Updated Sunday, February 17, 2013 at 08:46 PM
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 district 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, had been destroyed in the May 2011 disaster. Insurance would cover the construction of new buildings, but administrators were scrambling to replace all the books that had blown away.
Instead of focusing on books, the staffer wanted “to think big.” So the district’s development director pitched the most ambitious plan that came to mind, a proposal to obviate the need for 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 high-school student a computer.
Today, the nearly 2,200 students at Joplin High each have their own U.A.E-funded MacBook laptop, which they use to absorb lessons, do homework and take tests. Across the city, the U.A.E. is spending $5 million to build a neonatal intensive-care unit at Mercy Hospital, which the tornado hit.
The gifts are part of an ambitious campaign by the U.A.E. government to assist needy communities in the United States. Motivated by the same reasons 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.
“We spot needs and we try to help,” said Yousef al Otaiba, the U.A.E. ambassador to the United States.
During the past two years, the U.A.E. 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.
Otaiba said he also has promised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie about $5 million apiece to help rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Although U.S. hospitals and universities have long been recipients of Persian Gulf philanthropy, most of those gifts have come from the personal funds of royal- family members, often to express gratitude for the education or medical care they received. Natural disasters also have prompted contributions: The U.A.E. and Qatar, a fellow petro-wealthy Persian Gulf nation, both wrote $100 million checks to the State Department in 2005 to help after Hurricane Katrina.
The U.A.E’s unusual approach has its roots in the 2006 controversy that erupted when a firm based in Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the U.A.E., sought to take over management of six U.S. ports. Intense congressional opposition scuttled the deal.
When Otaiba became ambassador in Washington in July 2008, he sought to persuade Americans to develop a favorable view of the U.A.E.
In the case of Joplin, Otaiba said the decision to help started with a phone call from the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who saw images of the devastation on CNN.
In Joplin, home to about 60,000 people, parts of the main drag have been rebuilt since the tornado, but the new structures belie deeper economic troubles in the city, where many residents are dependent on low-paying service-sector jobs.
Sixty-two percent of children in the school system live in families whose household incomes are below the federal poverty line.
Otaiba’s staff member in Joplin quickly discovered that Mercy Hospital was among the largest employers, and drew residents from surrounding communities, generating business for restaurants and hotels.
The hospital had not been equipped with a neonatal intensive-care unit, forcing some parents to travel hours by roads to hospitals in St. Louis or Springfield, Mo.
To Otaiba, the decision was simple: Give the hospital $5 million to build a 12-bed unit.
The embassy also sought out a project that would yield a more immediate impact — the school system. If temporary schools did not open by the end of summer — in just three months — city officials worried that many families would move away. School administrators assumed they would be able to find interim structures in time, but they weren’t sure what to do about textbooks.
Then the embassy called.
When development director Kimberly Vann told her boss, Superintendent C.J. Huff, that the U.A.E. government was willing to donate $1 million for laptops, he thought it was a joke.
“Back then, we were getting a lot of calls from people willing to help — but nothing like this,” Huff recalled. “I thought somebody was pranking us.”
Julie Denasha / For The Washington Post
The United Arab Emirates donated $500,000 for laptops at Joplin High School in Missouri.