Sonia Ben Jaafar is CEO of the Abdulla Al Ghurair Foundation, one of the largest privately funded philanthropic education initiatives in the Arab world. Prior to that, she was the Managing Director of EduEval, a company she founded to promote evidence-based decisions for a greater positive impact on education. At the AVPN Conference in Abu Dhabi last month, she talked to Charles Keidan about the work of the Foundation and its adoption of a strategic approach to bring system-wide change to vocational education in the region. Conducted by Alliance Magazine, Sonia Ben Jaafar talked more about the work of the Foundation and its adoption of a strategic approach to bring system-wide change to vocational education in the region.

Q. You moved to the Al Ghurair Foundation in 2019. What was the experience like of moving from a niche consultancy to leading a major family foundation?

SBJ: Our Chairman, Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair, runs the foundation with the same amount of care and dedication as any of his businesses. We meet regularly, he goes over my strategy with me, when I have an idea and I’m not sure I ask him about it.

Dr Sonia Ben Jaafar (CEO, Al Ghuarair Foundation)

He gives me direction. It’s nice to have somebody who cares that much about it. I wouldn’t have been able to join and stay the course if I didn’t have somebody who took it seriously.

One signal of how seriously the family take their philanthropy is that they have committed a third of their wealth to the foundation. What scale are we talking about?

The estimate when the news was released was about $1.1 billion dollars, but that doesn’t include the refugee education fund that we also administer for Abdul Aziz Al Ghurair. But they’ve not only put in the investment, they’ve put in their time, their intelligence. For example, Sultan Abdullah Al Ghurair, another of our board members, was speaking here at AVPN in support of strategic philanthropy in the UAE. They show up to events, they show up to meet with our beneficiaries, and I think that makes a huge difference. It’s not just a photo op, this family foundation is about impact.

Impact in the field of education?

Education for work, we’re very clear on that. We don’t just train, we train for the market at whatever stage of your career you’re at. So, if you’ve got a high school degree and you are a clerk, and you’re worried that you’re going to get automated out, you can have some digital upskilling, for example, so you feel future-secure in getting jobs. That’s the kind of thing that we do. It’s very much about the outcomes.

I understand from the panel you were speaking at yesterday here at the AVPN that the foundation has shifted its focus from scholarship provision to larger scale online learning. What did that entail and why was it so important?

We had a big scholarship programme involving 1,200 people, and although we were really proud of that, we had deep concerns about the thousands of young people that we rejected from the programme, plus the hundreds of thousands who didn’t even get a chance to apply, so we wanted to do something that was more than working with a few select individuals, but could actually lower the barrier on a system level.

Online learning helps us do that and it also ensures that the most recent learning modalities and work modalities are at the fingertips of these young people, because if you’re offering a degree programme with zero online component, you’re releasing these young people into a work world that’s hybrid , so we need to make sure that they’re prepared to work together online and face-to-face.

I presume 2019 to 2021 was a pivotal moment because of the shift to online?

We were very lucky because in 2019 the Ministry of Education here had already released a document to accredit online learning fully. Couple that with the fact that we had already worked with MIT, AUV, the American University of Cairo and Arizona State University. We had all the right partners helping us learn how to do this right, and then it was a matter of sitting down and understanding the needs across the country and across the region.

One of the biggest things was the need to create a consortium so that we could have a critical mass of universities offering this together and leaning on one another, and doing it in partnership with the Ministry [of Education] so that it won’t feel like it’s a foreign thing to get accredited and that we’re all on the same team. So we developed that with the Ministry and nine universities locally.

Collaborating with government is a notoriously challenging thing for foundations, but the potential can be very significant. How did the conversations go?

It was slow to start, like anything else. It was knocking on doors, asking for meetings, having conversations, being at conferences where the government was speaking until eventually, we got a meeting with the Minister. My boss was instrumental in that because he’s willing to be at the meetings, he’s taking the time to be there and that signals to everybody else that we’re very serious. We eventually signed an agreement with the Ministry and the universities and we launched.

We developed a nice working relationship where we were all on the same team. We all wanted online education to work effectively, and the fact that emergency online education had to come up meant that the universities, even some of them that were more hesitant, suddenly jumped into the boat and said, ‘okay, let’s learn together.’

Was there an issue of ensuring internet access?

The universities in the UAE were super blessed because there’s so many systems in place to protect from digital divides. But when we were working in Lebanon or Jordan, for example, we weren’t assuming that people had broadband connections, we needed to make those provisions and we did that with our local partners.

So the model you is now being applied in other countries around the Gulf and Middle East region?

We have some adoption of our approaches and we’re very pleased with that, especially with NOMU, which is our short-term training programmes that offer a certificate recognised by industry – a cyber-security certificate, a storytelling certificate, or a nano degree in UX design. We had a very, very big success in the UAE where we launched under the SDG umbrella and we ended up with 22,000 young people on the programme in two years. We’ve now launched that in Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon with partners there because they like this market-driven job placement approach to upskilling where job placement is part of the programme, so NOMU has been very successful.

You and the foundation are advocates for a strategic approach to philanthropy, which has at its heart impact and measuring impact. Where does that drive come from?

First, I come in from a teacher’s lens and one that cares deeply about young people’s success, and in this case, that means getting a certificate and getting a job. His Excellency is a banker, so he needs to be able to count KPIs, that helps a lot too. Also, I was often hired in the past to do independent evaluation of programmes and there were many times when I found that funds could have been more efficiently used. When we help to make sure those funds are efficiently used, we get better results for the young people that we’re helping.

Accountability is not an ugly word. It should be welcomed by everybody because in a good evaluation report, you say: here’s category ‘a’, here are all the things that you’re doing extremely well. Here’s category ‘b’, here’s your blind spots, this is where you can do better. Here’s category ‘c’, you’ve got to stop doing this stuff because here’s the waste. And if you can do that, then everybody can improve, whereas most people look at evaluation and think, ‘oh, they’re going to turn off my funding,’

I can think right now of one partner, a smaller NGO in Lebanon, and they just were really bad at financial reporting, but rather than cutting them off, we decided we would train them and because we did such a good job, they were able to unlock even more funding because they could show that they were so efficient. Deciding you’re in it together makes a huge difference, it’s then joint accountability. I need them to succeed, I’ve invested in them.

What do you make of this big shift in Western philanthropy, exemplified by MacKenzie Scott, to giving money without any strings attached?

If you come from the Arab region, trust-based giving where I’m going to give you a pot of cash because you’re in need happens. It has been happening for centuries because that is Islamic giving. There is room for that, just like there’s room for charity, which we are not. But what we’re saying is there’s also room for this brand of strategic philanthropy that says; there are systemic problems and we are not just here to do emergency relief, we’re here to work with others to try and make this not be a problem any more. If that’s what you want to do, you need to offer intelligence as well as funds, you need to give it your time. 

Abdul Aziz Al Ghuariar
(Chairman, Al Ghuarair Foundation)

So, although it’s very generous of MacKenzie Scott and others to do what they’re doing, I think that what our family foundation does is harder because in addition to giving money, they give their time, influence and intelligence which arguably is a much more precious resource. 

As CEO, you’re navigating between a family who are actively involved in the foundation, but also a professional staff team. How have you found that over the last four years, five years?

There’s about 30 people in the team and they are a fantastic group who I get to build, and I’ve been given a lot of freedom over that. He has made it very clear that one of the reasons he hired me is because of the levels of experience I have in the domain, as well as a doctorate. Do we disagree on things? Absolutely. We can disagree and we’ll end up bringing in an expert to help us figure something out.

The same with my teams. They will sometimes tell me ‘no’ and I’ll say, ‘okay, why and how can we make this work?’ It’s good to have that debate because it makes you much more laser-focused on your justifications and making sure that you’ve got the right solution and the right partners. I’ve had to get different partners sometimes, and then we were able to move forward. That dialogue helps.

One element you also talked about is partnership. How do you see partnerships developing between countries in the Gulf and countries that AVPN may be more traditionally associated with?

I’m super excited about it. First of all, I’m a big proponent of south-south partnerships. Second, because education is so important to me I follow all of the international tests, and Asia is leading on a lot of this, so I’m excited to learn more about how Asian philanthropies are operating – are there similarities, can we work closer together? We’ve had a few meetings and I’m very excited on the follow-ups.

What’s inspired you so far?

We’re always looking to find a detailed small project to start with, or even have an exchange of operational procedures so that we can figure out are we doing the best possible work that we can do. We already have that with some of the western philanthropies like Gates who’s very generous in sharing their operations, but I’d like to see more south-south partnerships evolve. We had a really good meeting earlier today with the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and I’m hoping we’ll have more of those kinds of interactions.

Are there examples of new programmes you’re working on?

We are releasing an Education Relief Fund to alleviate the Palestinian university students who were studying abroad in the neighbouring countries and who are in their final year, but because of the conflict they’ve been cut off from financing from their families. You can imagine what it’s like if you’re on a student visa and suddenly you’ve got no support. You’ve done all that work and now you’re about to lose your residency, you’re about to lose everything.

This Relief Fund will allow them to finish that final year so that they can get a job. We’ve been working on it for a while, and his Excellency is very supportive of making sure that all students, no matter what their condition, get to finish their education and the priority focus now is on the young people who are in the health sciences.

You’ve given an example of one role philanthropy can play to at least alleviate some of the issues caused by the conflict in Gaza. What other roles could it play? Is it fundamentally a humanitarian relief role or do you think it has a role in fostering community-based peacebuilding?

All of those are possible. I think different philanthropies are going to follow their core values. The Forest Whitaker Foundation, for instance, does amazing peace and reconciliation work. We do very specifically education to elevated livelihood work, Gates Foundation is more health work, We need to have better connections so that we can make sure that we’re all working in one direction which is the SDGs, so that we can work more collaboratively and with more collective impact.

But the needs are increasing and it’s going to be about what you can bring to the problem and can you unlock other people’s goodwill for those who are in need? I think that’s really the bottom line.

How do you see female leadership in philanthropy both in this country and in the region emerging?

I don’t give it a lot of thought. Because I often walk into board rooms where I might be the only female, or one of two, I always go back to doing my job well. I don’t feel intimidated because my boss has my back. I’ve had to say ‘no’ to situations where somebody makes an ask of us that’s outside of our scope, but has a lot more power than I do, and then I call him and tell him how I responded and why, and he’ll say, ‘that’s correct, you did it right.’ Because our scope is clear, because our protocols are clear, I know what I’m supposed to do and I know that he’s not going to run me over because of it.

At Alliance, we’ve published a range of viewpoints from female philanthropy leaders around the world on the question of whether there should be gender quotas on foundation boards. What do you think?

I don’t know that quotas really do much except for make people angry sometimes. But it’s not about, you know, having females on, it’s about having the right, appropriate diversity on your board. Right? I mean, I can look at some boards and go: they’re quite ageist, my board is not ageist, I have, you know, I have younger people and older people on my board, and that gives me some very nice insights into different parts of the community.

I think you do want diversity on your board. But it’s not about a quota, it’s about asking why do you want that diversity? What kind of diversity? Who are you serving? We have advisory committees and roles, for example, an advisory youth committee. That is very blended and very young because that’s who I serve. When we close those doors, they tell me I’m wrong a lot because I’m not young like they are. That’s valuable.

Charles Keidan is the Executive Editor at Alliance

Data and image source:
NO Comment 27th June 2024

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