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United Arab Emirates helps Joplin ‘think big’ in rebuilding tornado-scarred schools

Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post

JOPLIN, Mo. — Two weeks after a mile-wide tornado tore through this city, killing 161 people and rendering a landscape of apocalyptic devastation, the public school system here received a telephone call from a man working for the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington.

“Tell me what you need,” the embassy staffer said.

Six schools, including the city’s sole high school, were destroyed in the May 2011 disaster. Insurance would cover the construction of new buildings, but administrators were scrambling to replace all of the books that had blown away.

Instead of focusing on books, the staffer wanted “to think big.” So the school system’s development director pitched the most ambitious plan that came to mind, a proposal to obviate the need for high school textbooks that had been shelved two years earlier because nobody — not the cash-strapped school system, not the state of Missouri, not even local charities — had the money for it: Give every student a computer.

Today, the nearly 2,200 high school students in Joplin each have their own UAE-funded MacBook laptop, which they use to absorb lessons, perform homework and take tests. Across the city, the UAE is spending $5 million to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital, which also was ripped apart by the tornado.

The gifts are part of an ambitious campaign by the UAE government to assist needy communities in the United States. Motivated by the same principal reasons that the U.S. government distributes foreign assistance — to help those less fortunate and to influence perceptions among the recipients — the handouts mark a small but remarkable shift in global economic power.

For decades, the United States has been the world’s largest provider of foreign aid, paying for the construction of schools, health clinics and vaccine programs in impoverished countries. It still is, but the level of donations has been increasing among nations with new financial clout, including China, India and oil-rich Persian Gulf states. And at least one of them now sees poor parts of the United States as worthy recipients for that same sort of assistance.

“We spot needs and we try to help,” said Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the United States.

During the past two years, the UAE government has paid for the construction of all-weather artificial turf soccer fields in low-income parts of New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Chicago. The embassy wants to build three more fields this year. Otaiba hopes to break ground on the first of them this spring in the Washington area, although the embassy is still in discussions with potential partners and has not settled on a location.

Otaiba said he also has promised New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) about $5 million apiece to help rebuild their jurisdictions in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

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