In May this year, when a wave of violence swept over South Sudan and people were fleeing to Uganda, the International Humanitarian City (IHC) in Dubai, under the chairpersonship of Princess Haya Bint Al Hussain, wife of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, responded by instantly rushing over Dh1.6million worth of core relief items including kitchen sets and shelters.

When Hurricane Matthew tore through Haiti last year, the chairperson of the IHC flew to Haiti where she personally supervised the delivery and distribution of over 90 tonnes of aid for the survivors of the catastrophe.

But then rushing aid to the needy is nothing new for the IHC, the only humanitarian free zone in the world, which hosts more than 60 humanitarian entities, non-profit organisations and commercial companies. 

‘This is our responsibility. This is our humanity. And this is what future generations will judge us by,’ Princess Haya said, referring to the aid sent, in a speech at the World Government Summit in Dubai earlier this year.

Daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan, Princess Haya’s humanitarian focus recalls that of her mother, Queen Alia, who died when the Princess was two years old. 

The 43-year-old royal is well known not just for her aid work but also in the equestrian arena: She created history at Sydney 2000 when she became the first female Arab flag-bearer at an Olympic Game. At the time she was the youngest Arab and the first to compete in an equestrian discipline. 

As well as being the chairperson of the board at IHC, she was made an Officer of the National Order of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest distinction, for her humanitarian efforts. 

If there is one thing, more than any other, that the Princess – mum to Shaikha Al Jalila, nine, and Shaikh Zayed, five – would like to end, it is children going to bed hungry. 

‘There are 300 million children in the world right now who will go to bed tonight hungry,’ she said, in an exclusive email interview with Friday. ‘We must raise our voice… It’s time for hunger to end.’

Some of the world’s biggest issues – hunger among them – can be solved, with commitment from politicians and the public, Princess Haya says, as she answers questions on her humanitarian work and family life.

You once wrote about a practical joke at a baby shower – how a mum-to-be opened a greeting card that gave out a piercing cry instead of a soothing lullaby. Can you share that story with us? 

I once attended a baby shower at which, among the gifts, the mother-to-be opened a greeting card. The front of the card was innocuous enough, with a photograph of a sleeping baby and a message, ‘A baby is God’s Sweetest Gift.’ Inside, the card had a button adorned with a picture of a musical note, marked, ‘press’.

As the smiling mother-to-be pressed the button, instead of the soothing lullaby notes she might have expected, the piercing cry of a recorded baby rang out from the card. 

Everybody laughed at first, but there was no way to silence the card. Her smile quickly became a frown, she continued to press the button, but the volume of the crying increased.

‘OK, this isn’t funny anymore,’ she said. ‘Who bought this? How do I turn it off?’ The crying baby card was passed around the room as various women shook it, pressed it, hit it and eventually stamped on it. One by one, the women gave up, stumped as they failed to quiet the baby’s cries, each more piercing than the last. 

Meanwhile, the mother-to-be was becoming increasingly agitated. ‘Can someone get rid of that?’ she asked, gesturing to the crying card. What had clearly been intended as a practical joke had struck a raw nerve; no mother, or mother-to-be, can bear to hear a baby cry. One of the guests took the card out of the living room and into an adjacent bedroom. 

The thing about babies is that their cries have the power to turn mothers insane with desperation. It’s not something we are supposed to say out loud, but it cuts straight to your heart. I don’t know any mother who has not been brought to her knees by the quiet desperation of trying to soothe a crying child. Who has not found herself, in the dead of night, frantically beyond tears while a baby screamed, screamed, and screamed some more. But, as I told that mother-to-be that day, usually, the reasons for the tears are quite simple, and when we can decode the messages, most of us can soothe our children’s cries.

You’ll need to stay calm and run through a checklist in your mind; is the baby too hot or too cold? Are they dry? Do they need burping or are they crying for food? It’s almost always something simple, and they’ll usually settle once you meet that need. 

But the reason I wrote about it was that it made me think of the mothers who must listen to their babies cry because they cannot meet their needs. 

What do they do about the cries that cut through them like machetes, more relentless than that dreadful card (which, by the way, finally ran out of batteries after three hours of noise)?

The sound of a crying child is unbearable. There are no two ways about it. But what must it be like to face that sound and try to comfort your child in the desperate knowledge that there is nothing you can do to take away their pain? What must it be like for hunger to consume your own body, to barely have the strength to move, and yet to have to find the energy, night after night, to hold and rock your crying child to sleep? 

As a mother, what would you do? Would you wish for silence; send up a prayer that asks for the noise to stop; just to stop? 

We’ve all been there, but not with stakes like these. Perhaps you would pray that it would never stop, as silence could signify a far greater tragedy? 

There are 300 million children in the world right now that will go to bed, tonight, hungry. Their mothers who must look into their eyes, day after day, when they have nothing, or not enough, to give. None of us want to know these facts, to really know them. They are too raw. Too painful. 

Hard as it might be, we have to avoid the urge to build soundproof walls and electric fences around our own families, around your own consciousness: we owe it to our own children to embrace the thread of maternal compassion that unites us all as women, as mothers, as human beings. To recognise that there are mothers, far too many mothers in the world who face this terrible situation. And we must raise our voice to help them meet the needs of their children. It’s time for hunger to end. 

If you are moved to help another mother to feed her children, there are many ways to make a difference. You could donate to a food bank that supports families in your local area. Or you could support the World Food Programme, Unicef or an NGO like Save the Children, Médicins Sans Frontiers [MSF], Oxfam or CARE.

You have said ‘Hunger is the world’s greatest solvable problem’. But why is hunger still such a major issue across the world?

Hunger should not be an issue today. Politicians simply do not make ending it a priority. More than a trillion dollars is spent every year on arms worldwide, while we spend less money on international food aid than Europeans or Americans spend on pet food. 

The truth is that there has been enough food globally to feed every man, woman, and child since the 1960s. We also lose or waste 1.3 trillion tonnes of food worldwide each year. That is an amazing number. So the problem is not supply – it is mostly poverty.  

Princess Haya during a World Food Programme mission in Liberia

There are still nearly 800 million people who are so poor that they cannot afford enough food to stay healthy. We need to feed these people and help them learn to feed themselves. That is not always easy. Many have no land to farm or jobs to earn income to buy food. But we have the capacity to help them and doing so should be a far higher political priority than it is today. 

The UAE is certainly doing more than its share. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], it is the most generous country in the world, contributing 1.2 per cent of its Gross National Income [GNI] to foreign aid, and Emiratis make huge private donations on top of that government aid. If all other countries gave as much of their GNI to foreign aid, we could finally succeed in ending hunger and poverty. It’s all about commitment.  

What according to you is the biggest humanitarian crisis facing the world today?

People focus on Syria because the civil war has been going on for more than six years and it is so close to home and utterly devastating. But in terms of sheer numbers the spreading starvation in East Africa and Yemen is on an even greater scale. Up to 20 million people are facing famine in South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. His Highness Shaikh Mohammad has flown in emergency relief supplies for the United Nations and the International Federation of the Red Crescent three times in the last year to help South Sudanese refugees, and the UAE is contributing to efforts to keep the famine from spreading.  

What have been the IHC’s biggest achievements?

Practically, during the last period, there have been many achievements that we successfully accomplished. We have responded to many emergencies such as Haiti, Uganda, and South Sudan; we have dispatched hundreds of tonnes of humanitarian aid and relief; and we have succeeded in strengthening our emergency preparedness by supporting capacity-building activities and facilitating access to the humanitarian studies for young talents including Emergency Medical Teams and Master of Advanced Studies in Humanitarian Operations and Supply Chain Management.

Also, we have positioned the IHC, within the top worldwide humanitarian platforms, as the largest logistics humanitarian platform compared with similar entities in South East Asia, Europe, West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. The IHC hosts the largest pre-positioned humanitarian stocks compared with these other locations and we have made possible the co-location of the main humanitarian players. Finally, not only is Dubai one of the great logistics capitals of the world but the IHC is situated only 18km from Al Maktoum Airport and 21km from Jebel Ali Port, enabling members to move shipments from sea to air in as little as 10 minutes.

You proposed a global hub for humanitarian data on logistics and aid deliveries, and a data bank to allow governments to document their humanitarian work. How far forward has this moved?

The Humanitarian Data Bank was announced during the World Government Summit, in Dubai [in February]. It is a very ambitious and challenging project. The aims of the Data Bank are multiple. The main principle is based on ‘information sharing in real time’, enabling the humanitarian community to deliver the right items, at the right time, to the right place. The Dashboard is able to provide information on the humanitarian strategic stocks and relief items prepositioned within the IHC, thus identifying immediately any gaps. At a later stage the Humanitarian Data Bank project will encourage all humanitarian hubs to share their information on a common platform, thus avoiding duplication of efforts. We hope to have the first dashboard running by the end of this year.

How much funding is necessary to tackle the various humanitarian crises? 

In recent years, UN appeals for emergencies have been in the $25-billion range per year. Sadly, not all of that money gets raised and we have this phenomenon of the UN and aid agencies like the Red Crescent, CARE and MSF all begging the public for funds. No government is obliged to help with these emergencies, so a great deal of time and energy is wasted just trying to raise funds.  

Worse yet, people are left starving, homeless, and ill while we are running around trying to generate publicity and donations. We need a mandatory fund that all UN members contribute to so we have more of the cash we need to move fast in emergencies. It is a more rational approach. There is a UN emergency fund but it is not big enough and it is voluntary so contributions go up and down. It is not enough. 

Beyond providing aid like food and water and shelter, what more can be done to help people in crisis situations – like refugees – in the long term?

Well, the real solution for refugees rests, most of the time, in the hands of politicians. They must compromise and come to workable political solutions to end civil wars and violence. Then refugees can return to their homes and start to rebuild. I can assure you that few Syrians want to be in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. Nor do they want to be in Europe or the United States without jobs or hope. They want to go home. 

You once said ‘We have to move away from conventional ways of providing aid. Innovation is necessary for humanitarian aid’. Can you provide some examples of innovation? And how they have been successful?

There are so many really. Satellite communications and cell phone networks are hugely important in delivering aid in crises. But in the area of hunger and malnutrition, the most important innovations have been ready-to-use foods pioneered by MSF and the expanding fortification of foods. Specialised foods are so critical in helping young children recover and ward off disease when they have gone hungry for too long. Fortified foods help provide the vitamins and minerals that poor people often lack. Roughly 2 billion people worldwide suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies that can severely damage their bodies and minds.  

You have supervised the delivery of aid to Haiti among several other places. Could you share with us your feelings of being on the ground at the time? 

Haiti after the earthquake was like a war zone. It was sheer chaos – something out of a Hollywood movie. The roads were jammed, security broke down and people were armed, the airport was filled with planes flying in assistance. Even the president’s office had collapsed during the quake, and along with food, water purifiers and medicines, we flew in a caravan for him to use as an office on one of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad’s cargo planes from Dubai. 

Children’s health is also an issue close to your heart. What initiatives do you have in mind for improving the health of underprivileged children?

So many things need to be done but basic humanitarian needs come first, obviously, and it’s disturbing that we still live in a world that lets millions of children perish from starvation and millions more face unknown futures as refugees looking for safety and shelter. But we also need to look at access for children to reliable, high-quality healthcare services no matter where in the world they live. 

This was the motivation behind both the Al Jalila Foundation, which funds healthcare services, education and research, much of it with a paediatric focus, and the Al Jalila Children’s Specialty Hospital — the only specialised paediatric hospital in our region — which was opened last year as a gift from His Highness Shaikh Mohammad to the children of the UAE. 

The response to the hospital has been remarkable. Almost from the first week it opened, Al Jalila Hospital has received children from around the region who would otherwise have had to travel vast distances to access services like heart surgery, neurological treatment or mental health care. 

As more services are launched in the coming year – a specialised cancer service for children is currently under development – we hope the hospital will come to play an important role in providing hope for sick children and their families, both in the UAE and beyond.

What gives you most joy?

My family gives me the most joy. I am so proud of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad and to be a small part of his life. I am grateful every day to be a witness to his work and what he is building. To have his support and that of the wider Maktoum Family is an honour. I don’t say that for the benefit of an interview, I genuinely mean it, and looking at what they do, and how they hold above all their faith and sense of duty is something that means everything to me because it was the way that I was brought up. 

The mum of Shaikha Al Jalila and Shaikh Zayed regularly shares pictures of her family, including Shaikh Mohammad, on social media

To be able to watch your children grow up in a loving and safe country, surrounded by good people in a natural way is also part of that joy. Dubai and the UAE is a fantastic place to call home, and I feel that every day, the reaction of everyone to us, both nationals and expats, and the way the community works is really what makes it home, and that is all I have ever wanted.

What makes you sad?

Generally in my life, I see a lot of tragedy on a daily basis. Sometimes it’s through working with the hospitals that you have to deal with a car accident that has taken someone young’s life, or watch parents who struggle to save their child with cancer. Sometimes it’s on the humanitarian missions seeing those who are starving to death or facing situations that are honestly too tragic to even begin to understand. And these are the big things, but I also see, like everyone else, the suffering of people in their everyday lives. Those who have not enough money to get married, or educate their children, and struggle to make ends meet. I see people who are working here and around the world that are far from their homes and choose to work to send small salaries home to support their families. 

Princess Haya in Cambodia

Too many people have a burden that is extraordinarily heavy to bear, even when on the surface they may seem like they have an easy time. Those things make me sad, and I try to notice and to always put myself in others’ shoes and see the world from their perspective because I never want to lose touch with reality. 

What helps me cope, is that every sad thing I see, I am able to go to His Highness and ask for help, and he never says ‘no’. I have never known a person more generous or giving. And I hug my children every day, and give thanks for their father, who allows us all through his actions and response to be a conduit of his good heart. 

If you had one wish to change the world…

To end world hunger, in a world where there is more than enough food for everyone.