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A light in dark places

Bill Corcoran, president of ANERA—a non-profit group providing health and development programmes in the Middle East—works to improve the well-being of people, mainly Palestinians

  • 11-year-old Fatima Tuman takes a violin lesson at the Gaza Music School inGaza City, which ANERA has supportImage Credit: Supplied
  • The IT Centre at Al Quds University, built by ANERAImage Credit: Supplied
  • A music teacher shows instruments to preschoolers in ANERA’s Early Childhood Development ProgrammeImage Credit: Supplied
  • Bill Corcoran, president of ANERAImage Credit: Supplied
Weekend Review

Bill Corcoran is happy to be doing what he does today. "I'm thrilled and fortunate to have the job that God allows me to do every day," he told me while we were sitting at a small café in one of the busy streets of downtown Abu Dhabi.

Corcoran, president of ANERA—a non-profit group providing health and development programmes in the Middle East that works to improve the well-being of people, mainly Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan—was in Abu Dhabi to shed light on what the organisation has been doing in the Middle East for the past 44 years.

The organisation's projects vary from small ones, such as teaching families how to raise their own chicken, to big projects, such as building schools and mentoring teachers on early childhood development.

This past fiscal year alone, ANERA delivered $65 million (Dh239 million) worth of programmes in the region. This year, ANERA is hoping for $70 million and is trying to reach out to people in the Middle East to chip in.

Corcoran spoke to Weekend Review about ANERA's work, the challenges they face and how they plan to raise more money in future.


How did ANERA start?


ANERA was founded after the 1967 war. The desire was for Americans to show their generous side in trying to solve some of the humanitarian problems of the Middle East. The organisation, for the past 44 years now, has concentrated on health, education and economic development. We don't involve ourselves in political advocacy. It's primarily trying to better the situation first of Palestinians and also the people who have been affected by the Palestinian situation. As a result we work with the Lebanese and Jordanians, and in a recent case we're working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. However, we only focus on three places: Palestine, Lebanon and Jordan.


What are the challenges you face with the nature of the work you do?

The greatest challenge is always money; it's always going to be, because there's so much to do in the Middle East. When you look at the poverty here and the damage from violence, money is always going to be a question. We could easily double the amount of money we have right now and we'd still be in need. The second problem for us is working in Gaza and the West Bank, and it's just because it's so difficult working under occupation.


Can you give us an example of how it can be difficult?

The United States government about seven months ago gave us money to do some water and sanitation projects in Gaza. We were very excited and they said they had already cleared it with the Israelis. Well, unfortunately that doesn't mean you can get the supplies in, so we have the authorisation but it's taking more than seven months to get approval for pipes, cement and everything else we need for the projects. Even though the US government coordinated directly with the Israeli government, we still have to wait seven months or more.

The other thing that is difficult is that we have a number of projects we would like to do with our own money — repair schools, hospitals and clinics — but we can't do it because we can't get the materials in. The only reason we're getting the materials in Gaza now is because it's a US government-approved project. For the other projects we'd like to do, Israel won't cooperate. So we're very limited in that the control over the border for cargo shipments into Gaza is still very strict.


Is it as difficult in the West Bank?

The West Bank is a little better but it's still very slow there. Into the West Bank this year we shipped in about $15 million worth of medicine and another $15 million into Gaza. That comes through the Israeli port Ashdod, so they do cooperate on certain things.


What are some of the projects you are working on at present?

One that we've had for a number of years and that is one of our signature projects is Milk for Preschoolers. It's in Gaza and it's aimed at children who are between 3 and 6. We've found that there's a massive amount of anaemia in Gaza, because they're not able to eat right.

We're combating that. We're bringing in fortified milk and fortified biscuits and feeding them once a day in the preschools. We have a partnership with 150 preschools and we feed about 20,000 children every day. With that we've been able to reduce the amount of anaemia in these children by half.


How much does such a project cost?

Almost $2 million a year. Some years the Qatari government pays for it. Other years the Kuwaiti government pays for it and then a lot of individuals chip in. That [project] is pretty simple. We'd like to get away from that eventually and do more long-term investments, but you can't if children are getting damaged and are not getting enough food on their plates. Those things we're going to have to keep doing for some time.

At the other end of the spectrum we're building a $3-million engineering facility at Al Quds University. We raised the money and we're overseeing the total construction and then we'll hand it over to Al Quds University. It's going to be for training students in three different types of engineering. They think they can turn out about 100 students graduating a year in that. It will be tremendous for them.


Is it tough raising the money? Where does most of the money usually come from?

Yes, it is. It has been particularly tough in the past couple of years because of the economy. The other thing is that back in America, we have to convince people that if they give money to us it's not going to hurt them, meaning it's not going into the wrong hands. Very little of the money comes from the Middle East, which is partly why I'm here. We just need to be better known here and we're starting to work on that. We've just released an Arabic website and now we're doing a lot of our material in Arabic too.

The majority comes from people in the US and, interestingly, the majority is not Arab in background. Probably 50 per cent or a little more are non-Arab Americans.


Is it tough working away from politics in a situation that is so affected by it?

It's very tough. You can't do anything in the Middle East right now that is not considered political, and so we're always going to be in a delicate position. What we try to say is, we're not trying to point fingers or cast blame, we're trying to find solutions on a humanitarian basis.


How are you trying to get more money from within the Middle East?

We're going to start advertising in the Gulf so people visit the Arabic website and get to know who we are. We have some new members on the board of directors and we made a special point of bringing in people who have worked in this part of the world before. A large number of people in the Gulf want to do something but don't know how to. We offer them that option.


What really makes you want to do this?

People shouldn't be forced to live in these conditions and so I want to improve the lives of these people and eventually get them out of camps. That's a horrible existence for someone for 60 years. It's the longest refugee situation in the world. The other part of it is that it has had horrible effects on places such as Lebanon and Jordan. They have absorbed these populations and this hasn't helped them energise their economies or help solve their own social and political problems. Finally it's crucial to get this solved, because otherwise it's going to be an open wound in the world for years to come. For me the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis is central to solving a lot of problems around the world. So it's not just a situation of poverty, it's a situation of man-made poverty, and it doesn't need to exist.

Years ago I worked in Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami. That's something everybody can understand because that's a natural disaster. But this should not happen and we can do something about it. While the politicians are trying to get their act together, we have an obligation to these families who, for the most part, are victims and we need to give them something better.

Making a career out of helping others

  • Bill Corcoran has been the president and CEO of ANERA since January 2007.
  • He had been a vice-president of ChildFund International, serving children and their families in 32 countries.
  • During the 1990s, Corcoran directed the Pontifical Mission for Palestine based in Jordan with projects there and in Iraq. He has also worked on various projects in Lebanon and Syria.
  • Corcoran began his career in the for-profit world, with procurement and marketing management posts in major US corporations.
  • He is a BA graduate of George Washington University, with a masters in Theology from Mt St Mary's University in Maryland and a masters in Law from the University of Ottawa. Corcoran has also earned a certificate in Islamic Studies from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
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