Q@&A: We sit down with Manjula Ramakrishnan, the President of SmartLife Foundation, to learn more about the Dubai-based NGO and its humanitarian activities to help low-income workers and their families
Can you tell us more about the SmartLife Foundation?
Licensed by the Community Development Authority in Dubai, the SmartLife Foundation is an NGO that works closely with blue-collar workers living in labor camps to help them improve their potential and quality of their lives by offering them a diverse range of programs.
In our 10 years of operations in Dubai – and still counting – our core philosophy is to devise projects by not sitting in the comfort of our corporate meeting rooms, but by being in their midst – in their labor accommodations – to learn about their requirements and to devise relevant programs that will help them.
What issues did you identify as the most urgent for the blue-collar workers?
We discovered that financial and old-age planning were not a priority for many blue-collar workers, even after working for 20 or more years in the Gulf. To help the workers with planning for their retirement, we started our SmartElder program to help steer them towards a healthy and robust retirement. Our volunteers guide the workers on a range of topics, such as how to deal with old-age problems and manage their finances when they return home.
What initiatives do you have to help women?
When we learnt that there were very few women-centric projects for blue-collar ladies in the UAE, we launched SmartWoman. Here, women can learn new hobbies, discover their creativity and engage with others in a relaxing atmosphere. The idea behind this project is to enable women to use their spare time creatively and productively, thus keeping negative thoughts, if any, at bay.
Do you have a youth program?
Yes, we do. Our SmartBuddy project uses a “buddy” system to encourage students to inspire and motivate each other. The program pairs a “Dubai buddy” with a “native buddy” (students in their own countries). The students are paired together based on the same gender, language and age group. The buddies are supervised by our adult SmartLife volunteers who act as mentors.
What other programs do you offer?
One of our flagship projects is the SmartReading program, which is in line with the reading initiative of the Dubai government and helps semi-literate workers to enjoy the pleasures of reading. Our SmartReading program also aligns with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) #4, which focuses on offering inclusive and quality education, and promoting lifelong opportunities for all. The initiative helps to build confidence with English communication and reading skills, and about 1,500 blue-collar workers have so far “graduated” from the program and now feel confident when interacting in basic, simple English.
We have a dozen active projects, including SmartIdol, which is a fun platform for the blue-collar workforce to showcase their talents in singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. We help to train them and hone their skills in the best academy in Dubai and then give them a stage to perform to a larger audience. Other projects include SmartMedic, which offers periodic health check-ups and addresses wellness in workers. This is in alignment with SDG Goal #3, which ensures good health and well-being for people of all ages. SmartCup is a cricket tournament where blue and white-collar workers are part of the same team vying for the coveted trophy. SmartFitness helps workers to stay fit in fun ways with zumba dancing, skipping and running, while SmartRelaxation deals with anger management, de-stressing and breathing techniques coupled with light yoga and meditation.
Where do you get your inspiration for the projects?
We work in conjunction with the Federal Government’s initiatives. A case in point is SmartReading. This started in 2016 as part of the Year of Reading; when The Year of Zayed was announced in 2018, we worked on promoting the core philosophies of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Founding Father of the UAE. This year, 2019, is the Year of Tolerance, and we are delighted to confirm that each and every project of SmartLife is about inclusiveness, having the maximum number of nationalities on board – both as beneficiaries and as volunteers.
What does the future hold for SmartLife Foundation?
Not an NGO to rest on our past laurels, we are in the process of initiating a social impact audit to gauge where further improvement and value add-on can be brought in. The journey therefore continues, for service to humanity knows no finish line. SmartLife functions with a sizeable pool of volunteers who are united in their mission to give back to society and to derive immeasurable joy from the very act of giving.