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Effectively responding to global crises requires greater awareness of religion’s influence in shaping people and culture as well as recognition of faith-based organizations’ (FBOs) role in providing humanitarian aid.

This was the general consensus of four experts who were a part of a live, online consultation in which I participated on June 4, an event organized by Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP).

As many as 78 online participants connected to the consultation from countries around the world, including Canada, India, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Scotland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States and Zimbabwe.

The forum was interactive, allowing participants to submit questions for consideration, respond to real-time poll questions and chat with one another, moderators and panelists.

The four panelists were:

  • Alastair Ager (New York City), professor of clinical population and family health at Columbia University Medical Center
  • Beris Gwynne (Geneva), director and U.N. representative for World Vision International
  • Amjad Mohamed-Saleem (Sri-Lanka, U.K.), a freelance consultant born in Nigeria, with experience in humanitarian aid and conflict resolution organizations
  • Michel Veuthey (Geneva), deputy permanent observer of the Order of Malta to the United Nations and vice president of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law

Ager opened the consultation with a presentation highlighting shifting perspectives regarding religion’s role and influence in humanitarianism.

“The very notion of humanitarianism is deeply imbued with religious traditions and reflects religious sentiments,” he said. Yet, in the 20th century, people became less comfortable engaging with religion in the context of humanitarian aid.

This shift led to a professionalization of aid work in which practice and language became codified and secularized, leading some FBOs to rebrand themselves to downplay their religious influence. For example, Christian Children’s Fund became Child Fund International.

A more recent shift recognizing the importance of religion in humanitarianism is underway, Ager said.

Yet three challenges remain: Western dualism that privatizes religious belief; marginalization that does not engage sufficiently local faith leaders in aid initiatives; and instrumentalization in which faith centers (churches, mosques, synagogues) are only considered a part of humanitarian aid when they serve as multi-purpose community centers.

Following Ager’s presentation, PHAP executive director Angharad Laing moderated a panel discussion in which panelists responded to four questions.

1. What is the single most prominent challenge that FBOs face in their work?

Beris cited a “co-option of faith … by people whose real objectives have nothing to do with faith, but have to do with power, privilege, prejudice and plunder,” while Mohamed-Saleem noted a trust deficit that FBOs must overcome.

Veuthey highlighted the tendency for religious organizations and leaders to be pushed aside in the aid process, even though FBOs are the oldest actors working in the most difficult, dangerous places.

A follow-up question was posed by one of the online participants regarding how FBOs should respond to conflicts with religious overtones.

Beris and Mohamed-Saleem emphasized the importance of research and analysis about the region (norms, customs, beliefs and so on) that is used to provide training for workers in advance of providing aid.

Ager noted the need to be aware of the difference between a conflict that is truly religiously based and a political power struggle in which religious rhetoric is used as a means to an end, citing the co-opting of faith that Beris noted previously.

2. Do faith-based organizations have a unique role to play in humanitarian action?

All the panelists agreed that they did, emphasizing that FBOs view the world through a lens of faith, providing them a unique ability to relate to and make aid more effective for the vast majority of the world’s population that claims a religious tradition.

Veuthey said FBOs better understand the physical and spiritual needs as they are rooted in local communities, are more willing to work in high-risk areas than secular organizations, and function as “the moral conscience” in addressing global issues.

3. Should FBOs and other aid organizations collaborate? If so, what are the main obstacles?

Greater collaboration is needed according to all four experts, with leading hindrances being a lack of trust and awareness between aid groups.

4. Is the way that religion is handled in humanitarian action currently appropriate? If not, what are the main problems?

None of the panelists believed the current engagement with religion by the secular humanitarian aid community was ideal, emphasizing that FBOs must be made a larger part of aid efforts.

Veuthey emphasized that FBOs must retain and not be ashamed of their faith identity, while Ager critiqued those “hiding behind the notional of neutrality” in humanitarian aid, noting that both secular and religious groups bring presuppositions to the table.

Differences must be acknowledged and respected, not diminished, even as common purpose and common humanity is sought in collaborative efforts.

A recording of the live event is available here.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.

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