Learning curve

Thanks to Dubai Cares, women and girls across the developing world are benefiting from social, health and educational aid in a virtuous cycle that can guarantee the future wellbeing of entire communities – and even nations

It’s an unusual place for a schoolhouse. Sandwiched between the waterfront promenade and the food court at one of Dubai’s landmark attractions, a classroom is slowly taking shape. Brick by brick, the three-storey dwelling is growing in the middle of Dubai Mall. A total of 150 bricks have already been laid for the foundations; by the time 2,000 of the Dh50 (US$15) book-shaped bricks are in place, the classroom will be complete.

And by the time the roof goes on, the wheels will have been set in motion to educate thousands of girls in poverty-stricken countries. For this miniature structure growing with each donation here in the heart of one of the world’s most famous shopping malls is symbolic of an ambitious dream kickstarted in Dubai: for all children, irrespective of religion or race, to have a chance to go to school.

It was the founding principle of Dubai Cares, the philanthropic establishment launched by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, in September 2007.

And it forms the backbone of the organisation’s latest initiative, the Girls’ Education Campaign 2011, at its core the motto: ‘Educate her – build her life’.

To the shoppers who add an extra Dh5 (US$1.4) to their bills at one of 750 stores, send a text message to a registered number for as little as Dh30 (US$8.2), drop a few coins in one of hundreds of donation boxes dotted around the city, or buy one of those special bricks in Dubai Mall, the contribution may be nothing more than a passing gesture of goodwill. But to millions of girls in countries such as Pakistan, Sierra Leone and Indonesia, it means the difference between a life without hope and the opportunity to get an education and change their circumstances for the better.

“The theme this year is girls’ education,” says Tariq al Gurg, the Chief Executive of Dubai Cares. “Forty-two million girls around the world do not attend schools.

“Educate a girl and she will get a job, an income and, even if she gets married later in life, she will teach her children to be educated properly. She will know right from wrong, learn how to look after herself and understand how to protect her health and avoid viruses like HIV.

“An educated girl can take care of herself and have a voice in society. Research has shown the GDP [gross domestic product, often used as an indicator of standard of living] rises by two per cent in a society where girls are educated. That means it is good for society and good for the economy.

“Once you have an educated mother, the cycle goes on because she passes on her learning to her children and the whole community transforms into an educated society.”

Four years on from its creation, Dubai Cares is a philanthropic organisation firmly entrenched in the fabric of UAE life and respected on an international scale as the largest charity in the world devoted to primary education.

The charity’s initial aim was to educate one million children. Over the past four years, it has far exceeded that target with five million grateful recipients in 24 countries.

In the first eight weeks after its creation, a fundraising drive saw an astonishing Dh1.7bn (US$463,000) pouring into its coffers, matched by a donation from His Highness Sheikh Mohammed. Letters were sent by the Ruler to businessmen and Emirati and foreign companies. By the end of 2007, there was a Dh3.7bn (US$1bn) pot waiting to be distributed.

Initially there were no full-time staff members, simply a group of volunteers from Zayed University. Indeed, three young women who were part of the original fundraising team are still with the charity. Today, there is a team of 27 staff in modern, glass-fronted offices in Dubai’s Healthcare City, including five workers who go on field expeditions overseas to check on projects.

While there are no volunteers currently working alongside staff, the charity occasionally organises one-off expeditions, such as a trip to Cambodia in 2009 to build three schools as part of Volunteer Globally. Forty UAE residents came forward to take part.

What makes the projects even more unusual is that they involve different charities working together. So, in Mali and Sierra Leone, where Dubai Cares embarked on an US$18m WASH programme last year (the initials stand for water, sanitation and hygiene), Unicef, Save the Children, Care, Oxfam, WaterAid and Plan International all coordinate to help 1.7million children over a five-year period.

There are currently ongoing programmes in 11 countries and the charity’s record is impressive: more than 1,000 schools have been built or renovated, an equal number of watering wells have been dug, more than 5,000 parent and teacher associations have been formed and 22,000-plus teachers trained, and there are programmes to feed 2,000 children a day. Feeding children in school has proven to help increase school attendance.

In Mali, where 726 schools will benefit from Dubai Cares’ initiative, more than half of all schools do not have running water or adequate washing facilities, increasing the risk of disease. In Sierra Leone, the figures are even worse. Less than 40 per cent of the population has access to sanitation facilities and just 57 per cent has access to a decent water source, according to Unicef.

In April this year, the WISE scheme (water, sanitation and hygiene in support of school empowerment) was launched in Indonesia to create running water outlets to reduce children’s risk of disease and death. Only 12 per cent of children there under the age of 14 wash their hands after going to the toilet and nearly one-fifth of deaths of under-five year olds in rural areas are caused by diarrhoea, according to the country’s health ministry.

In the US$5.5m project running over two years, 90,000 pupils in 450 schools will benefit from measures to improve sanitation.

Chairwoman Her Excellency Reem al Hashimy says: “The reason why His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid launched this initiative was to help change people’s lives for the better. By opening the  doors of education for future generations,  communities can be shaped, equipping them with knowledge, understanding, willpower, confidence and most importantly, hope. In such impoverished areas, it is hope that becomes the single most important long-lasting factor of Dubai Cares. With an education, the children belive in a brighter, more equitable, more hopeful future.”

For Al Gurg, a father of two daughters aged three and one, that message resonates deeply: “I always compare my daughters with children I meet who are the same age. What I have realised from seeing them grow is the importance of early development. Once you give a child an education, you open up his or her life.”