Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development: Over 55 Years of Changing Lives of the Poorest and Least Developed

“55 years is a long time… we started with Arab countries and then moved on to non-Arab countries in Africa and Asia. You know what happened with the Arab Spring in different countries such as Syria, amongst others, where Kuwait Fund started with developmental aid, particularly in terms of building physical projects to enhance the economies of countries that we support.”

Interview with Abdulwahab Al-Bader, Director General of Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED)

Abdulwahab Al-Bader, Director General of Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED)

The Kuwait Fund has spent almost 20 billion US dollars on over 900 projects since its establishment and last year you celebrated the 55th anniversary. What are the major highlights of this 55 year duration?

55 years is a long time.  So if you look at it from the beginning, we started with Arab countries and then moved on to non-Arab countries in Africa and Asia. You know what happened with the Arab Spring in different countries such as Syria, amongst others, where Kuwait Fund started with developmental aid, particularly in terms of building physical projects to enhance the economies of countries that we support. Because of what is happening around us, we have maintained what we provide in terms of loans and assistance to the normal programs, but we have had to give more through grants to support some of the emerging needs, especially in Syria, in addition to Kuwait pledges towards Syria. I think that is one of the biggest changes that have occurred and I hope that it won’t continue because it is better to use the resources we have and our efforts to support planned development, not emergency aid. Of course, one of the changes is more involvement in social projects, in health and education, wherever it is requested, and given priority by recipient countries.

The Fund is very active globally, supporting development far beyond the Middle Eastern borders; it is being distributed into Africa and even into the Caribbean area. Talking about 2017, what are your primary objectives? You mentioned Syria, what about moving into Africa and far beyond?

Africa has a big program that is increasing; we have some commitments that Kuwait made during the African Arab summit about 4 years ago. We are fulfilling those commitments and next year will be the last year of the Kuwait pledge. That doesn’t mean it will end, it will continue and we expect increased assistance to Africa. We have doubled our commitment over the past 4 years and we are trying to maintain that level. We are doing that in more countries in Africa and new countries are being considered by us. Africa has a good part of our program and we are maintaining that strong presence.

Which countries specifically?

All of Africa, we are working in most countries; there are just a handful of countries that we have not started in, yet.

What states are the major recipients?

Senegal and West Africa perhaps, to quote non-Arab countries because Arab countries in Africa have different programs and belong to the Middle East and North Africa region, but otherwise I would say Ethiopia, Ghana and most of the countries in West Africa except Nigeria.

And apart from the African continent?

We are working everywhere, Africa, Asia, central Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America…

Can you explain the core requirements?

As long as it is a country that needs assistance and a request has been made, we will look into it. We give preference to the poorest and the least developed countries in our program in terms of presence in our operations and in terms of the terms offered, so they get lower interest and longer maturity, a grace period etc. We are open to consider requests for assistance from any eligible country. We have a limited number of countries that are excluded from receiving aid from Kuwait Fund. When I say excluded, they are well off countries; example an EC member is not eligible because even the poorest of the EC countries have received very generous programs from the EC itself. We tend to move to countries that are less privileged.

As long as it is a country that needs assistance and a request has been made, we will look into it. We give preference to the poorest and the least developed countries in our program in terms of presence in our operations and in terms of the terms offered.

Which of these sub projects in your personal opinion is very significant for the time being?

It differs from time to time and from country to country.

It is amazing when you go to an area and you build a dam, even if it is a small dam, the area will change because some dams according to the design will not only provide water for irrigation and drinking water but will provide electricity to the country. Often you go to areas where you find that your financing is doing a project that helps water activities. Sometimes you think a project is for a simple road but that road will open new areas for trade and business for a lot of families, especially for example in landlocked countries where they need to move their produce. It is very hard for me to pick one or two, I do have some favourites but they are favourites because I saw them before and after but there are so many projects that we have financed and I have not seen them all. There are so many projects that have made a really big difference. I think each country has a different priority and different demands but the tendency lately is for water related projects, they always give a good and personal result because there are a lot of projects where you don’t feel the effect as much as with water, as it is not immediately felt by the population. Sometimes there are services that you take for granted but they have come from somewhere like electricity or something like that. Some projects you can really see the difference that they make to the population, especially when you see them before and after.

Kuwait Fund KFAED
KFAED celebrated its 55th anniversary in 2016

What about the governments showing Kuwait their appraisal?

As I said, you see it on their faces. The countries have great appreciation for the projects. I remember I was in China working on an irrigation project where people of that area were living in caves because only small areas had irrigation; it was a project to open up the area, they took the people from the caves down to the valley where the water from the river upstream was directed and so they benefitted greatly. It was beautiful, I saw it before, where they were literally living in caves, growing in small areas and then they moved into an area just beneath where they could live in a normal house. You could see the smiles on their faces; everybody had 100m of area to grow their own crops. They worked on the farming areas for the government but everybody owned their own garden in front of their house and that is something that they never dreamt of before.

You are changing their lives.

Yes, it totally changes their lives. I have seen it before and after and I could never have imagined the happiness it would give. I felt it in the happiness that I had from seeing it. It was one of those times where you realise you are working in the right place.

I would say you have the best job in the world!

Yes but you have to define “the best”!

It sounds amazing but what are the real challenges that you are facing?

It is very hard to say “the best” but I am working in a job that allows me to sleep well at night. That’s the truth, when you are satisfied, you sleep well. I have no trouble sleeping! In terms of challenges, I am now head of the institution, so yes there are always challenges. First of all, I don’t want to do less of what we have done over the years, we have to increase our work, I want to  make sure first of all that we are not doing less, I want to add and provide more and that is what we are doing. We are looking at opportunities and involvement in some different areas such as what we have done in Syria, which is something that we didn’t use to do before. We came in with the government of Kuwait into some areas where we think we can help using our experience in neighbouring countries to help the Syrian communities that have emigrated. That is an area we are currently involved in. I think we have to be changeable within the environment around us. The priorities can change; we have to be open minded. We never want to set up a program that is only for one area like agriculture for example because priorities in each country are totally different, so we have to be very flexible and work according to their priorities.

Is it easy to be that adaptable?

I mean we are used to it. We can’t enforce our ideas. We are very much content with working with other countries according to their priorities. I think we have geared ourselves towards that. We never come and enforce a program on any country. We don’t want to do that because normally countries know their requirements better than we do. We just help them with that. We give them some of our experience in terms of the studies that we have for the projects, we give them advice and then it is their choice. If we think the project will fail in the end, we will not go into it.

How do you collaborate with other donors or investors?

There are different layers of collaboration, for example, within our region we have the Arab aid institutions; we meet semi-annually at the director of operations level and discuss our portfolio and every two years the heads of institutions meet. Now we have also started to meet with the DAC, the EC and USAID, we meet with them and discuss issues and exchange views. Those are mostly on an administrative level and programing level. With other institutions we have other meetings and arrangements where we agree to meet, or we meet during international meetings where everybody is present like the World Bank annual meetings for example. Sometimes we do core finance with a lot of countries and we encourage that. We always think that working with other development institutions must be complementary and never competitive. We don’t compete with each other, so if we find the chance to work together, discuss, facilitate etc. we will do so with no hesitation.

Years ago in your first interview with us you stated the following “I hope I will be there to see the Fund in 2015 and see that the Kuwait Fund is still maintaining its strong position in the region.” How would you define the Fund´s position in the region today?

The institution is moving forward and I am glad that nothing has changed our direction. Regarding working with others, I think that has increased over the years. This year we have two agreements or memorandums of understanding with different aid organisations or aid affiliates in Europe, with Switzerland and Sweden if I am not mistaken. Of course those memorandums of understanding encourage further talks looking at areas of interest i.e. countries where we can enhance our work with co-financing etc. That is what we want to do and at the same time it allows us to talk directly about any points of difference that we might face in any project later on in terms of contracting, or issues that concern the project. I think we are doing fine, discussions are going on, and we want to continue with that. We have more relations with regional institutions of course, because sometimes the country of interest is the same and we are all working in a number of them; we are working in 106 countries now and most of the others in the region have the same numbers. If we find the opportunity to cooperate we will not hesitate to capitalise on it.

Could you tell us what is your personal vision for the Fund?

The vision for the Kuwait Fund or any developmental institution is to continue working strongly and to continue working with others. We hope to God that nothing comes to minimise or become an obstacle to our work. The greater the problems around us, the less we can do for others, with a thought to Syria and what will come in 2 or 3 years when we hope that everything settles down. The requirements will be so great then, of course losing what we had done before was unfortunate but we have to start again. It is so unfortunate that we are losing time and we are wasting money on something that is being destroyed and we have to rebuild. If over the years that can be eliminated, although I doubt it can ever be eliminated, but at least minimised, so that the money that goes towards projects can see them be completed and have a long usage over a number of years, that would be fantastic. Any feasibility study you make for any project works with a date, over 20 years or 30 years for example and you assume that the project will continue for that duration. If we see that, I am very thankful. Sometimes I get very upset when we have a big program but something happens and everything is destroyed, it has happened in Yemen and in Syria. It is unfortunate. We have big programs in Yemen that were destroyed, as have some of our programs in Syria. They have to be rebuilt.

At the moment there is a trend of countries looking out for themselves and not others, we can see what is happening with Donald Trump’s election and Brexit and some countries are really focusing on themselves now and moving towards a more populistic vision. With that in mind, how do you perceive this movement?

It is very hard to say. In terms of President Trump´s election and what will happen, for now it is all hearsay because nothing has happened yet. We have to be positive. Yes, some of the issues that he discussed in his campaign were controversial but let´s hope for the best. Being a leader in office is certainly different to campaigning for election. I think he will get to understand that during his tenure. I am sure there will be some changes but the US is the biggest donor in the world and I don’t think that will change overnight. There may be some reconsideration but we have not heard of that yet. To be the leader in this world you have to be generous, you cannot have leadership without it. I don’t expect great changes. We have to wait and see. Regarding Brexit, it was a decision that I couldn’t understand. Now it has happened, I don’t see it having an effect over the next few years, I think it will take a longer time. It is not the best decision for everybody but in terms of assistance and development I don’t think there will be a change because it has been part of the policy over the years. There may be just minimal changes. I don’t see the biggest two countries isolating themselves and keeping out of the world without giving assistance. I don’t see a big change coming. There will be some shocks here and there but we have to be positive and I am positive. I am always positive.


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