Charities during Ramadan: a competitive race for a good cause

Over 74 percent of Yemeni families have become poorer compared to their standard of living last year, according to a recent study by the Yemeni Center for Economic Studies and Media.
Nadia Al-Sakkaf - Yemen Times
Yemen, Sanaa, the old city market place. ©S.M /
Yemen, Sanaa, the old city market place. ©S.M /

The study focused on how most Yemenis spent less this year during Ramadan compared to last year. Ramadan is a month in which Yemenis’ habits are dominated by a sense of social celebration and consumption especially for food stuffs.

It is also a month whereby civil society organizations increase their charity work and social services to the maximum throughout the year.

“We plan for Ramadan activities and charity work throughout the year,” explained Yahya Al-Dabba director of activity planning and training at the Charitable Society for Social Welfare (CSSW). “It is the highlight of our charity work because of the special significance Yemenis give to this month.”

The charity’s mission statement is: to aspire for distinction in humanitarian work for development and poverty alleviation in Yemen through implementing projects in partnership with local communities and donor organizations.

With a poverty rate of at least forty percent of the population, charity and civil society associations face more and more demand for support and donations.

This Ramadan, the CSSW is sponsoring 100 iftars, the meal at the end of a day’s fasting, each hosting between 150 and 200 persons, as well as providing food for 30,000 poor families.

Towards the end of the month, the society starts distributing new clothes for children up to 18 years old, and this year the society has set aside a budget to cover new clothes for 120,000 children.

The Al-Saleh foundation is also in the race for a good cause and this year aims to provide iftar for one million poor people distributed in 300 iftar meals around the country.

“We also target people who are usually forgotten, such as children in the juvenile centers and orphanages and even prisoners,” said Ali Al-Barmaki, director of the planning department and in charge of the projects department at the Saleh foundation. “We want to tell them that people in the outside are thinking of them and wishing them well.

The foundation is also planning on providing new clothes for Eid at the end of Ramadan for 80,000 children between the ages of 2 and 17. It will also send fruit baskets or watches and some clothes as gifts to patients in hospitals and detainees in prisons.

Fundraising during Ramadan

The Al-Saleh foundation is largely sponsored by the president himself, especially since it carries his name and is run by his son Ahmed.

Every year, the president donates a good amount to the foundation to help it in carrying out its charity work. The president also donates relative amounts to the CSSW and other charities, thus posing as a role model in philanthropy.

During Ramadan, many Yemenis rich and poor donate money and items to charities in an attempt to ease the suffering of the poor and hungry, especially during the day when Muslims keep fast and feel the pangs of hunger.

Businessmen pay their annual zakat, alms Muslims are required to give to the poor, and donated amounts during this month almost equal the donations for the whole of the rest of the rest of the year.

“ With a number of mosques, we have organized a donations’ box, where those who pray put money that eventually goes to projects run by CSSW,” explained Al-Dabba. “We have not faced any difficulties in fundraising. You would expect that since Yemenis are getting poorer, fewer would be able to donate, but that is not the case.”

The society established in March 1990 as a response to economic problems caused by the sudden influx of Yemenis deported from Gulf countries after the first Gulf War. Around one and half million Yemenis returned suddenly, and most of them were not financially prepared and had nowhere to go.

A number of leading business figures founded the society and its first activity was establishing a camp on the Saudi-Yemen border in Abs district – Hodeida where thousands of Yemenis were sheltered and given food and clothes.

Gradually, the CSSW started expanding its charity work and while it started with sponsoring 50 orphans, today the number of orphans it supported financially and otherwise have reached 40,000. Currently there are 25,000 orphans sponsored through the society.

The society started with one branch in Hodeida, where the camp was set up and today it has 23 camps around the country.

The Al-Saleh foundation was established more recently in 2005, and started off big.

It was created at a time when international donor-led projects were common and accessible. Therefore, its range of activities included training and capacity building from the very beginning and not simply charity.

Today, the Al-Saleh foundation has its headquarters in Sana’a and branches in Sa’ada, Amran, Hodeida, Al-Dhale’, Lahj and Taiz. The foundation has started projects in environment, healthcare, education and literacy along with capacity building and poverty reduction.

It has even created projects to shelter and rehabilitate street children and charged minors in the juveniles’ detention center.

Relief became a part of the Al-Saleh foundation’s work later on as the number of displaced persons from the conflict in Sa’ada grew as the war escalated in 2007. Even today, the foundation provides aid to the camps and contributes to rehabilitation projects in Sa’ada governorate.

Personal relations and social contacts are key to fundraising, as proven by both organizations. Second comes creating sustainable development projects with international donors.

More recently, prominent civil society organizations have started to realize that they cannot rely completely on external means to finance their projects, and have to create internal income revenue projects to ensure the sustainability of their work.

For example, the Al-Saleh foundation has created a project for manufacturing coffee in Bani Matar, outside Sana’a.

“In a way, we are encouraging a local Yemeni agriculture business that is being overshadowed by qat while we create a constant source of income for the foundation’s work,” explained Al-Barmaki.

In the next few years the foundation will be launching a large-scale medical project known as the Saleh Medical City. The income generated from this medical city will go to the foundation’s charity and development work, and help with the expenses of its more than 450 employees and 5,000 volunteers across the country.

From charity to development

“The real change happened between 1999 and 2000” explained Al-Dabba. “We realized that we can never cover the needs of the people and growing poverty, so we learned that people need development more than relief.”

“This is when we started our work focusing on sustainable development while still maintaining some of our charity activities,” he said.

The society includes more than 300 employees and more than 12,000 volunteers who support the charity and development work regularly. CSSW has a wide support group and relies heavily on the religious sentiments of people especially during holy occasions such as Ramadan and the two eids.

“We feel we are like the muazzen [caller to prayer],” said Al-Dabba, “We let the people know there is this issue that needs their attention and each responds in his or her own way.”

Not only has the society shifted its focus from charity to development, it has also learned to coordinate with international donors and benefit from their support to do the development work.

Before 2000, most of the funds for the society’s activities came either from local donations or generous grants from businessmen and organizations in the Gulf countries. Today the society has carried out projects with the help of many international donors from various countries.

Today, the society is working on creating its own sources to generate sustainable income. It is currently constructing the Baraka Tower, the rent of which will go directly to its orphanage program once it starts flowing.

Micro-credit projects have become the trend to eradicate poverty, and both organizations have such programs. Poor families are given amounts sufficient to start small businesses, and given the technical tools to be successful at it.

The loans would grow as the businesses did and both the CSSW and Al-Saleh foundation have large scheme microfinance projects in many governorates around the country although mainly targeting women.

Civil society networking

In 2003, a network of civil society organizations was created through the Good Governance Program of Oxfam-GB in Yemen. The network coordinated its members’ efforts to create pressure on decision makers and have a say on policies at the national level.

As a member of the network, CSSW has lobbied and campaigned with other member organizations to change some policies and make them pro-poor. It has also worked with organizations outside the network in joint activities especially during disasters such as the floods in Hadramout and the humanitarian crisis in Sa’ada.

CSSW has an institutional structure in which elections take place every three years in the general body to change the management. No previous member of the management can run in the elections twice, which ensures that there is always new blood in the management. This is probably one of the reasons of its success.

Since 2007, women has been elected as members of the society’s general body, which means that any of them can be elected president next year.

The Al-Saleh foundation has started projects in coordination with other institutions including the CSSW, and not just in relief or civil society work.

“We have established a center for physiotherapy,” said Al-Barmaki. “Not many organizations have ventured into this field. We have organized visits for physicians and specialists from the qualified state and private medical centers and facilitated visits for patients to our center at minimal charges or even free of charge.”

“We have even arranged for the specialists to pay home visits to those patients who can’t come to the center,” he added.

In coordination with the Ministry of Interior and child organizations, Al-Saleh has also started up a program for smuggled children in the town of Haradh on the Yemeni-Saudi border. Children who are caught as they are smuggled accross are taken to a special center run by the foundation and provided with adequate psychological care in order to reintegrate them with their families.

No political affiliations

The CSSW is often confused with the Islah party because of the similarities of their names in Arabic. However, it was created before the political party and has no formal affiliation with it.

“We don’t have a particularly religious inclination,” explained Al-Dabba. “We are a Muslim Yemenis working in a Muslim civil society organization. We benefit from the help of religious preachers who like our ideas and we receive the wrath of others who think we are spreading non-Islamic values.”

He mentioned the complaints and condemnation the CSSW had received from some fanatic religious men who opposed CSSW’s call against female genital mutilation and early marriage. In fact, it closed down its reproductive project in Mukalla after having been heavily attacked and even threatened by religious men and imams in mosques.

Similarly, the Al-Saleh foundation has also been accused of being the charity hand of the General People’s Congress, the ruling party headed by the president. Since the director of both the party and the foundation is the same person, people often consider that charity work done by the foundation aims at strengthening the position of the political party especially during election times.

“We are not a political organization and our work focuses on development and poverty eradication,” insisted Al-Barmaki. “We work during election time just like we work during other times. It does not make sense to suspend our activities and our assistance to the poor just because people might assume we are working in favor of the GPC.”

His main concern was that there are some people who speak in the name of the foundation without having the right to. In the past, some employees at the foundation could not differentiate between development work and politics, and caused some of the confusion, he said. Today staff have been given special training and orientation to separate their political affiliations from their development work.

“We have staff working for us from all over the country and from many political parties. The inclusiveness of our workforce shows that we do not have a political agenda,” he insisted.

The CSSW works closely with stakeholders at the community level such as local councils, parliamentarians and community leaders. The projects CSSW take on depend on the feedback they receive from their partners and beneficiaries at the grassroots level.

Beneficiaries are identified through first hand surveys conducted each year at the central level and once every two years at the governorate level. At the moment, 9,000 families benefit from the society.

Al-Dabba also denied rumors that the society works heavily during the national elections.

“We stay away from politics,” he insisted, stressing that the society even suspends certain charity activities during the elections so that it is not confused with the Islah political party and does not indirectly create propaganda for the party.