Islamic NGOs assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan and Gulf donors support

Dr. Myriam Ababsa

Geographer, consultant

Institut français du Proche-Orient.

This text was prepared for IDRC LCPS workshop “Launching a Homegrown Development Agenda to address the Syrian Refugee Crisis”, Beirut, 4th and 5th May 2016. Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.

The Syrian crisis has been a turning point in the history of humanitarian enterprise in terms of the increasing role assumed by Arab donors. Not only did Arab funding increase considerably, but the Gulf States have taken a leading role in organising fundraising events for the response. This assistance is not easy to estimate, as Gulf donors are active through their own state organizations, but also non-governmental organizations and royal non-profit organizations. In 2013, Gulf donor and Gulf NGO contributions to the Syrian crisis totalled US$ 910.3 million. A third of this amount was distributed in Jordan, US$ 166.9 million, by Gulf States and US$ 139.8 million by Gulf Humanitarian Organisations (UNHCR 2015, Gulf Report).

Humanitarian assistance is part of a donor foreign policy and should be studied in the wider frame of geopolitical considerations concerning the Syrian crisis (Binder, Meier, Steers 2010). Jordan is opened to Gulf donors, as they are guarantors of its political stability. In May 2011, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia invited Jordan and Morocco to join the Gulf Cooperation Council. The following month, he gave US$ 400 million of financial assistance to the Government of Jordan (GoJ). In the context of the Arab spring, Saudi Arabia gave a US$ 1 billion grant to help the GoJ to cope with its financial needs in July 2011.

Gulf organizations provide major financial support to Islamic charities. In 2013, they have provided US$ 139.8 million in humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees in Jordan. This assistance was implemented in coordination with 80 local branches of well-established Islamic charities (60 belonging to the Islamic Charity Centre and 20 to Al Kitab wa Al Sunna). The royal NGOs (Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation (JHCO), Jordan River Foundation (JRF), Jordan Hashemite Fund for Human Development (JOHUD) and Noor Hussein Foundation (NHF)) were responsible for channelling only 10 % of Gulf assistance. On a local level, Gulf assistance is visible and felt by the population, both Jordanian and Syrian refugees. Jordanian citizens have expressed their generosity by sheltering and feeding the refugees, and by giving religious alms (zakat), collected at the level of the mosques and by Islamic NGOs. Gulf donors assistance is highly visible in the two camps of Zaatari and Azraq, with hundred of caravans labelled in the name of each donor, and even more in the Emirati Red Crescent camp of Mrajeeb Al Fhood, opened in April 2013 East of Zarqa. But with the multiplicity of donors and their major absence of UN coordination procedures, it is not easy to have a clear picture of the magnitude of their assistance.

The question of Islamic charities in Jordan has been studied by several scholars, among whom Jeanine Clark (2004), Egbert Harmsen (2008), Sarah Hasselbarth (2014). They have shown the difficulty to draw a line between humanitarian and charitable activities, and how Islamic charities are reluctant to include humanitarian concepts viewed as western, in regard with Islamic principles used over centuries. Western donors and UN agencies are keen to coordinate their assistance with these very active NGOs. But they are concerned by the way they determine the beneficiaries, including categories such as martyrs families, combatants’ families and orphans defined under 15 years old. Another sensitive issue deals with the religious classes offered by those charities, with salafi content.

  1. The increasing role of Gulf State and NGOs humanitarian assistance

Humanitarianism is no longer a “Western dominated enterprise” (Holmes 2007). Arab donors are increasingly active, not only in the Middle East and greater Asia, but all around the world. Since the 1960s Gulf donor assistance has developed official development assistance programs, facilitated by the oil boom and rising incomes. Humanitarian activities were first organized through the Red Crescent societies, and after 1963 by the Saudi Red Crescent.

Humanitarian activities increased significantly after 11 September 2001 when Gulf donors were invited to become actors in the global fight against terrorism. H.H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Vice-President, Prime Minister of United Arab Emirates, and Ruler of Dubai) established the first International Humanitarian City and has organized regular Dubai International Humanitarian and Development (DIHAD) conferences since 2004. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), second only to the United Nations in size as an inter-governmental organization, created its own humanitarian affairs department in 2008. The OIC is the only Arab based organisation to have registered to the Good Humanitarian Donorship initiative (GHD) set up in 2003 in Stockholm. GHD is a forum set to discuss and agree on best practices and principles for giving aid.

Due to the fact that Arab states prefer to develop bilateral relations, neither the Gulf Cooperation Council nor the Arab League has its own humanitarian agency. These organizations intentionally avoid joining multilateral institutions such as OECD DAC in the hope of exercising authority over their assistance policies as well as receiving maximum visibility via bilateral support (Al-Yahya, Fustier 2011). As host of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Saudi Arabia played a prominent role in humanitarian assistance in the Middle East until 2013. In 2008, it gave a record contribution of US$ 500 million to the World Food Programme, partly in order to solve the food crisis in Syria.

Most of Gulf countries humanitarian assistance is going to Islamic states (Syrian, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Yemen, Bangladesh). In 2008, the Government of the UAE established the Office for the Coordination of Foreign Aid (OCFA) by Cabinet Decree, in order to build capacity within the UAE aid sector. The United Arab Emirates is very active through the Emirati Red Crescent Society. It is supporting Arab and Islamic countries, but also Asian country as migrants from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Philippines form 85 % of its population.

With a total amount of US$ 11 billion pledged for 2016-2017, the February 2016 Supporting Syria and the Region Conference was the largest in the history of the United Nations. The former record was hit by the January 2014 Appeal during the Kuwait II conference with US$ 2.4 billion. By May 2014, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates fulfilled their pledges of US$ 300 million and US$ 60 million respectively (plus US$ 11.6 million outside the appeal), Qatar gave US$ 11.2 million and Saudi Arabia 17.9 million. Aside from this multilateral assistance, bilateral programmes are also being conducted for development and humanitarian purposes in Syrian-refugee host countries (Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt), which are not included in the pledges made.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are alternatively according the years, the major Gulf donor for humanitarian activities. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, each has given historic contribution to the UN agencies. The State of Kuwait hosted two international pledging conferences in 2013 and 2014. It gave US$ 325,057,835 in 2013 to SHARP and RRP programs. In 2014 and in 2015, Kuwait has pledge US$ 500 m. Saudi Arabia gave more than US$ 780 m to UN agencies since 2011, including $100 million during the 4th International Conference of Donors, held in London, on Feb. 2016, not counting the assistance given by its state owned organisations and NGOs.

The OCHA Financial Tracking Service monitors pledges and donations to the international UN and humanitarian agencies. According to OCHA, US$ 831.9 million were given by four Gulf States (Kuwait US$ 393 m, Saudi Arabia US$ 88,7 m, United Arab Emirates US$ 17.3, Qatar US$ 22.5 m) in 2015. Kuwait has largely contributed with 400 million in 2015. Saudi Arabia was active through the Saudi National Campaign for Supporting Brothers in Syria. Qatar is extremely active too through bilateral donations, through the State owned Qatar Charity, and also through the Sheikh Thani Bin Abdullah Foundation for Humanitarian Services (RAF), a salafi charity. The United Arab Emirates pledged 100 million, but gave 22,5 million in a bilateral manner, 36,6 million through the United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society, and also through NGOs such as Human Appeal International (HAI), with 9,2 million. This is without counting the assistance given to Jordanian Islamic NGOs, only partly reported.

Gulf donors conduct regular coordination meetings with Jordanian implementing NGOs. However the UN and international NGOs know little about these organizations. Only a few UN organizations, such as UNICEF, World Food Programme (WFP) and World Health Organisation (WHO) have experience with local Arab NGOs. Since the first Syria drought crisis in 2008, several coordination mechanisms have been established between the UN and Arab donors. In September 2012, the Arab Humanitarian Portal (ArabHum) was launched during the third annual Conference of Effective Partnership and Information Sharing for Better Humanitarian Action organized by OCHA and the International Islamic Charitable Organization (IICO). In January 2014, Jordan hosted the first humanitarian action conference in the Arab region, organized by The Humanitarian Forum (THF), the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at the Overseas Development Institute, UN OCHA, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organization (JHCO). UNHCR has organized two coordination workshops for Gulf donors and Jordanian NGOs on 17th April 2014 and in May 2014 at the regional level. Arab donors have been invited to the 4th Humanitarian Conference to be held in May 2016 in Istanbul, and all the material is already available in Arabic and English.

As well as state- and NGO-humanitarian assistance, private Gulf donors are active in Jordan. Thousands of Syrians are living in the Gulf, the majority of whom reside in Saudi Arabia. They form an active lobby on behalf of Syrians and Syrian refugees in all the Middle East. They advocate the practice of Islamic charity (zaqat), and more specifically sadaqa (generosity). However their activities are difficult to monitor. The governments of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are trying to promote the generosity of their citizens through telethons, and are even asking them to stop supporting some local NGOs that might have non-humanitarian agendas.

  1. Islamic assistance on the ground: the role of Jordanian Islamic NGOs

The first assistance provided to Syrian refugees in 2011 and 2012 was channelled through the local Islamic charities present in every village. This assistance was provided through the zaqat committees controlled by the mosques (Hasselbarth 2014, p. 8). Zakat committees are genuine community-based organisations, able to identify and distribute assistance to the most needy, Syrians but also Jordanians. Islam requires Muslims to give 2.5% of their wealth and assets to low-income families each year for zakat (mandatory alms). Muslims can give more than the mandatory 2.5% on a voluntary basis as sadaqa (charity). This money is to be given to either low-income families, orphans or to fund the construction of mosques, waqf (religious endowment). The popular perception of zakat is that it requires one to give to low-income families in the form of direct assistance, not in micro loans.

According to the Home Visit report (UNHCR 2014), 52% of Syrian refugee income comes from humanitarian assistance and charitable donations; 27% from work; 13% from family and friends; and 8% from remittances.

Jordan counts four major Islamic NGOs: the Islamic Center Charity Society (al markaz al islami, al-Kitab wa al Sunna, Takaful and al-Ruhama Beinahum. The two first were operative since several decades in Jordan, contrary to the two last that were created starting from the Syrian crisis. They have all considerably expanded their activities, thanks to the Gulf funding they have received.

The Islamic Centre Charity Society was founded in 1963 in Palestine and is the charity branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan. It was active throughout the country until April 2015, managing a network of fifty schools, two major hospitals (Islamic Hospital in Amman and in Aqaba) and 20 medical centres (one in each Palestinian camp and in all the major cities). It states that it has 1 billion JD of assets in the country, and their workforce consists of 5,000 volunteers. Since April 2015, the centre is facing major challenges as the Government has decided to split the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2011, the budget of the Islamic Centre was 60 million JD, of which 25 million JD was allocated to social action, a considerable amount when compared to the 80 million JD budget of the Ministry of Social Development. In 2012, the Islamic Centre provided support to 29,730 Syrian refugee families, including cash assistance programmes valuing US$ 15.9 million. In 2013, they doubled their number of beneficiaries to 72, 557 families, focusing in particular on cash assistance. In addition to this, from 2012 to 2013 they carried out important health activities and successfully treated 2,522 injured Syrian refugees in their two hospitals.

The Islamic Centre has announced a US$ 20 million programme for Syrian refugees for 2014. They will receive financial support from the Saudi National Campaign and from the International Islamic Charitable Society (IICO), based in Kuwait.

Al Kitab wa Al Sunna is the most active Islamic NGO in Jordan with regard to the provision of assistance to Syrian refugees. They state that they have a budget of US$ 50 million in order to support Syrian refugees over two years. Their implementing agency is Nida al Kheir (the Call for Good). Founded in 1992, Al Kitab wa Al Sunna is registered with the Ministry of Social Development. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna provides support only to UNHCR registered refugees. In 2013, their database included 350,000 Syrian refugees, comprising 45,817 families. A third were registered in Amman, near their headquarters (Hay Nazal); a third in the Irbid governorate (21% in Irbid and 13% in Ramtha); 13% in Mafraq; 6% in Zarqa; and 5% in Jerash). Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it has expanded considerably, on account of the assistance it has received from Saudi Arabia (37%) and Qatar (37%)[1].

Founded in Ramtha in 2010 by a group of conservative Islamists, Takaful is an active NGO located on the Syrian border. In 2013, its budget was JD 4.7 million (US$ 7 million) and it provided cash assistance to 5,000 Syrian families, most of whom are from Dara’a. Takaful prides itself in being the most transparent Islamic NGO on account of its communication both in Arabic and English, with a bilingual website. It receives funding from two major Kuwaiti NGOs: International Islamic Charitable Society (IICO) and Islah Social Society.

Al Ruhama Beinahum is a Jordanian NGO receiving support from Saudi Arabia. It claims to give cash assistance to 15 000 Syrian families in Jordan.

Gulf donors prefer to provide assistance by donating tangible items that include their own branding, such as caravans, clothes and other NFIs, rather than cash, despite cash being the assistance in most demand by both refugees and other international organisations.

The main sector of assistance provided by Gulf donors and Jordanian NGOs is shelter, followed by food assistance, health services, cash, education, NFIs and orphan care. Shelter includes the distribution of caravans as well as the establishment of the Emirati Camp. Food assistance has been a complicated issue, as many Gulf donors have wanted to provide food to the refugees for religious reasons and to empty their national food stocks. However food items are required to meet international standards, (such as only canned (no raw) meat), and some food supplies have ended up being blocked in warehouses.

Gulf donors and local NGOs are able to fill the gap in the procedural UN structure because of their flexibility and ability to reach underserved urban and rural areas. But some concerns emerged regarding their charitable activities.

  1. Toward a new humanitarianism?

Islamic humanitarianism questions the universality of the humanitarian principles of neutrality, humanity, impartiality and independence, but also basic human rights definitions. This is the case for women’s empowerment for instance (that should not be considered as “removing the hijab, destroying the family institution and throwing religion out of the window”, as an Arab aid worker put it (Irin 2011). Children’s rights are also challenged by early marriage and the definition of orphans. And assistance is given to combatants’ families and « martyrs » families, of specific political background (those fighting against the Syrian regime for instance).

In Jordan, women’s rights and children rights organisation managed to give a soft interpretation to the Shari’a in its application to family and personal law (Ottoman code 1859 (Al Mejelle). But while receiving Gulf funding, these charities might apply a more conservative interpretation of the Sharia. According to Shari’a law, an orphaned child is considered an orphan until he reaches 14 years of age. Most of Islamic NGOs consider a child who lost his father as an orphan, even though he still has his mother. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna applies this definition, but also has further educational programmes for adolescents who have lost one or both of their parents and are unable to afford education. In total, 1,500 orphans benefit from this programme. When the kids turn 15, boys are directed to technical schools and are pushed to the job market, while young girls have to be married in the coming years. Several buildings are rented to host families of widows with orphans.

These Islamic NGOs have develop their own database, criteria and humanitarian definitions, that are not always compatible with international humanitarian ones, especially for the orphans (children under 15 years old) and the martyrs families. Some are paying the refugees to attend Islamic classes with conservative, salafi content. Each Islamic NGO has its one vulnerability criteria, and each monitors its own database. Among those criteria, to be the widow or children of a “martyr” (shahid, shuhada), is major. Basically a martyr is any Syrian dead fighting against Assad regime. Of course, this is not clearly stated. Most of agency are asking for a death certificate, with 34% of household headed by single women, they want to be sure about the status of the women.

Each NGO created a database, using UNHCR asylum seeker card number for the Syrians registered, and copies of Syrian ID’s for those who did not register. The Islamic Centre Charity Society ICCS claims having a database of 72,557 Syrian refugee families. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna provides support only to UNHCR registered refugees. In 2013, their database included 45,817 Syrian refugees families, or 350,000 refugees (UNHCR Gulf Report 2015).

The confidentiality of these databases is not always protected and some private donors can have access to personal data, such as name of young girls and phone numbers. This is a real protection issue, some private donors asking to rescue Syrian girls by marrying them. Some of these wedding are only for a short period of time and refugees and their children have to reintegrate UNHCR beneficiaries databases.

Al Kitab wa Al Sunna has created a service card system with ICCS and Takaful in order to help them coordinate assistance and ensure that there is no duplication in this assistance in the city of Ramtha. This system is integrated into a computer database administrated by Al Kitab wa Al Sunna. But in practice, they do not coordinate properly in the rest of the country, and assistance is most of the time duplicated.

These Islamic NGOs are conducting proselyte activities in the form of Quran classes for children and women. In order to attract refugees to attend this class, cash payment is provided. Al Kitab wa Al Sunna offers some cultural activities, such as Qur’anic educational classes, a form of proselytism, especially for the former rural Syrian refugees. In order to ensure that there is high attendance, they pay the refugees up to 200 JD per week class. This is a major issue, as those classes are not simple islamic classes, but follow a salafi curriculum (Hasselbarth 2014). As underlined by Hasselbarth, Kitab wa Sunna and Islamic Center Charity hire their personnel independently from the Ministry of Waqf and manage to organize their own teaching activities without proper content control.


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