Sugar, flour, oil, tea, onions, dried okra, tomato paste and dates. Those are the basic comestibles going into packages to help needy Sudanese families prepare meals to break their fast during Ramadan in July.
In the past decade, Sadagaat, a Khartoum-based nonprofit, has gone from preparing 50 such parcels to more than 12,000 last year — and this year they aim to add several thousand more. That’s not counting their ranks of volunteers that have also multiplied over the years.
Founders say what began as an informal charity effort by Sudanese professionals living abroad has grown into an organization aiming to introduce transparency and efficiency into social work through pinpointed projects such as the Ramadan packages. At the same time, they say their homegrown, ground-up approach cultivates an ethic of giving within a society increasingly facing economic challenges.
Their efforts also now include partnerships with private firms and international groups, but the group insists that its bedrock proponents are individual Sudanese who have come on board thanks to an expanding “circle of trust.” It’s not exactly social entrepreneurship in terms of a for-profit venture solving a social problem, but the approach of drawing on private sector tactics to manage a nonprofit outfit is seen as an innovative step where chasms exist between NGOs and individual and corporate donors.
Sadagaat registered as an NGO in Sudan in 2012. Before that, the collective built its name entirely as a volunteer-run initiative. It grew out of a few factors. For one, Sudanese say their culture is wired with the deed of giving, with folks expected to go to lengths for their immediate and extended family. Through the traditional social network came social responsibilities of pitching in for weddings and funerals and supporting relatives with money or other means.
As many young Sudanese traveled abroad for their education and secured well-paying jobs, they missed out on this practice of giving, according to Anwar Yagoub, a Sadagaat founder who completed his master’s degree in the United States and is now a technical director at Ericsson in Khartoum. It also reflected a religious obligation that anchors the group’s name in Arabic, which means charitable giving outside of zakat, or the annual alms distribution required of Muslims.
“The idea started outside Sudan — for Sudanese outside Sudan to contribute an amount used for something useful, something that has a positive impact in the community,” Yagoub said recently in Khartoum.
Taking off in 2002, a group made up of senior staffers at companies as well as business owners began to roll out projects such as building mosques and purchasing food and books along with offering lectures that allowed those from abroad to share their expertise while visiting home during their vacations. Their Ramadan package program started in 2004 and has become their trademark undertaking. The urgency for their work became more apparent as those traditional networks of support — previously integral in Sudanese culture — have declined. People can’t necessarily depend on those links in tough times, any longer.
“The country is not the same as 20 or 30 years ago,” Yagoub said. “The amount of people in need is increasing every day; the gap is becoming huge; the basics are not there any more.”
The separation of Sudan two years ago hit Khartoum’s economy hard as a majority of the country’s oil fields rested in the new nation of South Sudan. Ongoing tensions occasionally flare up between the two states. Other internal conflicts within Sudan continue to cause tensions that “have oftentimes reflected grave socio-political divides across the country, exacerbated by struggle over natural resources and the socio-economic disenfranchisement of local communities,” the UN Development Program says.
Economic growth rates were estimated in the negative digits for the past two years and the World Bank reports that consumer price inflation is “a threat to the poor.” In January, inflation reached 43 percent. Poverty and income inequality persist across rural and urban regions. Finally, critics say the government’s tight grip makes it difficult for those who are not supporters of President Omar Al-Bashir’s regime to gain employment.
For its part, as Sadagaat has grown, the group has refined its model of aid. They sought to have an impact that did more than merely provide handouts and make the needy reliant on others. The idea of varied yet narrowly defined change took root and today they work in areas of health, education, food and water access, among others. Follow-up and oversight also became concerns to ensure that their resources were being used effectively.
“We never donate money,” Yagoub said. “We donate real projects, and provide those projects.”
Their precision-based programming can be seen at a government-run center for abandoned children in the Maygouma area of Khartoum. The children are considered “orphans” having been left behind at hospitals or in the streets, sometimes even in areas where garbage is piled. But unlike children whose known parents died, these offspring are born outside of wedlock and their mother and father are untraceable.
Among the hundreds of children brought into the facility, there was a 48 percent mortality rate. Sadagaat studied the situation and noted that sanitation posed a health risk to the kids. They began with some minor revamping of the kitchen and areas where medicine is stored. Then they signed a contract with a professional cleaning company that thoroughly scours the grounds on a routine basis. Group members say their efforts have cut the center’s mortality rate to less than 10 percent.
In addition to that, they have another cleaning firm that launders the center’s sheets and fabrics, because cloth was previously reused from room to room and not properly washed. They’ve also replaced a water-based air cooler, which attracted flies and germ threats, with a more sophisticated air-conditioning system to enhance the children’s health. Money to cover the expenses comes from individual donors who commit to contributing each month. Meanwhile, volunteers monitor the services.
“We’re fighting the infectious diseases through hygiene,” said Nazim Sirag, Sadagaat’s recently appointed executive manager.
Just because of their parentage context the kids needlessly suffer, “so we try at least to keep them alive, and to have a better life in this situation,” Yagoub said.
In addressing a shortage of medical resources, they have a contract with a pharmacy to provide medication and lab testing to children in hospitals suffering from cancer and kidney disease as well as the elderly who cannot afford health coverage or are in hospitals that lack sufficient supplies. Again, they stress the program is closely tracked by volunteers to ensure no one is stealing from it. They’ve also brought in medical experts from outside of Sudan, such as Ireland the United States, to train doctors and nurse in expertise that is missing within the country. Other projects include renovating schools, collecting used clothing and installing solar-based water pumps in areas outside of Khartoum.
The way they view it, if Sadagaat doesn’t step in, then it could take years and years for such work to get done. It’s about filling in the gaps, but in a way that people in need benefit directly and that eliminates any loopholes of corruption. Keeping their doors open has been key, organizers say.
“We’ve been very transparent about the money we collected, how we collect it, how we spend it — by sharing the information, by all the means of communication,” even as simply as through videos and photos on Facebook and Twitter, Yagoub said. After becoming an official NGO last year, their first full-time hire was an accountant “to ensure the transparency and that all the transaction of money is well-documented and any time, we are always open for anyone.”
From the beginning, they sought to engender a “circle of trust” because qualms existed as a result of charity groups that have swindled funds for their own designs. They depended on spreading their work by word of mouth, among friends and families, which represented that expanding circle. Because they’re so close to the ground, the group says they know exactly what needs exist and how to best spend funds.
“Now one of our main goals is to become the efficient mediator between the donors and the people who are in need,” Sirag said.
When they started a decade ago, all of their donors lived outside of Sudan. In 2012, 95 % came from within the country. That signals not just the growing circle but also another objective: getting people involved in the process.
“We’re spreading these projects so that people can be part of it and they can add impact to the community,” Yagoub said. “That is our main objective — to have this work spread among a lot of people who can give.”
They attempt to perpetuate the idea that people of any age can contribute, whether by money, skills or physical toil. In targeting youth, down to grade school students, they look to spread hope that the population can do something, to show that through time and effort — and not just sitting idle — things can change, founders say. It is, perhaps, a translation of the traditional ethic of assisting relatives into a new iteration of volunteerism. That’s where collective programs like the Ramadan package-sorting encourage people to make giving back a habit.
“You believe you’re helping the community even if you don’t have a penny,” said Sirag, who previously worked in information management systems and marketing fields before leaving his corporate job to join Sadagaat full-time. “I felt Sadagaat was like my baby… that’s why I just quit.”
Incidentally, he’s now the father of a toddler son, having met his wife while volunteering with the group. “When you ask the volunteers, they will just tell you that there’s a huge change for them. That’s why we call it ‘Sadagaat community,’ we don’t call it an organization, we don’t call it an association; we call it ‘community,’ because it’s a real community, everyone can contribute.”
Coming from the private sector and often from technical fields, the founders translated their know-how and strategic practices as they indulged in the nonprofit world. They say their backgrounds have helped bring a level of professionalism and elevated standards that might not typically be found in Sudan’s social sector. For example, they spend months doing assessments — looking at net impact, expenses and other elements — before committing to projects, they say.
That circle of trust coupled with efficiency has allowed them to attract partnerships within the private sector, too. Firms can be skeptical of NGOs who pocket funding without using it for tangible work. The circle of trust grew first amongst individual employees of big corporations participating in projects until their employers eventually approached Sadagaat to back projects.
The organization doesn’t ask companies for money but rather “to ensure there is not any room for corruption,” Yagoub said they present companies with fully defined projects, spelling out budgets and other details. The companies can then sponsor specific enterprises. Their partnerships include projects with major telecommunications companies and lately, the Bank of Khartoum is funding some 80 percent of an ear, nose and throat unit at a hospital.
Trust is hard to gain, but Yagoub said they managed to do so because of time and transparency and because there is no hidden agenda. They’re at a point where the number of requests they receive to partake in projects exceeds what they can now take on, but they seek ways to extend themselves without overexerting their capacity.
While building the concept of giving within Sudan has been a priority, another payoff to the circle of trust has been building ties abroad to support their work, at a time when they say Sudan can feel isolated from the rest of the world amid economic sanctions and embargoes. For example, they’re planning a long-term project with a Canadian foundation that works with the hearing impaired.
“We believe Sudan is being victimized by the media…I don’t think what’s been in the news is representing the real Sudan and the people in Sudan. So we’re trying to change this perception. We know it takes years and years, but one day we need to start,” Yagoub said. “So if we have a partnership with foreign foundations or international foundations and we ensure them when they come, we give them the trust they want to see and the transparency and efficiency in the work, and we deliver on our promises, I think that will change that small group. And then later this small group can later have an impact, because they will go convey what they see as a country to their friends and families. Even this, for us, is a success.”