Interview: Hamid Azad

Sam Burne James talks to the new Muslim Aid chief about expansion, transparency and setting standards in the charity world

Hamid Azad has worked for Muslim Aid in various roles since 2005
Hamid Azad has worked for Muslim Aid in various roles since 2005

The new chief executive of Muslim Aid is not actually that new. Hamid Azad joined the charity in 2005 and was promoted last month from the position of assistant chief executive. He had been acting chief executive since February after the retirement of his predecessor, Syed Sharfuddin. Azad also occupied the chief executive role on an interim basis for nine months before Sharfuddin's appointment in 2010.

So is he pleased to have finally landed the top job permanently? "It was part of my 10-year plan," he says. "Every person has a plan: they want to go to the highest level possible. I have had this plan to achieve this level and, by the grace of almighty God, I have."

Muslim Aid works in more than 70 countries across Africa, Asia and Europe to relieve poverty and help the recovery efforts after natural and man-made disasters. Its projects, often delivered with local partners, focus on education and training, clean water, healthcare and helping people to create livelihoods.

Its head office is in the London Muslim Centre complex on the Whitechapel Road in east London. Religion is inherent in the charity's work, but Azad points out that it has both Muslim and non-Muslim staff and donors, and its objects stipulate that its work is carried out regardless of beneficiaries' religion, although it does work "in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Qur'an".

The charity had an income of £24.8m in 2012 and spent £28.2m. It had similar levels of income in 2010 and 2008, but received £44m in 2009 and £33.3m in 2011. Azad says the fluctuations are down to changing levels of grants from various governmental and other institutions. Donations from individuals have risen year on year, he says.

Muslim Aid has grown significantly in the past decade. In 2005, the charity had 12 UK staff; it now employs 60 people in offices in London, Birmingham and Manchester. Azad says it is looking into opening a fourth UK office and is searching for new headquarters, having outgrown its London premises. Globally, it has 2,000 staff and 14 overseas regional offices.

Azad says that after the charity expanded rapidly during his early years there, the trustees decided that sustainability was more important than further growth. The past four years, he says, have seen the charity deliberately tapering its expansion - but that will change.

"We are progressing again, and I hope you will see growth every year from now on," Azad says. "My vision is to make a stronger, more dynamic Muslim Aid so that our donors and beneficiaries are able to trust in it more and it can become a pioneer British charity and international aid organisation."

It's not that donors don't trust the charity already, he says, pointing to a steady growth in voluntary income from £10.4m in 2009 to £12.2m in 2012; but when it comes to trust, he says, "the sky is the limit".

The issue of trust leads to questions about money donated to Muslim charities ending up the hands of Islamist extremists in countries such as Syria. Three days after this interview, The Sunday Times runs an interview with William Shawcross, chair of the Charity Commission, in which he says Islamist extremism is "potentially the most deadly" problem the regulator faces.

Azad says that clear oversight and strict guidelines should ensure this problem does not affect Muslim Aid, which has no one on the ground in Syria but helps refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. "We don't give money to any individual or to any organisation unless we are 100 per cent sure they are genuine, registered, have a clear track record and have the efficiency and capacity to deliver."

Muslim Aid insists on monitoring and reviewing when giving resources to other organisations or individuals, he says. Money given to longer-term projects isn't handed out up front in full, but paid in instalments, subject to satisfactory delivery. But Azad adds: "As an organisation you can only do so much, because disaster areas are always risky. We try our best to make sure everything is transparent because we feel very strongly accountable to our donors, our beneficiaries and our staff. And as part of our religion, we feel accountable to our God as well."

He mentions God on several occasions but is keen to stress that Muslim Aid is in most ways little different from other religious or secular charities. He says: "The problems and issues we have are just the same as any other organisation."

Does suspicion about a small minority of Muslim charities provide an opportunity for Muslim Aid to set the standard? Azad says: "We want to set benchmarks for other organisations. I believe there is no competition in the charity sector - it's all complementary. At the end of the day, you are serving humanity."

2014: Chief executive, Muslim Aid
2010: Assistant chief executive, Muslim Aid
2005: Head of overseas programmes, Muslim Aid
2002: Head of community and international development, Faith Regen UK
2001: Bar Vocational Course, University of the West of England
1998: Law degree, University of Essex

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