Kuwaiti Humanitarianism: The History and Expansion of Kuwait’s Foreign Assistance Policies
Kuwait’s self-perception as a humanitarian and benevolent country is often at odds with public opinion of Muslim countries in the West, which remains focused on the financing of terrorism, the propagation of Islam, and other “undemocratic” political positions. This policy brief will discuss the history and rationale behind Kuwait’s emergence as a global actor in humanitarian relief and development assistance, and will conclude with a discussion of future challenges. As the lines between charity, relief, and development become increasingly blurred, this brief will provide an overview of Kuwait’s changing policies, highlighting the activities of select - and in many ways intertwined – state and civil society institutions. The six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are among the world’s most
generous providers of foreign assistance, yet these financial flows remain an understudied example of South-to-South aid. Kuwait is often analyzed along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as one of the top three Arab donors that provide more than 90% of Arab Official Development Assistance (ODA).
Yet Kuwait, which is still considered a developing country, while also ranked “very high” in the Human Development Index, has a unique history and foreign policy that led the vulnerable young state to develop the first national development fund in the region immediately after its independence in 1961.6 “Kuwaiti exceptionalism” has been extensively studied –Kuwait has free elections, a parliament, and a relatively free press, whereas other Gulf monarchies do not. Herb argues that the Kuwaiti National Assembly gives the citizen majority a voice in determining economic policy.7 More recently, Kuwait’s charitable contributions, in particular to Syria after 2011, led the then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to name the small Gulf country “an international humanitarian center” and His Highness the Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah a “humanitarian leader” in 2014. Kuwait hosted three international humanitarian and donor pledging conferences for Syria (in 2013, 2014, and 2015), during which Kuwait’s total pledges reached USD 3.8 billion.8 The Islamic International Charitable Organization (IICO), one of Kuwait’s oldest and best established transnational
Muslim NGOs, set up “model villages” for Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.9 Kuwait, however, has been heavily criticized for not opening its own borders to refugees, even though Syria is separated from the Gulf states by an expansive desert, and the high cost of living and bureaucracy do not make these countries choice destinations for refugees.10 Syria, in addition to Iraq and Yemen, continues to be one of the top recipients of Kuwaiti donation
Kuwait has also given considerable foreign assistance to Africa, highlighted by its hosting of the third Arab-African Summit in 2013 on the theme “Partners in Development and Investment.”11 At that conference, USD 1 billion was allocated from the parastatal Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development to finance development projects in Africa for a period of five years, in addition to an equivalent amount of USD 1 billion to be invested in Africa by the Kuwait Investment Authority, the world’s oldest sovereign wealth fund. Kuwait also announced the Abdul-Rahman al-Sumait Award for Development Research in Africa, named after the legendary Kuwaiti doctor who founded Direct Aid (previously called Africa Muslims Agency) in 1981. Direct Aid, Kuwait’s largest non-governmental organization dedicated almost exclusively to working in Africa, is active in 30 African countries, and now also in Yemen.
The annual Sumait prize of USD 1 million is “to honor individuals or institutions who help to advance economic and social development, human resources development and infrastructure on the African continent.”12 There is currently a campaign coordinated by Kuwait’s NGOs with support from the state to assist Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Nigeria with drought and famine relief.
Nevertheless, Kuwait’s ranking as a donor country is difficult to determine. The First Report of The State of Kuwait on Foreign Humanitarian and Development Aid, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015, states that Kuwait was ranked first among Gulf countries. However, it was ranked 14th out of 20 countries internationally by the British organization Global Development Initiatives in the 2014 report on international humanitarian aid.
In 2013 Kuwait’s development aid comprised 1.3% of its GDP, which exceeds the 0.7% recommended by the United Nations (a goal most Western donors do not reach). Kuwait thereby ranked first among Gulf states and second internationally in regards to the most generous countries to offer international humanitarian aid in 2013 as a percentage of its GDP. According to Global Humanitarian Assistance, which uses United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) Financial Tracking Service (FTS) data, Kuwait is the third largest Gulf donor in absolute terms, after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, when examining overall volume of humanitarian aid among Arab donors between 2000 and 2010.
Unfortunately, available methods for tracking development assistance developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) do not always capture the sum of all Arab aid. Major Gulf donors have different understandings of aid and report only partial information, if they report it at all. Whereas the OECD only counts public aid in the country’s “official” development assistance, many Arab countries have a fluid understanding of public and private aid, as many “non-government organizations” receive some funding from the government in addition to private donations. Religious aid is also excluded from the OECD reporting, whereas zakat, an obligatory alms of 2.5% of wealth and one of the five pillars of Islam, is an important source of Kuwait’s domestic and international assistance.15 Barakat and Zyck include in their definition of “Gulf state donorship” bilateral and multilateral ODA as well as private contributions to foundations or zakat funds.16 They note that Gulf ruling families and general populations have given generously and actively to charity outside formal, state-controlled channels. Kuwait is not a member or an observer member of the DAC, but it does report its assistance data, and there is some discussion within Kuwait’s ministries of Kuwait joining the DAC.17 Kuwait is also a signatory of the international conventions of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action and was committed to the Millennium Development Goals and now to the Sustainable Development Goals.