such matters seem a little distant when sitting in the foundation’s sleek, expensive-looking fifth-floor offices in a modern block close to Victoria Station in London. But they are very real to Hassan Al-Damluji, head of Middle East relations at the foundation, who along with his colleagues continue in the relentless work of giving away billions of dollars.

No one could accuse them of resting on their laurels. Since the foundation was formed in 2000, it has awarded grants worth $30 billion. Of these, $3 billion has been spent directly in the Islamic world, along with billions more given to global partners that work in the region.

Eradicating polio ranks as the foundation’s biggest priority – and the Islamic world is a particular focus for that, says the 33-year-old British-Iraqi Al-Damluji.

“Polio is our number one priority as a foundation because we are so near to eradicating it. We have almost finished the job – but it is really important that we do finish the job,” he says.

In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries and paralysed about 1,000 children per day. Immunisation efforts have since reduced that by 99 per cent – but the disease is still found in three countries, namely Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Bill Gates has previously spoken about his mission to see the disease declared officially eradicated by 2018. In their annual letter, Gates and his wife predict polio, along with other diseases like guinea worm and river blindness, will have completely disappeared by 2030.

The foundation does not solicit direct donations to help in this quest, nor does it deliver the aid itself. What it does do is channel money to partners that vary from government agencies to NGOs, private firms to research institutions.

In the Islamic world, these include the Jeddah-based Islamic Development Bank, to which the foundation has contributed $68.5m to increase productivity of smallholder farmers in Africa, as well as helping broker a $227m loan to Pakistan to help eradicate polio.

The foundation also has strong ties with the UAE. In 2013, it co-hosted a vaccine summit in Abu Dhabi, where a total of $4 billion was pledged to fight polio, including $120 million by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, and $1.8 billion by Bill Gates.

The need for such initiatives in the Islamic world is vital, says Al-Damluji. “There are millions of children dying under the age of five of diseases that are easily preventable like malaria or diarrheal diseases.”

For the first time in recent years you’ve got a unique opportunity for the solutions for the Islamic world to come from within

He points to Niger – one of the poorest countries in the world – as well as Mali, Somalia, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In the Arab world, Yemen is the country with the biggest need, he adds.

“Yemen is the one suffering the most,” he says. “[People] are unable to grow enough food to feed themselves and make some money on the side. You have also got real health challenges: low rates of vaccination, kids dying from diseases that are highly preventable, an increasing prevalence of HIV.”

Aside from funding immunisation campaigns and other health initiatives, the foundation also sees a growing need to invest in research and development (R&D) in the Middle East, says Al-Damluji.

Bill Gates visited the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia in June last year “to explore the potential for partnership” over research into drought-tolerant crops.

“A lot of people don’t think of aid in that way,” says Al-Damluji. “Is aid giving money to a rich university in Saudi Arabia? Well, it could be if that research is going to remove wheat blights which affect farmers. So what I would love to do is to create an awareness among philanthropists as well as governments that R&D is a very valid way of giving to the poor.”

Despite the charitable generosity seen in the Islamic world, giving away money is not as easy as it sounds, cautions Al-Damluji.

The “biggest challenge” faced by philanthropists worldwide is how they can ensure their money has the greatest impact, he says. The foundation itself has pointed to the dangers of money being lost to corruption or waste.

“There are a lot of people who think about philanthropy more as the act of giving, rather than following it through to the impact,” says Al-Damluji. “The act of generosity is clearly in parting with your cash but that being effective depends on much more.”

Al-Damluji says there is still a need for more data and measurement of the effectiveness of projects in the Islamic world. He says one example of a cause that provides clear information about its efficacy is Gavi, the vaccine alliance set up with an initial pledge of $750 million by the Gates Foundation.

Gavi announced in January that it had vaccinated 500 million children over a 15-year period, preventing seven million deaths and providing the kind of data useful to philanthropists when choosing where to give money, says Al-Damluji. “Investing in Gavi is a sure bet. You are going to save lives,” he says.

And the Gates Foundation will look to save more lives in the Islamic world in the future, having earmarked another $500 million in direct grants for the region.

Despite that pledge, the region is now in the unprecedented position of being able to address its own problems.

“The Islamic world is at a turning point right now,” he says. “There’s been huge wealth creation and economic growth in some countries. Those countries are not only developing themselves but they’re becoming really big donors on the global scale. For the first time in recent years you have got a unique opportunity for the solutions for the Islamic world to come from within.”