Gates Foundation works for ‘lasting change’ in Middle East

Sunday 26/03/2017
Head of Middle East Relations at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hassan al-Damluji. (Courtesy of Hassan al-Damluji)

Washington - In a time of turmoil in the Mid­dle East, Hassan al-Damluji’s job is to try to solve problems facing humanity. It is no easy task for the British-Iraqi but he is buoyed by improvements he has seen in recent years, including the battle against extreme poverty. Damluji is the head of Middle East relations at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Our foundation focuses on the major health and development challenges that prevent the poor­est people from living a healthy and productive life,” Damluji said. “What’s striking is that although every community is unique, the same challenges do come up time and time again. Absolute poverty looks remarkably similar, no mat­ter where you are.”

The Middle East has been plagued by wars and instability in recent years. Syria is embroiled in a conflict now in its seventh year while Yemen has suffered inter­nal violence and widespread de­struction. Egypt has gone through political turmoil and Libya has descended into an all-aout civil war. All these conflicts — Syria in particular — have resulted in mil­lions of displaced people, some internally but many as refugees. With instability and violence come hardships.

“Sadly, the MENA region has been rocked by instability and con­flict in recent years. It’s a human tragedy that has cost many lives,” Damluji said via e-mail. “It also makes it much harder to do the kind of long-term development work that our foundation focuses on. Humanitarian aid is the prior­ity for communities that are expe­riencing violent displacement but it is only when the violence stops that you can fix the system and build it back better than before.”

Damluji said many farmers struggle to provide for their fami­lies while many young children die from diseases because they do not have access to vaccines. However, in the midst of tragedy, there is also hope.

“Thankfully, the good news is that the number of children dying each year has been falling in every country in the world, including in the Middle East,” Damluji said. “In the MENA region, more than 7% of children died before the age of 5 in 1990. That number has been cut in half.”

Damluji and his Gates Founda­tion team make targeted invest­ments in humanitarian aid pro­jects, build development projects with regional partners and invest in the Gulf region’s non-profit sec­tor.

Humanitarian projects include technological innovations as basic as improving toilets or organising groups of refugees to respond to the community’s needs.

To support longer-term develop­ment objectives, the Gates Foun­dation connects with local gov­ernments to try to “effect lasting change across the MENA region and the Muslim world,” Damluji said.

“One example is the polio eradi­cation work we are carrying out in partnership with Sheikh Moham­med bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi,” he said. “Po­lio is mostly found in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is a high-risk threat in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Thanks to the UAE’s funding and its influence on the ground, the vaccination campaigns to eradi­cate the disease have been able to reach children in the hardest-to-reach areas.

“We stand on the verge of a glob­ally historic moment, when that disease will be eradicated forever.”

Support for the non-profit sec­tor might be one of the most in­teresting initiatives of the Gates Foundation. By working with lo­cal governments, the foundation tries to encourage a “new genera­tion of philanthropists, volunteers and community leaders”. This ini­tiative sees to it that development work continues outside of the gov­ernment and instils values with an emphasis on aiding the less fortu­nate.

For Damluji, the work is person­al. While he grew up in London, his Arab roots influenced and shaped him. His father was brought up in Baghdad, as were many of his rela­tives. Knowing of their suffering gave him a “strong sense of moral purpose”, Damluji said.

“My life has really been about trying to use whatever abilities I have to serve underprivileged communities, both in the UK and the Arab world,” he said. “My day job is focused on the work I’ve just been describing across the MENA region.”

Damluji said he was deeply in­vested into his local community in London. He has used lessons learned in his work and applied them to helping disadvantaged people in Britain.

“In my spare time I have co-founded a school serving a de­prived community in North Lon­don,” Damluji said. “I’m active in local politics and care deeply about the problems that affect Brit­ish people, too. Sometimes life is more complicated when you don’t fit neatly into the usual categories and boxes. But I think there is as much need as ever for people who are able to operate in different cul­tural contexts and that has helped me for the most part in the work that I do.”