Room for improvement

Quantity versus quality is an age-old dilemma for NGOs. Instead, we should focus on what really matters – dignity and grassroots empowerment

Worldwide, close to 60 million children have never attended school and have little hope of ever doing so. That is a tragedy. But perhaps even more worrying, more than three times that number do attend school but fail to learn even the basics of literacy or numeracy.

This is despite the billions of dollars from donors spent on funding educational programmes run by global agencies, NGOs and charities every year. Plainly, there is space to improve.

Conventional measurements have focused on quantity, but that is only part of the story. Where is the assessment of outcomes, longevity of effect and actual, measurable quality in all this? What appears to be missing is a focus on actual results and a bottom-up approach to what works best on the ground and for local conditions. This means recognising that philanthropy should always be a participatory process, with the active support of beneficiaries, their families and their communities as well as donors and organisers.

Charities and NGOs must heed the comments, demands and even the silence of these stakeholder groups because in the end, it is they that ‘own’ the process, the problems and the desired outcomes. If we neither see nor respect that, then what, after all, is the point of charities and NGOs?

The role of any philanthropic endeavour is simple: to create benefits for those who need help. So, the litmus test for any nonprofit is to what extent it helps create benefits that are tangible, lasting and unmatched from other sources. The priority should not be just to maximise beneficiary numbers but also to realise optimum ‘beneficiary value’.

"We need to re-engineer the psychology of giving towards more evolved models of stakeholder value"Yet the philanthropic sector has traditionally been built around the concept of maximising donor funds, not beneficiary outcomes. “More than 90 per cent of your donations go to those in need,” proclaim the TV adverts. All well and good, but in a world where a dollar can be disbursed in so many different ways, the key point is to achieve value for money, meaning lasting beneficial outcomes for all involved.

In helping to bring about the equity and inclusion of all in our global society, we must listen if we are to learn. Listening means stepping back and considering what will empower and dignify the communities and individuals we are trying to help. While material equity is central, promoting decency, dignity and respect are arguably even more influential in long-term success.

There is little dignity in the sometimes cynical use of aggressively emotional campaigns that seek to trigger the donation impulse by leveraging human misery. This is neither beneficial on the ground nor particularly helpful in the long run, as it can lead to charity fatigue.

Compassion, hope and dignity are the most important shared human values. These are the qualities that promote real engagement, enable change and empower social transformation. So we need to re-engineer the psychology of giving towards more evolved models of stakeholder value, and a wider understanding of the tasks involved.

Dignity and a sense of self-worth leads to empowerment, and can serve as a catalyst to mobilise local stakeholders in supporting and contributing to philanthropic programmes, helping to design and construct them for their own needs, and eventually taking ownership back into the community.

With such ownership comes support, success and ultimately self-reliance. These are the scales on which we should be weighing impact. NGOs should be assessed and measured on how well they perform – not just at times of crisis but also in the longer-term; improving people’s lives, recognising and responding to what works, even their capability of promoting shifts in attitudes. It’s not simply a question of relieving hunger or sickness or placing people under canvas: it’s also a question of sound education, profound understanding and eventually decent work for all.

The UAE donates considerable sums to cause-related organisations and charities. Along with many other nations and philanthropists, we need to be assured that waste is minimised, that a healthy proportion of monies raised goes to the source beneficiaries and that charities provide what is actually necessary on the ground, rather than what they may deem is necessary.

We need to know that programmes are efficient in identifying a need and then meeting it, with as little as possible lost in transition from donation to delivery.

I am proud to chair Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organisation established in 2007 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, vice president and prime minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai, to improve children’s access to quality education in developing countries. Since its launch, it has worked to refine its governance and delivery mechanisms to eliminate waste, avoid overstaffing or needless activity, and use benchmarking and monitoring to measure the beneficial impact it has on the community as a whole.

The UAE Federal Government has played an integral role in responding to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and successor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This effort is being reflected in how we move forward with our national strategic planning.

We are conscious that we should not focus exclusively on the particular demands of MDGs such as Target 2A – “Ensure that, by 2015, children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling” – with its accompanying metrics of enrolment in primary education in developing regions, rate of children out of school and literacy rates. Rather, we try to be mindful of the overall vision expressed in the SDGs, such as Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.” This is useful because definitions of ‘inclusive’ and ‘quality’ depend so much on local context if we are to maximise beneficiary value.

In the UAE, for example, we are placing increasing importance on the quality of education as part of our transformation to a knowledge-based economy. This, in turn, has involved greater focus on eventual outcomes rather than simply primary indicators. It requires adopting a ‘whole picture’ view of education.

Merely recording simplistic quantitative data, such as number of girls placed in classrooms, is not nearly enough. To properly gauge impact also means gathering qualitative indicators, such as parent and pupil attitudes, as well as strategic outcomes, such as success in exams and subsequent employment rates.

Dubai Cares, and the World Expo that the city will host in 2020, both embrace the idea that the connection of minds will create a better future. The education and empowerment of young people is crucial to the success of both endeavours. Both demonstrate the UAE’s focus on tangible and measurable impact; producing immediate benefits to those we work with, and leaving a legacy of change which, in turn, begets more change, for the better.

We know the day we are no longer necessary, is the day we have achieved success. Our role is ultimately to make ourselves redundant by handing the mantle back to the community.

As with Dubai Cares, the long-term wellbeing of the philanthropic sector walks hand-in-hand with the long-term wellbeing of those it seeks to help. The work of NGOs and nonprofit organisations creates opportunity and new societal mobility for millions. By focusing on beneficiary value, – on quality and not just quantity – the nonprofit sector will ensure its long-term relevance, helping to bring about a better future for all.

About the writer

Reem Ebrahim Al Hashimy is UAE minister of state and director-general of Expo 2020 Dubai. She is also chairperson of the UAE-based charity Dubai Cares, which works to improve access to education in 41 countries.