The scenes in front of him were disturbing – heavily pregnant women trekking through dangerous terrain to consult a doctor more than 20 kilometres away. Malnourished women and children drawing muddy water for cooking from a dirty pond. Toddlers and babies playing in the dirt while their older brothers and sisters sat around despondent. Twenty-year-olds who looked in their fifties due to malnourishment and ill-health...
It was in 2009, the first time Professor Izhar ul Haq, then president of Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology (Szabist) in Karachi, had been to Gharo village – a rural area near where he was living in Sindh, Pakistan – and it was a visit that would change his life.
The now 49-year-old dean of the College of Computer Information Technology at the American University in the Emirates (AUE) in Dubai says, “The place wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen before. It was shocking to learn that children were dying from hunger and disease. Maternal death rates were high because there was no proper medical support for complicated deliveries. I couldn’t imagine that this was happening in the 21st century. While in one part of the world we have everything, in a neighbouring country are people who have literally nothing. It makes your heart weep. That visit truly shook me up.”
Simple idea, big pay-off
Determined to do something about it, he remembered a project he’d come up with
while working at Ajman University in 2002. “We wanted to engage all the youth on the campus interested in charitable work, and devised a project called One Dirham,” he says.
“It was simple – collect just Dh1 from a student every day, money they would probably spend on a chocolate or a coffee. At the end of a month, the sum collected would be enough to make a difference to someone’s life in a poor country.’’
There was, however, one problem with the idea; only registered charitable institutions in the UAE could collect money. They approached other organisations to implement the idea but there were no takers. However, there was little doubt that the project was a prize-winning one. “It won the first prize for innovative ideas in the UAE in 2002 in a competition called the UAE IT Challenge organised by the Higher Colleges of Technology,” says Dr Izhar.
“We were invited to conferences and talks, and that gave us the opportunity to engage the public too, and not just students.” They then approached the Red Crescent, the international humanitarian movement. “They were very happy with the project, endorsed it and offered to support us,” he says.
As the project was not a registered charity as required, Prof Izhar came up with the idea of putting up boxes with the sign of a coin in malls asking people to donate a dirham, which was given to local charities. He also started asking for used books, which were collected and shipped to libraries in poor countries.
“The Higher Colleges of Technology supported us here. They donated a lot of books that we sent to Somalia in 2003. In fact, we managed to open three libraries there. We also sent books to the University of Hargeisa, a public university in Somaliland’s capital, and the University of East Africa who were so pleased that they sent us a letter of appreciation.”
The One Dirham Project also collaborated with IBM, which donated routers and computer peripherals for schools in Africa.
“The project was also entered into international competitions and we were invited to Rome to participate in the Rome Global Junior Challenge, and our trip there was sponsored by the HCT,” he says. “It was voted second best. We were also invited to the UK to participate in the UK Child Net Award and won the second prize.”
The project raised funds for organisations such as the Red Crescent, which it could do, because no money was handled by the administrators of the project.
A new focus
When Dr Izhar moved to Canada in 2003, the project slowly lost steam and fizzled out. After a six-year stint in Canada, Dr Izhar moved to Karachi, Pakistan, as president of the Szabist university. It was there that the seed for the second innings of the One Dirham Project was planted.
“My travels around the villages was an eye-opener for me, and I was moved to do something for the suffering children,” says Dr Izhar. He organised health camps for poor people in these villages, and also helped set up a few rudimentary schools in rural areas using his own savings.
The plight of the people affected him enough to start thinking of the old project, with an emphasis on healthcare and education for underprivileged children in developing countries and providing potable water in areas that were lacking wells or tanks.
When he moved to Dubai to take up the post of dean at the AUE in 2011, Dr Izhar decided to revive the project in a different form. “I spoke to my colleagues, Dr Apollos Goyol and Tahir Qureshi, assistant professors, and Shahid Ali Chaudhary, instructor at AUE,” he says. “We decided to concentrate on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal No 2: To achieve universal primary education by the year 2015. This would be the goal to collect funds for.”
The statistics were alarming – approximately 93 million children around the world were deprived of education.
“It struck us that only through education can we really combat poverty… The one Dirham idea no longer applied as we wanted to make it a global project not limited to the UAE,” says Dr Izhar. One Coin is a global currency; it can be a dirham, dollar, yen, rupee and every other currency in the world.
“Everything we do now has a global impact, with everything and everyone becoming increasingly interwoven and interconnected,” he explains. “We wanted to focus on universities because students are the ones who truly know the value of education. One Coin is for everyone who feels the need in their heart to help the poor and the underprivileged.’’
He plans to target students around the world – one million of them to start with. “It is for the same reason they are studying – to make a better future and be a productive part of the whole society.”
Dr Izhar and his team of founding members – including Ali Suliaman Al Tahir, a businessman based in UAE; Prof Greg Maguire, chairman, CEO and co-founder of BioRegenerative Sciences Inc based in the US, and Dr Tahir Masood, an academic based in Pakistan, and Khawla Al Lootah, CEO of the Khawla Lootah group of companies – want to pursue all avenues to make One Coin succeed.
“We want to launch a Micro-charity Day, like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, to support the underprivileged,” he says. One Coin has already been registered in the UK as a charity.
The reason Dr Izhar and his team of friends are optimistic that One Coin will succeed now is advances in technology. Facebook and LinkedIn have so many users that tapping into even a very small percentage of them will result in accruing huge amounts.
“We already have more than 2,000 members from across the world within just six weeks of launching One Coin. Apart from students, CEOs, executives, businessmen, professionals, and even a high-level dignitary from the UAE have committed to this project.”
Dr Izhar has worked out a method of donation for One Coin. “We have many options now, for example: Dh1 a week, which will be Dh52 a year, Dh1 a day, which is 365 coins a year; and another option, donate Dh1,000 a year,” he says. “People used to laugh at us when we asked them to donate Dh1. They’d say, ‘why Dh1, we’ll give Dh1,000!’ Which is why we added the Dh1,000 option.”
Dr Izhar feels that his target of one million students is easy to reach. “There are about 42,000 students in the UAE alone,” he says. “If we include the GCC countries, we can generate more than one million students interested in donating one coin a day. This would be less than 0.2 per cent of Facebook users. I think with technology at our disposal we can engage students internationally who are well off. It can become one of the biggest projects to educate children, and equip them to earn their keep. It’s not going to be charity for food.”
The One Coin project is also looking at other ways to alleviate the problems in the areas where their educational efforts will be focused. “We are working on a wind turbine project – for which we are also trying to tie up with Masdar in Abu Dhabi – that will go to providing energy in these villages, and also set up health clinics,” says Dr Izhar.
“So wherever we set up or adopt a school, a wind turbine will be set up to provide electricity if it is not available, and also health clinics to safeguard the students. A water purification system will be incorporated into the system. We’d like to turn them into model villages that are self-sufficient and sustainable.”
Dr Izhar plans to run a lean operation. “We’ll engage people who are already working in this area like legitimate charitable organisations running schools for the underprivileged in the countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan and India initially. As we grow we’ll move to other countries too.”
The concept is already making waves, with Dr Izhar and his team having been invited last year in December to talk about their project at the North South Forum 2012 in Morocco; the Forum on Asian Perspective on Transforming Societies through Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Malayasia; and e-AGE 2012.
But for Dr Izhar and his team these are just a means to an end. “When children are out there dying and with no way out of a situation they are not responsible for, you don’t stop to think of whether it will work, or how much effort it will incur,” he says. “You just have to go all out and make it work.”