Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Helping the Poor ... in Saudi Arabia

Dr. Khaled Batarfi,

As the coordinator of a newly formed charity, I was invited to a meeting in Jeddah Chamber of Commerce.
Representatives of charities were trying to form a coordination committee under the supervision of Makkah Governor Prince Abdul Majeed. High on our agenda were: Starting a cottage industry for needy families to work from home, providing training courses and finding jobs for less-skilled persons, and micro financing for small projects.
The idea is that we could help more if we think small and specific. The government can build larger projects, implement grand solutions, and throw a wider net.
For us, we should focus on smaller, neglected areas, and come up with creative, practical, sustainable solutions.
For example, at the “Productive Families Society” we are working on a poor area south of Jeddah as our case study. Our first step was diagnosing. We asked the engineers at the Environment Designs College in King Abdul Aziz University to study the area. We are also gathering area maps, satellite images, and information about the state of security, health, education and other public services from concerned government departments.
The next step is to come up with “sustainable” solutions designed as modules. If we decide that the best way is to develop a totally new neighborhood, then we divide the project into cost units: Land, studies, houses, schools, clinics, training courses, job opportunities, micro financing for small projects, and so on.
Then we look for sponsors for each unit starting with our members. We don’t ask them to contribute in cash. Instead, we ask them to build or provide the service required from A to Z themselves. Our job is to organize and coordinate.
Others, in turn, presented their creative ideas. Ibrahim Badawood, from Abdul Latif Jameel Co. briefed us on their community services. They train young men and women and help them get jobs as chefs, tailors, mechanics, plumbers, computer programmers, photographers and specialists in areas unfamiliar to Saudis, like beauty, flower and d├ęcor.
They support good business ideas by providing young entrepreneurs with office space, logistics, financing, and business contacts.
Since they are a car agency, they sell their Toyotas to taxi, bus and pickup drivers. The owners pay interest-free monthly installments over three years.
The company established a nonprofit hospital in 1995 to cater for patients with disabilities and is providing training programs for Saudi specialists in this field.
They also give scholarships to talented, but needy Saudis, who aspire to pursue graduate studies in reputable international schools. Since 1994, they have sent hundreds of students to join the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
They run other programs to train Saudi talent in such areas as car maintenance and computer technologies.
Dr. Nadia Baeshen, the general manager of Khadija bint Khoailid, told us how they help poor families by training women in skills to work from the convenience of their homes.
They also help them market their products and provide showroom space with subsidized rent on daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis.
Dr. Abdullah Altelmesani of Makkah Development Society showed a video that included sophisticated training centers for both sexes, in partnership with reputable American and European training centers. In association with local businesses and the public sector, they provide free housing, education and training for the needy, jobs for the able, and outlets for homemade handicrafts.
Other participants in the meeting told us about their visits to countries like Tunisia to learn from their experience in helping poor communities and under skilled workers. They were fascinated by the way people are trained in traditional handicrafts and helped with soft, micro financing and government-supported marketing.
This idea is now being implemented here. Many families are getting small loans of around a thousand Saudi riyals to buy simple equipment that helps them produce traditional dresses, food and tools. Some are now getting together in small companies of twos and threes and are obtaining financial help and professional advice. They, in turn, are employing others in their neighborhood.
Factories hiring women for low-paid jobs are getting support from charities that pay for training and transportation. A center has been set up to provide free legal advice and representation to poor families and battered women.
I suggested we broaden the scope to include legal help for small home businesses.
Others are setting up CV databases and contacting both private and public sectors to find jobs for the unemployed, especially in the underprivileged and remote areas.
Saudi Arabia has always given generously to millions in poorer countries. Some of our best-intentioned help was misused and gave us a bad name. Without neglecting our global duties, it is high time we focused on our needy. Charity after all begins at home.

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