A helping hand: The nation provides development assistance in a range of countries

The UAE has risen in recent years to become one of the world’s largest providers of official development assistance (ODA), while simultaneously ramping up efforts to support women and families within its own borders. Emirates Red Crescent (ERC) in particular has been active in rolling out urgently needed disaster and conflict relief around the globe, providing millions in assistance to refugees and victims of natural disasters, in addition to a host of local efforts aimed at supporting families and promoting public health. At the same time female empowerment and education has benefitted from more than 40 years of supportive initiatives spearheaded by Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, chairwoman of the General Women’s Union, supreme president of the Family Development Foundation and honorary chairwoman of the ERC, cementing the country’s role as a world-leading charitable donor.

Global Assistance

In November 2015 the Development Assistance Committee of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development announced that the UAE stands as the world’s largest donor of ODA, relative to its national income, with ODA reaching Dh18bn ($4.9bn) in 2014, or about 1.17% of the country’s gross national income. The following month, the Ministry of International Cooperation and Development reported that the country has donated a total of Dh173bn ($47.1bn) in foreign assistance to 178 countries since 1971.


One of the largest providers of humanitarian relief in the country is ERC, which was established in 1983, and joined the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in 1986. The ERC is mandated to follow the provisions of the 1949 Geneva Convention, offering awareness programmes, first aid, epidemic response, and humanitarian assistance during times of peace, and services for injured civilians, including transfer and treatment, first aid and protection, as well as prisoner assistance, during war. Sheikh Hamdan bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler’s representative in the Western Region, took the role of chairman of the ERC in 1993, with Sheikha Fatima later assuming the role of honorary chairwoman in 1997.

The ERC maintains both a local and international focus, channelling its efforts at the local level into helping widows, orphans, needy families, families of prisoners, and those who are sick or disabled. The ERC is also active in organising first aid courses and public health campaigns aimed at improving wellness and prevention, in addition to coordinating with the Emirates Nursing Association to provide health services during Ramadan.

“Establishing partnerships with local government departments is a key enabler in raising awareness regarding the importance of humanitarian and charitable aid. This is particularly important in terms of activating volunteers to ensure the implementation of vital domestic programmes,” Mohamed Al Falahi, secretary-general of the ERC, told OBG.

International Assistance

On the international level, the UAE Red Crescent Authority has 14 international offices and a number of international partners in the field of humanitarian work, providing urgent relief in the wake of natural disasters and human conflicts, in addition to establishing long-term post-crisis development projects in affected regions. “The ERC does not discriminate in our provision of humanitarian relief – it is our goal to relieve suffering wherever it is found. We are committed to helping those less fortunate, and we are rapid first-responders,” said Al Falahi.

Recent efforts include the November 2015 announcement that the ERC plans to expand relief operations and humanitarian projects in regions of Yemen that have been liberated, in addition to allocating Dh400m ($108.9m) to rebuild Yemen’s electricity, sanitation, health and water infrastructure.

The following month, it announced that 3266 families in Yemen’s Hasween district had been given food packages, while the Al Faidha Hospital in Yemen’s eastern Al Mahrah governorate was receiving desperately needed medical supplies from the ERC.

Simultaneously, the ERC completed the Dh1.7m ($463,000) first phase of a programme to rebuild the Al Gomhoria Hospital in Aden, which included five wards, 26 beds, a six-room operating theatre, a sterilisation unit and laboratory, and 10 administrative offices. The ERC plans to provide long-term support to 14 health facilities in Aden, including five hospitals and nine clinics. Victims of the conflict in Syria have also benefitted from ERC relief efforts. In January 2015, for example, the ERC organised a telethon for Syrian refugees suffering from Snowstorm Huda, which raised Dh150m ($40.8m), and in late 2014 the ERC’s donation of Dh55m ($15m) enabled the distribution of food aid to Palestinian refugees in Damascus. The ERC was also active outside of war zones in 2015. In June it supported distribution of over 5000 food parcels in Senegal as part of the UAE Embassy in Senegal’s annual Iftar programme, and in the same month, the ERC donated Dh50,000 ($13,600) to the Malaysian Red Crescent for the implementation of another Iftar programme. More recently, the ERC has been an active participant in the Red Cross Post Conflict Recovery Programme in Sri Lanka, with Red Cross authorities reporting in December 2015 that the initiative is expected to rebuild 21,125 houses in areas affected by a civil conflict.

The ERC’s orphan sponsorship programme is one of the longest-running in the world, and the ERC reports that it is the sole member of the Red Crescent and Red Cross societies globally to have continuously supported orphans since 1986, with 103,553 children in 28 countries currently benefitting from its sponsorship, which has reached more than Dh1.1bn ($299.4m) in value. Its “Ghadeer” programme, meanwhile, was launched in partnership with Etihad Airways with the aim of supporting the sale of hand-crafted products made by disadvantaged women. Etihad supports the initiative by marketing Ghadeer products on its flights. Since 2011 the IFRC has also maintained a presence at Dubai’s International Humanitarian City, recording donations of over CHF500,000 ($520,400) annually, according to the federation’s website. Between 2003 and 2015, total donations from the UAE to the IFRC reached CHF4.7m ($4.9m.)

Female Empowerment

Outside of her role as honorary chairwoman of the ERC, Sheikha Fatima has also played an increasingly significant role in advancing female empowerment, both within the UAE and abroad. She created the first women’s foundation in the UAE in 1973, followed by the General Women’s Union in 1975, as well as the Family Development Foundation and Supreme Council for Motherhood and Childhood, and has been active in launching initiatives aimed at improving the status of women for over 40 years. Education has featured heavily in her efforts, which have included an illiteracy eradication campaign launched in 1975, the establishment of the Sheikh Zayed Private Academy for Girls, and funding for cultural and social clubs and centres which aim to boost female participation in science and the arts.

Female participation in the labour market is a natural extension to women’s education, and to this end a significant number of projects have been launched, including 2005’s “Productive Families” project, established under the “Mobdia” initiative of the Abu Dhabi Businesswomen Council, as well as 2012’s “Raidat Al Dar” (The Home’s Leaders) programme, which was launched in partnership with ExxonMobil and aims to empower Emirati women through development of professional skillsets and provision of social and economic support.


Four decades after the first early efforts, the impact is noticeable. Literacy rates in the UAE rose from 73% in 1985 to 99% in 2013, and girls now represent 53% of students at the elementary and secondary levels, while women comprise 72% of total post-secondary enrolment at government universities and 50% within private universities. The rate of female enrolment in post-graduate education stands at 62% in public universities, and 43% in private universities, with the UAE National Bureau of Statistics reporting that female university enrolment has risen by 144% over the past decade. Efforts to improve female education are also reflected in the labour market: the percentage of women in the UAE’s labour market now stands at 43%, of which 34% hold leading governmental roles, while the country is home to an estimated 11,000 investment ventures run by women, and valued at $10bn.

International Efforts

Internationally, Sheikha Fatima played a critical role in the creation of the Arab Women Organisation and the Women Refugee Fund, in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and has supported international relief efforts for natural disasters, as in 1993 when she funded a $1.4m project to rebuild 1400 schools damaged by an earthquake in Egypt. Personal projects have focused heavily on education, health care and disaster relief. Notable efforts include the National Institute of Oncology at Ibn Sina University Hospital, launched in Rabat in 2013; the establishment of a girls’ schools in Pakistan, the Palestinian territories and Sri Lanka; and the “Giving Hands” initiative, which has provided eye care to more than 14,000 children since 2008. Sheikha Fatima has also been active in supporting refugees, launching 12 projects to support female empowerment and refugee resettlement in southern Afghanistan in 2005, and sponsoring the UAE’s participation in the November 2015 UN charity bazaar which raised funds for projects benefitting women and children around the world. All of these efforts serve to further bolster the UAE’s humanitarian profile, underpinning development of its international diplomacy abroad and improving the standard of living for citizens and residents of countries in the region and around the world.