LONDON — More than four decades ago, outside of Asmara, near the Eritrean-Sudanese border, a 13-year-old boy, his brothers and sisters and his mother approached a checkpoint on foot. The checkpoint and border police were besieged with Eritreans trying to flee a bloody civil war.
As the woman approached with her children, she knew she could not rely on the mercy of the officers. Only months before, her husband had managed to escape Eritrea to Saudi Arabia by pretending he was a pilgrim on the Haj. Now it was her turn to invent a story.
She told Eritrean police that she and the children were traveling to Sudan for a family wedding, and offered made-up plans for their return. Miraculously, it worked, and the family took their first steps into Sudan as refugees of war.
Three host countries and several years of displacement later, the family finally resettled in Birmingham, United Kingdom. That 13-year-old boy is now a softly-spoken man with five children of his own.
He also runs one of the largest nonprofit development organizations on the planet, overseeing a 2,500-person staff and a £110 million budget ($155.9 million).
Naser Haghamed is approaching two years into his role as chief executive officer of Islamic Relief Worldwide — an organization known in the sector for its strong, community-focused donor base, and its superlative access to even the most entrenched conflicts. Yet to sustain access to those environments, the former child refugee is still fighting many of the same invisible lines, labyrinthine processes, and brutally suspicious gatekeepers he battled as a child.
“De-risking” — an ongoing wrangle between humanitarian organizations such as Islamic Relief and the international banks in processing payments to environments deemed high risk for money laundering or terror financing — is one example.
"The areas where we’re working — Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Palestine — this is where we still have problems transferring money across," he said.
Banks sometimes block or delay payments to these regions, charge higher fees, or close accounts. And when transfers are held up, humanitarian operations on the ground can be delayed, or even canceled.
Haghamed did not mention it himself as he explained Islamic Relief's challenges, but organizations with a religious, and specifically a Muslim, affiliation have previously said they see a greater number of delays, frozen accounts, and deferred operations due to bank de-risking.
"As it stands, we still get blocked by compliance departments but on what basis, we don't know," he said.
“To be an Islamic humanitarian organization in the current climate … It’s not an easy one.”— Dr. Hossam Said, managing director at the Humanitarian Academy for Development
His colleague Dr. Hossam Said, managing director of Islamic Relief’s subsidiary training arm, the Humanitarian Academy for Development, was more forthright. “De-risking is still a threat, and will continue to be very much influenced by this wider problem of Islamophobia,” he said.
Although the problems of de-risking for NGOs has received mainstream media attention over the last couple of years, Haghamed said little has changed, and believes the issue requires government intervention: “It is a matter of changing laws around what banks are allowed to do,” he said. Citizens and organizations should have “the right to financial services, and banks should be obliged to be transparent about what they need and what they’re looking for from their clients.”
IR’s mission doesn’t risk being politicized only in the West, Said pointed out. The organization is seeing greater attempts by governments to undermine its humanitarian programs.
“A number of countries consider Islamic Relief a terrorist organization, right now it’s the state of Israel, the [United Arab] Emirates, and Egypt,” he told Devex.
“They think because we support the poor here or there, that we are against their political agenda.”
A terrorist designation not only damages the reputation of an international humanitarian organization, it can also mean reduced access to conflicts and a smaller pool of funding available in-country.
“It’s really affecting Islamic Relief, especially how we can maintain our identity as a neutral humanitarian organization, not a political organization, and at the same time [withstand] the political tension that’s there. To be an Islamic humanitarian organization in the current climate,” Said let out an exasperated laugh. “It’s not an easy one.”
It is in this context that Haghamed is tasked with steering the organization’s course through a period of reinvention.
‘Well, I started in the IT Department’
Haghamed’s first impression of Islamic Relief was as a pretty small nonprofit “that needed some computers.” Before he joined the organization in 1993, he was a software and network engineer working for a company that supplied organizations with computers and IT systems.
“So when I joined Islamic Relief as IT manager, the budget was I think around £2 million ($2.84 million), with maybe 15 employees. We were just setting up operations in field offices and in some of the European countries,” he said.
The small size of the organization meant “it was easier to move up quickly.” In the first two years, he worked in “fundraising, international programs, IT, admin … there was a lot to do, and I think many of us were involved in various areas. Then I moved on to head the commercial arm of Islamic Relief International,” known today as TIC International, which manages Islamic Relief’s retail charity shops and clothes recycling projects.
He said he and his team grew TIC “from about an £80,000 ($11,3436.8) company to about £4 million ($5.67 million),” with all the profit gift-aided back to Islamic Relief.
It was around this time that others in the organization began to take notice.
“When I was his manager, he had a lot of respect for his boss, for following instructions as agreed, meeting deadlines, so I was very happy with him,” Said told Devex.
When IR decided to set up its Humanitarian Academy for Development in order to train the next generation of aid workers, Said said he asked Haghamed to be his “right hand” man. He said Haghamed was a jack-of-all-trades, “all the finance and IT, as well as HR, everything regarding managing the academy operationally, he was doing it perfectly,” he said. Haghamed even took on the role of managing the renovation of an old house to serve as its headquarters.
After a couple of years at the academy, where Said reckons Haghamed picked up a profound understanding of IR’s direction and of what makes a good leader, Said said “I was the one who suggested he apply for CEO.”
“To have an African background, to be a refugee from Africa and lead one of the biggest international NGOs is really good, I’m really proud and obviously so lucky to have that.”— Naser Haghamed, CEO at Islamic Relief Worldwide
But Haghamed was one step ahead. Fresh off an MBA program, he applied. “It was quite competitive, but it was based on meritocracy, men or women are able to climb the ladder to become a leader of the organization,” he said.
“To have an African background, to be a refugee from Africa and lead one of the biggest international NGOs is really good, I’m really proud and obviously so lucky to have that.”
Even with more than 20 years at IR, however, Haghamed said he has been surprised at the amount of stress that comes with the position.
“The personal issues, the physical demands and the balance between work and life, including family life, it hasn’t been easy,” he said. “I knew about it, but until you experience it, it’s different.”
Others in the organization say Haghamed is doing well: He welcomes disagreement, maintains an open-door policy and, ever the IT veteran, he displays a penchant for detail and systems — almost to a fault.
“He is a very fast learner, and he wants to understand how things work and I think with the IT background, this means he is sometimes going a little too deep into the details,” laughed Tariq Abdoun, director of network and resource development at Islamic Relief.
Said agreed, adding “he’s a very humble, friendly person, and also pays attention to detail, especially financial issues. He can read finance reports and really contribute to the discussion ... I always say be careful if you include anything financial in something you give to Naser because he will know what’s right and wrong. You can’t deceive him.”
“It’s very good to have a CEO who can read figures, but it’s actually really scary if you’re a finance person,” he laughed.
Perhaps most importantly, Haghamed’s colleagues said that during meetings and discussions about the organization’s direction, Haghamed encourages debate, a crucial trait considering the myriad changes and evolutions Islamic Relief is facing and will continue to face in the near future.
A controversial restructure
Said, a member of Islamic Relief’s board of directors, unrolled a modest laundry list of challenges Naser will face in his coming years. Chief among them is the decision to decentralize Islamic Relief’s governance structure, following a trend among international development organizations toward the federation model.
“The main challenge will be making this new governance model work. We are still in this transitional time and we are moving from a specific formula, which we’ve had since establishing Islamic Relief, to a different relationship and a different formula,” Said told Devex.
IR’s leadership plans to conclude the transition next year, bestowing new governance powers on Islamic Relief’s field offices and partner organizations — more than 2,500 staff and 1,500 volunteers in more than 100 offices worldwide. The model is similar to the structure of the International Federation of the Red Cross, or the newly-transitioned Oxfam confederation structure.
“For [IR], as well as the partners and field offices, the question is how we can manage carefully this transitional time.” Managing the expectations of different parts of the organizations will be a huge challenge, Said added.
“We are hoping to formalize next year, that’s the plan,” Haghamed told Devex. He said he has “strong buy-in” from partners and affiliate organizations, but admits it’s a risky move that represents a departure from a status quo that has carried IR since its founding in 1984. Even as the transition gets underway, some on his leadership team still harbor doubts.
“I was against the federation idea,” said Abdoun, “because there are both external factors and internal factors.” Externally, Abdoun said, Haghamed has already succeeded in what he called “the first step” of designing and working hard to develop a strategy “with a clear direction.”
“The external factor I think will be a big challenge for Naser and Islamic Relief in general, it’s managing our culture moving forward.”
Abdoun explained that IR is “very proud” of its ability to be patient and “give time to change.”
“By growing slowly we tend to get to the outcome that we need. But [implementing] this strategy, with the financial and human resources that we have, the size of resources, the competition we have in the market, I think we will struggle to deliver the whole strategy,” Abdoun said, adding that one of the main challenges facing the strategy will be managing program implementation under the new governance structure.
Asked how Haghamed reacts to dissent about the best way to move forward, Said laughed. “Oh, this is a long discussion,” he said.
“He’s a very decent person, he accepts different opinions. I know this is not only a disagreement, it’s looking at the problem from different angles. He has an organization with different needs, different staff, different core [administration], so this also must be considered in the balance.”
A different donor base
Haghamed is not alone among charity executives weighing the costs and benefits of a revamped governance structure, but the organization does have a unique donor portfolio to consider. IR has so far managed to rely largely on individual donors and the global Muslim community rather than institutional funding. More than 60 percent of Islamic Relief’s funding comes from individual donors, compared with less than 20 percent for Oxfam, and less than 15 percent for Save the Children. For many within Islamic Relief, this grassroots-style fundraising remains at the center of IR’s community ethos and independence.
Haghamed wants to maintain that support, but also sees an opportunity for growth. Some organizations that have shifted toward institutional donorship have seen huge budget increases as a result of the decision.
“Where we need to focus is on corporate fundraising, that’s where our weakness is and where we want to shift,” Haghamed told Devex.
“Our institutional funding is about 20 percent of our income, and we really like for the majority of our funding to come from the public, so we’re happy with that, but where we want to forge a stronger relationship is with the private sector, with corporations,” he said.
“The risk of going more and more to corporates or governments, you will always be influenced by what the funding agent needs, and not as much by what is actually needed by the poor. This is my belief.”— Dr. Hossam Said, managing director at the Humanitarian Academy for Development
Once again, Haghamed is aware that not everyone on his leadership team feels the same way.
“I would love to continue with the grassroots approach, and instead invest more in building the trust and capacity and develop relations with communities in the West, rather than going to corporates or government funding,” Said said.
“The risk of going more and more to corporates or governments, you will always be influenced by what the funding agent needs, and not as much by what is actually needed by the poor. This is my belief.”
Abdoun and Said expressed confidence that Haghamed takes these other viewpoints seriously. Said even hinted that the board of directors is “looking at extending the customary three-year period for a CEO, because we don’t think Naser has had enough time to do what he wants to do.”
Looking more broadly at the mandate of a CEO, Abdoun identified another challenge for Naser, one that involves balancing this awareness of an increasingly competitive NGO landscape with a sensitivity to beneficiaires. He said Islamic Relief must continue to show “love to beneficiaries, it’s about giving them hope, not just giving them money, but also giving them human love,” he said.
“We need to show that, and we need to train our staff that when you work with poor people, you have to show them the dignity, we have to push our staff not just as humanitarians, but as servants to humanitarianism. At the end of the day if we haven’t done that, we haven’t done anything.”