Learning curve

Dubai Cares has ambitious plans for change. CEO Tariq Al Gurg reveals how the UAE-based foundation hopes to help reshape the global aid landscape for education

Mali’s woes extend to the classroom. Nearly 900,000 children are out of school in the febrile west African state, which has grappled in recent years with sectarian fighting, rebel uprisings and a coup. Thousands more, particularly girls, barely scrape through primary school, with preventable health woes a driving factor in dropout rates. Intestinal worms and chronic malnutrition go hand-in-hand with a lack of access to clean water, curbing school attendance and sapping children’s ability to learn. The toll on Mali’s economy is heavy: adult literacy rates for 15 to 24-year-olds are 56 per cent among men and just 34 per cent among women.

Dubai Cares is battling to raise the bar. In 2010, the UAE-based foundation invested $16m in a four-year scheme to install safe water and sanitation facilities in 726 schools across Mali. The model, rolled out with partners including Oxfam and the UN’s children’s fund, uses lessons to spur the uptake of hand washing and other simple but effective hygiene practices among schoolchildren. Through shrinking the risk of disease, it hopes to slash absenteeism and chip away at dropout rates among students.

“I’ve learned it’s important to drink clean water to avoid stomach ache and diarrhoea,” says 10-year-old Youssouf Dissa, a student at N’tjibougou primary school in southern Mali. “And you have to wash with soap every time before and after food and after using the latrine.”

The model has won more than just applause. In three years, it has ballooned to include more than 1,500 schools and reeled in enough extra funding – $10m in total – to safeguard its survival when Dubai Cares bows out later this year. For Mali’s fraught education system, the gains have been enormous.

“Time and time again, countries have proved that education is the driver for economic development”

“We’re covering almost 35 per cent of schools across the country with the programme now,” says Tariq Al Gurg, CEO of Dubai Cares. “It’s hard to grasp the scale of the impact it’s had. Many UN aid agencies are now beginning to replicate the model within their own international programmes.”

For Dubai Cares, education is a ticket out of poverty for developing nations. Formed in 2007 by the emirate’s ruler, the foundation has elbowed its way on to the global aid scene, seeking to bolster access to primary tuition in poorer countries. At first, its efforts came in the shape of donations to existing aid players. But gradually, spurred on by Al Gurg’s arrival in 2009, it shifted from simply funding programmes to driving them. Its initial remit was to reach 1 million children; at last count, it had passed 8 million.

“I saw we could stay effectively as a cheque-writer, or be part of the change, and be alongside the decision makers,” he says. “I wanted Dubai Cares to be part of the global debate on education. Once we’d reached the four-year mark, we were ready to be an active partner.”

To date, the foundation has poured more than $136m into 72 schemes across 31 countries, ranging from school feeding plans to teacher training. It doesn’t dabble in short-term aid; programmes last, on average, from three to five years. By Dubai Cares’ lights, this is catalytic philanthropy: with innovative thinking, each dollar spent on education can reverberate across the wider economy.

“Time and time again, countries have proved that education is the driver for economic development. It works. It can eliminate poverty,” Al Gurg says. “An educated mother will teach her child. An educated mother vaccinates her child. The impact can be felt through generations.”

Less than a decade ago, philanthropy was seen as a sideshow to the real business of development aid. Foundations were a source of cash for established aid actors, but had little sway or say in how money was doled out on the ground. Increasingly, these lines are blurring. In under seven years, Dubai Cares has gained the ear of some of the industry’s largest players. This is in part a reflection of the efforts it has made to compile and share data from its programmes. The foundation blends field visits with employing third-party consultants to track the impact of its spend and see how it could improve.

In 2012, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon invited Dubai Cares to join a five-year panel tasked with shaping the global post-2015 blueprint for education. This seat at the table was proof, says Al Gurg, that aid agencies have something to gain from private donors.

“We want evidence-based programmes. We use data to show what works, what doesn’t, what we’re missing – and to show that education is a mechanism to wipe out poverty,” he says. “This analysis is the most important thing we bring to the party. It really opened our partners’ eyes and showed there is a new player in the sector with a lot of thoughts on how to move the conversation forward.”

Much of this change will have its roots in disruptive innovation. The role of private philanthropy, says Al Gurg, is not to develop in parallel with traditional global aid agencies but to challenge them. In straitened times, when state financing for development work is sliding – aid from rich countries to poorer nations fell by 4 per cent in 2012 – philanthropy is often seen as a quick way to fill the yawning cash gap. Instead, he insists, it should play the role of risk capital, dabbling with new ideas that can be scaled up by governments or official agencies if they prove to pay off. As a small, nimble outlet – Dubai Cares employs just 31 people – it has the edge over large non-profits, who often must battle red tape and funding barriers to trial new methods.

“We take calculated risks. We fund innovative pilot programmes. We are here to help change the game,” says Al Gurg. “Development has been running for 40, 50 years along the same lines, and needs a shake-up. We need more efficiency, lower costs, and the ability to create more social impact.

“I think of it like large ships and tug boats,” he continues. “We can help nudge the large players on to a new course, if we have the right data to prove our case.”

This seed funding is particularly critical as the debate over the changing pattern of global poverty heats up. Data suggests that a rising number of the world’s poorest people – those who survive on less than $1.25 a day – now live in middle-income, rather than traditionally ‘poor’ countries. For the aid industry, this is a sharp dilemma. Once a nation crosses the threshold into middle-income status, it may see its foreign aid cut, or no longer qualify for help from certain development players. Richer states, the argument goes, can afford to take care of their own. For families living below the poverty line in these countries, or for national schemes that rely on aid to exist, private donors may become a vital flow of funding as traditional streams dry up.

In October, Dubai Cares pledged $6m to fund education programmes for girls in South Sudan, Mozambique and the Philippines, in partnership with the development agency Plan International Canada. The money will be used to bolster primary school attendance and to increase the number of girls continuing to secondary education. The World Bank tags two of these countries as lower middle-income. Partly as a result, said Tanjina Mirza, vice president of international programmes at Plan, it can be “very difficult” to attract foreign donors.

The funding will be rolled out over four years. By then, Dubai Cares expects the scheme’s success will enable it either to drum up fresh financing and scale up, or net government ownership.

“With any programme, if you get the innovation right and mix it with the right scale and sustainability, it can be incredibly effective,” says Al Gurg. “But you have to be in the big leagues, sitting on the right panels and talking to the right players if you really want to impact the development industry. You can’t do it alone. You need the data to show that it works, and the size to command attention.”

Al Gurg’s policy of change extends to Dubai Cares itself. A former banker, he is results-driven, favouring an impact-led approach to philanthropy that is popular in the west but rarer in the Arab world. Under his steer, Dubai Cares has streamlined its operations and increased its analysis of how its funding is performing. Programmes are rigorously monitored for success and failure, and the results fed back into the foundation’s future plans.

This year may see further tweaks in strategy for the foundation. Dubai Cares has to date shied away from emergency aid – there are, says Al Gurg, “plenty of actors” in the field already – but the ripple effect of the Arab Spring, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, has prompted a rethink. “What’s happening in the Arab world has opened our eyes to how some ‘emergencies’ can last for years,” says Al Gurg. “When this happens, education is never classified as a first response: it’s shelter, medical, food. As part of our 2014 strategy, we may look at programmes for the longer-term conflicts here in the region.”

Still, the focus will remain firmly on the estimated 57 million children out of school worldwide. From its early days as a sizeable giver to other aid agencies’ programmes, Dubai Cares has morphed into an active campaigner for universal education. Its schemes span from school health and nutrition, to teacher training and sanitation, all aimed at removing barriers that keep children in poorer nations out of the classroom.

In Ethiopia, it is backing a pilot scheme in 30 schools, which sources produce from smallholder farmers to provide school meals for local children. This is paired with a school-based deworming programme, to bolster the health of students, and funding to improve the water, sanitation and hygiene facilities on offer. In total, the three-year scheme is expected to tackle the school health and nutrition needs of 30,700 children, alongside providing a guaranteed income to struggling local farmers in the eastern African country.

“That’s a programme designed by us, to champion healthy, well-fed children with access to education,” says Al Gurg. “It epitomises what we are about. We were created for a cause that we believe in, but we also want to play a part in shaping the global story on education. I think we can."