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Dubai Abulhoul: The difference between Charity and Strategic Philanthropy
April 19, 2015
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A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be a part of the YouAE Connect Leadership and International Development Trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, with the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation. The YouAE Connect programme is one of many programmes that the foundation has launched to support emerging Emirati leaders in different fields. The foundation gave a group of thirteen young, Emirati women and myself the opportunity to gain insight into the complex challenges in the field of international development by visiting and volunteering at various philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and social enterprises.

The Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation took us on a trip that challenged our pre-conceived notions of international development, and made us realise our roles not only as representatives of our own country, but also of the global world at large. 

All the organisations we visited, despite their limited income and resources, focused on one thing: sustainability. The organisations taught us the important differences between charity and strategic social problem solving. Charity, which is often defined as the act of voluntarily helping those in need through financial relief, does not create the ripple effects that strategic philanthropy leaves behind. Charity, and primarily donations, provides relief to social issues for a limited amount of time, and reaches a limited number of beneficiaries. Charity solves temporary issues, while strategic philanthropy tends to focus on solving the root causes of social problems, in order to create a more permanent and long-lasting change. Among the organisations that inspired me the most on the trip, and is a great example of strategic philanthropy, is WEAVE.

WEAVE is an organisation that was founded in 1990, with the goal of empowering indigenous women in refugee camps. Marginalised women and children who live in refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border have no access to education or proper healthcare. They are not citizens of Thailand, and cannot leave the refugee camps to look for work, as it is too dangerous, and they cannot legally live in neither Burma or Myanmar nor Thailand. They cannot go back to their homes, as they were destroyed due to the political instability in the region.

WEAVE understood, from early on, that charity on its own cannot help the women in the refugee camps, so they developed a strategic plan that could serve as a form of income for the women and their children. WEAVE started conducting weaving workshops and classes in the refugee camps and taught women how to weave different forms of cloth and fabric. By selling their work, WEAVE provided the much needed income for the women and their families. Yes, donations are important, but a strategic plan that will provide a sustainable source of income to those in need is vital.

I look at the person I was before going on this trip with the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, and realise that I developed a new perspective on aid. Looking at the impact that the organisations in Thailand had on the lives of many, despite their very limited sources of income, made me realise that our culture and region’s definition of aid is mostly charity based, and often lacks a strategic and sustainable plan. It is important to note that I am not against charity, on the contrary, I believe it is important and has its benefits, but it lacks the multiplier effect that strategic philanthropy provides.

Charity creates a system of dependency, which means that the moment donations stop coming in, the beneficiaries no longer have another source of income. Strategic philanthropy creates a system of independency, and allows the beneficiaries to help themselves and their families by creating their own sources of income. Let us walk towards forming a new mindset around the idea of aid, be it foreign or even national. Let us create more organisations that help people by providing opportunities rather than providing handouts. Let us move towards a culture that responds to problems proactively, as opposed to reactively.

The amount of lessons we gained as a team of young, Emirati women, with the Salama Bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, over the course of a week was unimaginable. We went on this trip, with our backpacks firmly secured behind us, eager to teach the people we will meet at the organisations and shelters all about our part of the world. Little did we know that the people we met, whose smiles are still engraved in the back of our minds, were the ones who ended up teaching us.

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The author is an Emirati novelist-writer

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