Over the last decade, Dubai Cares CEO, Tariq Al Gurg has transformed the organisation from one that simply signed cheques into a major global NGO that helps countries make sure their children aren't left behind
When Tariq Al Gurg joined Dubai Cares in 2009, the organisation only had three departments.
“His department didn’t exist,” he says, pointing to a corporate communications manager sitting across from us.
"All we had were programmes, campaigns, and back-office support. But this organisation needed to work like a business, with a marketing and communications department, a fundraising function... it needed to be sustainable, and people needed to know why it existed.”
Tied since its inception in 2007 to the Millennium Development Goals agreed upon by the world in 2000 – to help alleviate a global education imbalance, promote gender equality in education, and get governments, donors agencies, UN agencies, and third party providers working closer together – Dubai Cares is bridging an essential gap, especially for a country in the Arab world.
“Often we’re the only foundation from the Middle East at an event where the world’s largest donor agencies are pitching their services to us. And it’s all because we have demonstrable results that prove we are able to make a difference.”
However, the path to becoming an organisation of its kind, a foundation that works across all areas of global educational development, is one that required a concentrated focus, as he explains.
How did the Dubai Cares story begin?
It was sometime near the end of 2006 that Sheikh Mohammed [Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai] began an eight-week fundraising drive, calling on the UAE community to contribute to a cause close to his heart.
At the time he hadn’t mentioned what that was but high net worth individuals, along with public and private sector entities, contributed $480m to the drive. Then, at an unveiling event, Sheikh Mohammed spoke about the global need to make an impact, and announced that the money raised would go to an organisation called Dubai Cares.
This new body would work to break the cycle of poverty by imparting quality education to children in the developing world. And in what was a complete surprise he doubled the $480m raised with the same amount of his own. So Dubai Cares began with a remarkable startup capital of $960m.
And you joined two years later in 2009?
Yes. Dubai Cares officially took root in September 2007. The first six months involved simply setting up the organisation with another six months spent studying how the organisation could go about its mission and seeing which countries needed the most help.
The next year it bought into programmatic interventions in various countries. I joined in 2009 to help the organisation’s work in those countries earmarked for aid, but, more importantly, to make Dubai Cares a sustainable organisation that could continue to deliver impact.
How did you go about doing that?
When I joined Dubai Cares it had made a good start but it wasn’t working behind the scenes. There hadn’t been any announcements about the activities it was undertaking, even though it was active in 14 countries. Also, at the rate that the organisation was disbursing funds in three- to five-year programmes, it would have depleted its startup capital rapidly and left it with no plan for the future.
So an integrated approach and a new model to operate sustainably was needed, to transform from a donor agency that just signed cheques. It needed to spread awareness about the organisation and raise additional funds, but, crucially, to understand how the disbursements were being utilised, and if there was progress in the initiatives.
So we embarked on a journey to understand the fundamentals of the challenges impacting global education, how UN agencies and other stakeholders worked, and simultaneously built our own capabilities as an organisation internally and in terms of outreach.
Was Dubai Cares an effort to practice diplomacy via philanthropy?
Not at all. It is important to know that we are a non-government organisation (NGO). Dubai Cares is a philanthropy started by Sheikh Mohammed, and aligned with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to deliver on components of its education related initiatives. But we are an independent organisation, we are audited, and none of our expenses, salaries or overheads are covered by the government.
The UAE’s foreign policy strategy launched in 2017 committed to furthering eight sustainable development goals. Goal four is all about education. Countries can pursue that goal by funding programmes but they needs someone’s expertise. So they either appoint international agencies to do that job, or have local NGOs provide that expertise. We are that Emirati NGO in the UAE.
It’s the same way that the Canadian government works with Plan Canada, the UK works with Oxfam and the Department for International Development (DFID) and how the US government works with Care International. Some people may consider it a way to pursue soft power, and there is nothing wrong with that perception, but it’s not our agenda at all.
Does being an apolitical NGO ensure the sustainability of Dubai Cares?
Yes, and the challenge was exactly that – instilling the idea that we aren’t driven by any politically agenda. We work as any apolitical UN agency or NGO. We don’t demand anything other than the redesign of existing programmes if we can prove that more impact can be derived. That draws people to our cause, makes our results credible, and encourages donors to contribute.
You’ve mentioned not wanting to be an organisation that simply wrote cheques. How did you transition away from that?
We had to start from somewhere of course, and initially that involved buying into existing programmes. It gave us a foot in the door, a seat on the board if you will. Over the next few years after 2009, we took a more active role in negotiating the strength and workings of programmes that we had signed onto with our implementing partners and the ministries of education in countries receiving aid.
We asked important questions – for instance, why a particular country needed teachers, how we could prioritise female teachers in early childhood education programmes, yet maintain equal participation at all other levels etc. For the past six years we’ve been co-designing programmes with our partners. Our programmes now impact specific issues that a country wants to affect but might be unable to do so.
How is Dubai Cares distinct from other donor organisations in that regard?
We go above and beyond a traditional donor. In a nutshell, we partner with multiple organisations, those on the ground with working relationships that can recruit and set programmes up, academic agencies, local NGOs, UN agencies, third-party experts etc to pilot and test evidence-based programming.
What that means is that we invest quite a bit in education and intervention programme research, test new models, calculate risks, and collate feedback to determine the efficacy of programmes and tweak them where necessary. This allows us to accumulate evidence of progress when we’re speaking with governments.
It’s why when our programmes near their end, they nearly always ask us if we can scale upwards. International funding organisations love having successful models that they don’t have to test or take risks with. The groundwork that we do in a country makes it a lot easier for programmes to attract funding when we scale up.
As a former banker, how does measuring impact at Dubai Cares compare from your days in finance?
Return on investment (RoI) is something both companies and charity foundations have in common-year career at National Bank of Dubai (now Emirates NBD), I looked at it as a business. The difference at a company, however, is that RoI is measured in terms of money. As a ‘reformed banker’ at a foundation, I now measure it in terms of people. At Dubai Cares the RoI is the number of children educated. In 2017, and that number will grow a lot bigger, it was 18 million children in 53 countries.
Would you ever go back to banking or does your heart now lie with this job?
I love numbers. Math was the only subject I ever got an ‘A’ in as a student. And I’ve always been someone that walks into and office happy about getting something done. However, charity has been an important part of our family. And here I walk into the office with a buzz in my mind about how I should help. A third of my job involves being in the field with teachers and students in areas however remote, and it’s those experiences that I get to speak about from the heart at whichever major seminar. This job didn’t exist in the past until Dubai Cares was created. And I love doing it.
Do you think a bid to educate every child in the world is achievable?
There are 260 million children globally that are out of school. Nearly a fourth of that number are affected by emergencies. Nearly a billion others, despite being in school, can’t read or write. If the amount of education funding in the world remains where it is, if the international community does not add to investments, children already in school will begin dropping out by the age of 11. And yet, only one percent of global humanitarian aid funds go to education. What goes to education in emergencies programmes is maybe two percent of that number. What do those numbers mean to you? To me those are numbers are something that I can’t stop thinking about. All I can say is what is happening right now isn’t working. But we have to keep at it.
In the end, what is a thought you take away each time you visit the field on a Dubai Cares programme?
Sometimes it’s as basic as when I see children washing their hands as part of a school curriculum that we’re introducing. The thing that you realise is that they want to learn. They really want to. You speak with the teachers and the parents, and they don’t ask for money; they ask for tables, chairs and rooms with windows... the most basic things. And that there obstacles to them getting even those, is an incredibly sad thing.
• Sept 2015 UN General Assembly: Dubai Cares announces it will champion the cause announced by UN special envoy for education and former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown to create a global fund to educate children in emergencies such as those displaced due to conflict, epidemics or natural disasters
• May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit: Dubai Cares announces that by 2018 it will allocate 33 percent of its endowment toward education in emergencies programmes, and a further 10 percent allotment to fund research in the field
• Sept 2016 UN General Assembly: It announces a $10 million grant to fund any programme model that demonstrates quality education provision to children in emergency contexts. Finalists will be announced near the end of 2018.
• May 2018 Jordan: Dubai Cares announces a programme to leverage connectivity and solar power with ed-tech from US-based Pedago to boost high school graduation rates among impoverished and displaced youth in the country. The programme will be funded by a $3 million contribution from Dubai Cares and a $1 million donation from UAE-based conglomerate Chalhoub Group.
“If this works, Jordan could be one of the first countries in the world to perfect an ed-tech solution into its education system. At the end of this, the programme could be a model ready for replication in areas around the world,” says Al Gurg.