Waseem Ahmad takes up his new position as CEO of Islamic Relief Worldwide on 17 May 2021. Here we find out more about his vision and ambition for the charity.
What will be your top priorities as our new CEO?
I will be leading on developing our new 5-year global strategy and making sure there is full commitment to it across the global Islamic Relief family. We need to follow what our country offices and downstream partners are saying in terms of priorities – for example, we are seeingrising levels of hunger and of violence against women and children.
I will also be making sure the recent governance recommendations of the Charity Commission and the Independent Commission are fully implemented across the family. And I want to maintaingood relationships with key stakeholders – including our donors, regulators and governmentpartners – all so important for achieving our global objectives.
Gender justice is one of your passions…
This year we will be formally launching the new Islamic Gender Justice Declaration, which Islamic Relief has done a fantastic job to develop. It’s important for our workforce as well as among communities that we promote and implement the good practice that we want to put in place.
We need to make sure Islamic Relief provides equal access to opportunities. We’ve taken some steps towards this – for example providing standardised minimum maternity pay across all country offices and more support with childcare – and I am determined to do more.
What are the biggest global challenges that Islamic Relief needs to address?
Global hunger and inequality are rising faster than ever thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are over 270 million people going hungry. Islamic Relief sees malnutrition in many places in which we work. We need to be ambitious and step up our efforts because every person lost to hunger is a tragedy, every life lost is one too many.
Climate change is triggering food insecurity, which in many countries is exacerbated by conflict.We are expanding our climate change adaptation programming and working hard to reduce our own carbon footprint. The pandemic has shown that we can still operate without needing to travel all over the world. We need to step up advocacy on behalf of the poorest countries thatsuffer the biggest impact when it comes to climate change, even though they are not the biggest contributors to it.
How did you get started in humanitarian work?
After I got my Masters degree in Development Economics, I started working as a college lecturer in Pakistan. I really enjoyed it, but then I came across Islamic Relief fundraising for drought–affected communities in Balochistan, a region heavily affected by climate change. This really inspired meand I wanted to contribute, so I started raising awareness and funds among students at the college and at my local masjid – taking donations for clothes and medicines for malnourished children. A bit later I spotted a job there and in 2001 I started as a Programme Officer in Balochistan.
I learned a lot from that first job. Islamic Relief taught us that when you provide emergency aid to a community you shouldn’t abandon them afterwards – you need to listen and help them achievelong-term dignity and progress.
Our drought programme started by providing food parcels, water and medicine, but then weprovided livestock and trained people to protect their livestock from illnesses. This enabled them to breed more cattle. As a result, their income doubled compared to what they were earningbefore the drought. That lesson continues to inspire me today – we stay after the emergency is over, we listen and we support the community to harness their potential.
What do you think your biggest achievement has been while Director of International Programmes?
I’m proud that we’ve supported our teams to achieve Core Humanitarian Standard (CHS)certification twice. This confirms the quality of the programming that we deliver around the globe.It helps to step up our drive towards excellence – which is one of our main values as an organisation.
Another team effort has been the development of a Global Emergency Response Fund, which helps us to respond to any emergency and get aid to communities within 72 hours.
What lessons have you learned from working in our international programmes?
In 2005 I was working in Sudan, managing a water project at a camp in West Darfur. The smallcamp could only hold about 1,200 families and more were arriving as they fled the conflict.
We had to make more shelters for the new arrivals, but our site planner was sick. So I and our doctor, teacher and engineer worked through the day and night to get the site ready. We removed the bushes, levelled the ground and prepared the space for the shelters.
When the people arrived they built their own shelters on the land we had prepared. I learned that communities know the solutions to their problems – we just need to act as an enabler. The experience also showed me the power of teamwork and pulling together, a lesson I’ll use as CEO when I work with my teams to ensure that we live up to our values in all that we do. Our values are enshrined in our faith and motivate and inspire our day-to-day work serving communities.
What does your faith mean to you and your work?
We are a faith–inspired, faith–driven global charity – we don’t discriminate between Muslims andnon-Muslims, or for any other reason. The message that Islam teaches us is one of humanity. That has driven me throughout my career, so I feel like I’m not just doing a job, I’m fulfilling the requirement of my faith and what I believe in as a practising Muslim.
When I was told I was to be the new CEO, I thought of a family I met in Somalia in 2011, during the famine. They travelled over 100 miles on foot and by donkey looking for food and water. The donkey died on the way, but they made it to Mogadishu where Islamic Relief was providing aid.
When I met them, two of their malnourished children were unconscious and a smaller child was awake on the mother’s lap. The parents believed the two older children would die so they agreed to give their youngest, healthiest child whatever food and water they could find. The older children lost their lives. The impossible, heart-breaking decision the parents had to make struck me hard. We cannot – we must not – lose a single human life through lack of food or water. This continues to motivate me to this day.
What do you think makes Islamic Relief unique?
Islamic Relief looks beyond just providing basic aid – we want to help a family get to the pointwhere they can live their life in dignity.
This means providing more than just food. It means offering support with education andlivelihoods – a holistic package. An example is our ALO project in Bangladesh. Recognised with a BOND innovation award, it uses an adapted orphan sponsorship model to make sure families get a whole support package in a sustainable way, so that they can become self-sufficient in a few years.
Our deep roots in communities also mean we can work in places where not many organisations can work. Reaching the hard-to-reach is something of which we’re proud.
What do you do in your spare time?
Life has changed a lot during the pandemic! I have a treadmill but I don’t like it – I prefer going out for a morning walk, especially in spring and summer. I have 3 children: my son is 14 and mydaughters are aged 13 and 2 years old. I like playing football with my son, who’s a Liverpool fan.
We also go birdwatching, looking for owls, buzzards and other birds of prey. When we can, we plan to go to Scotland to see particular types of eagles. I really enjoy nature, which gives you an opportunity to think and reflect.
What would you like to say to our supporters?
Since we were founded in 1984, Islamic Relief has grown into one of the world’s largest relief and development charities. It is all thanks to your generosity. With your support we have reached over 120 million people worldwide, but unfortunately our work is needed more urgently than ever. The world faces grave challenges such as the pandemic, conflict, inequality and climate change, and Islamic Relief is straining every sinew to respond.
As we do so, Islamic Relief will remain accountable to you. We will count every single pound, dollar or euro to make sure it reaches vulnerable people and is used how you intend it to be used. Our programmes are of the highest quality and our accountability mechanisms are world-class.Please continue to support the vital, life-saving and life-changing work that we are doingtogether.