A few years ago, the super clever leaders of Dubai realised that oil was not going to last forever. Maybe only 20 years (some scaremongers think this is so), maybe 100 years, or maybe even more than that. But whatever the number, it wasn’t forever. So, what does a country that has nothing but sand and oil (and a coastline) do in this situation? The answer: reinvent itself. Not when the crisis is all over you like a rash, but rather, long before the pain hits you, and long before it smacks of desparation.
So, they set out to create the world’s greatest tourism destination. A bit like Disneyland on steriods. It started with a world class airport that become a massive international hub. It extended to hotels and shopping malls. And now, they have everything… I mean, EVERYTHING. The have the world in a series of man made islands, visible from space. They have a ski slope, a few world class rated golf courses… everything.
But they’re even better than that! In May, they hosted a massive international humanitarian trade fair, attracting thousands of NGOs and suppliers. They are also offering aid now as well. And by 2008, they promise to have built a “humanitarian city” – probably an “upmarket” Dubai-style refugee center. With all of this, Dubai is winning the hearts of the world – especially the third world. They understand connections (like the Americans don’t!). It should stand them in good stead – because these days its not just WHAT you sell, its also WHO you are that counts!

THERE were mixed feelings at a humanitarian trade fair held recently in Dubai. On the one hand, sellers of everything from blankets to body armour were delighted to be in on a booming business. On the other, business depended on other people’s misfortunes. So, although company directors insisted that their products alleviated suffering in hellish spots (which they mostly do), they were also banking on a rapid growth in misery and disaster, particularly in Africa.
The trade fair was the largest of its kind ever. Not only that, but it was held in Dubai rather than Geneva, long closer to home for the international army of NGOs. The emirate hopes to offset its materialist image by making itself a global hub for the aid industry. Boosters, hoping to lure NGOs with the city’s tax-free status, low-cost housing for aid-workers and hotels where they and foreign correspondents can hunker down on their way to emergencies, promise that a “humanitarian city” will be available in Dubai by 2008. Geography is certainly on their side: Dubai is close to disaster-prone bits of Africa and Asia.
That a city mainly associated with luxury tourism is pitching for NGO custom, and NGOs are listening, also shows how quickly the aid business is changing. Traditional headquarters for aid agencies, such as Oxford and Bordeaux, now seem a long way, perhaps too far, from their client base. NGOs are also moving closer to Dubai’s business-oriented thinking. People at the fair traced the more hard-nosed approach back to a decade ago, when NGOs started hiring procurement officers with industry experience. Logisticians, who work out how to store and move aid, became more professional.
The change has important consequences. Shoestring aid operations, those with plenty of heart but not much common sense, are no longer welcome in disaster areas. Similarly, middlemen are in decline. A famine or an earthquake used to be a boon for traders. Now, NGOs buy directly from specialised manufacturers. Chancel International, an Egyptian-based supplier to the Red Cross and others, can ship tens of thousands of cooking kits, for instance, within hours of an order. Over the course of an extended emergency, in Darfur, for instance, it might supply several million items.
The question is whether a more business-like approach may also affect the way NGOs choose their projects. An increasing number of heretics would like to see a venture-capital examination of projects. That is not a solution in itself, they admit, but it is more likely to get a better deal for increasingly limited funds, particularly in Africa. They also want to see more MBAs hired by NGOs. A new base in Dubai, with lower costs, may help their cause.
Source: http://www.economist.com/world/africa/displaystory.cfm?story_id=E1_GJTJQDG

TomorrowToday Global