When disaster strikes, if there is one word that should characterise relief responses, it's "fast".

Accordingly, when in the past two years the world witnessed several natural disasters, the Hidaya Foundation reacted with a swift and comprehensive response.

Now this US-based charity organisation is aiming to go one step forward — from "fast" to "faster" — by establishing its field headquarters for international aid in Dubai at Dubai Aid City (DAC).

In an exclusive interview with Weekend Review, Hidaya's president and founder Waseem Baloch explains why Dubai is "the ultimate choice" for such a move.

The organisation

Hidaya is a non-profit organisation based in Santa Clara, California, which aims to implement educational, social welfare and charitable projects in economically depressed areas of Pakistan, India, Bangla-desh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, West Africa and North America.

It was set up single-handedly in 1999 by Baloch, originally an engineer in Silicon Valley who worked in the aerospace, defence and telecommunications industry for almost two decades.

However, the idea has its roots in his experiences as a teenager, and one that he held on to for several years until its culmination as Hidaya.

In 1972, during a summer vacation in Karachi, he went on a ride with his uncle around the city after monsoon rains had struck hard.

"All the huts and shanty towns were destroyed, and I was in the car looking at other children sitting on the street with a few pots and pans, and they had lost everything," he recalled, "and for several miles, I rode with my uncle and witnessed the destruction. It impacted me so much that I wasn't able to sleep that night. I remember I found myself crying and praying that Allah would use me to serve His creation."

Two years later after a major flood in Pakistan affected thousands of people in Sindh and Punjab, he went knocking door-to-door with his friend, requesting people to donate basic survival items, which he then collected and distributed to the victims.

Today, more than three decades later, he and his team are executing the same project on a much larger scale in the form of container shipments.

Other projects include sponsoring students and schools in deprived regions, distributing Zakat to widows, orphans and elderly, supporting marriages of destitute girls, the One Million Meals project, being on location as soon as disaster strikes, and providing medical support for underprivileged patients and hospitals.

But it is the container shipment project that led him to consider DAC as the place for Hidaya's field headquarters for international aid.

Asked how the idea originated, he first explained that in the past two years Hidaya has been on the move for providing relief in disaster-stricken areas.

"We have been helping people in disaster-struck areas for all the catastrophes that took place: in late 2004 after the Asian tsunami, we activated our team; then we went to Sri Lanka in 2005, and right after that there was a drought in Niger. We also took action after the October 2005 Pakistan earthquake, as well as recently in 2006 after the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia. At one point we bought close to 8,000 tents from China and other survival items. During the Pakistan earthquake we sent 47 containers from the US and China in the first 11 weeks."

Number of factors

"But the challenge we faced," he continued, "was that due to a number of factors we had trouble getting to the scene of action quickly. First, we are based in the US, pretty far from the scene of the action and secondly, things were sometimes getting stuck at the disembarkation ports."

He attributes this problem to the lack of proper facilities and procedures in these areas.

"My finding was that all those ports and countries do not have the capability to move the cargo fast, nor is there an easy availability of materials in those places. In fact, during the Pakistan earthquake we bought biscuits, dates, water and some blankets, etc. from Dubai. We also sent about 1,000 tents from Southern China to Dubai first, and then flew the stuff from there to Pakistan."

"Dubai," he noted, "is an international market and everything is available there. Moreover, most of the disasters and hence destruction have been taking place around that area, and our field headquarters for aid have to be at a place where supplies are available freely and are moved faster."

He reiterated that the US is not feasible distance-wise, and explained that basing the headquarters in a place like Pakistan was not an option either because it would result in a number of logistical problems.

"Dubai is a central place with a free port, and hence it is the ultimate choice," he said.

Strategic location

In December 2005, Baloch visited Dubai and learnt about Dubai Humanitarian City (DHC).

Prior to that, in October 2005, under the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Dubai Holding and Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporations had already agreed to merge DAC and DHC, "creating the biggest aid facilitator of the region" located in the Jebel Ali Free Zone (www.dhc.ae).

With its strategic location and cooperation from other business sectors, DAC provides relief organisations with a unique opportunity to come together and collaborate in providing aid.

Baloch and Hidaya's Board of Directors decided to seize this opportunity. Because Hidaya Foundation has experienced rapid growth since its inception in 1999, he decided it was best to make a move to Dubai as he felt it would ease and quicken the process of shipping materials and aid to disaster victims.

Currently, he is completing the registration paperwork and has requested office and warehouse space by the beginning
of 2007.

Through DAC, Baloch also hopes to expose his organisation to other countries in that region. Although Hidaya is well known in North America, it has had relatively little exposure in the Middle East and Arab world, despite its achievements.

Social welfare

The container shipment project, a momentous task on its own, is only one aspect of Hidaya's programmes.

Baloch explained that Hidaya prioritises education, but in the process of attempting to counter illiteracy he discovered that "when people don't even have one proper meal, how can they worry about education? Hence we spend time towards social welfare and healthcare as well."

In 2005, the foundation raised close to $4.4 million in donations.

After Hurricane Katrina, Hidaya has also taken the initiative to form a Disaster Preparedness Team.

Presently, it is undertaking a pilot project in "training Muslims to respond quickly and effectively in case of disaster to help themselves, their families and their neighbours", said Osman Ergene, a Hidaya employee who is at the forefront of this initiative.

Although primarily this training is limited to local and national communities, this is a project that Baloch and his team hope to implement internationally, including the Middle East.

Dubai will play a key role in this regard. By establishing a presence there, Baloch also aims to encourage Muslims in and around the region to "participate in such projects".

He added, "People will also realise that in the international arena there are Muslim organisations too which work hard in serving humanitarian causes."

The move to Dubai will, therefore, enable Hidaya Foundation to grow by being in a strategic location, in a safe environment, among other key organisations. But most significantly, it will allow Hidaya to better live up to the expectations of the many victims who, when struck by a disaster, expect relief to arrive — and arrive fast.

For more information on Hidaya and DAC, visit www.hidaya.org and www.dubaiaidcity.ae