The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Humanitarian crises and the role of faith

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“We are tangled up in an enchanted world that we are uncomfortable engaging with,” said Alastair Ager (third from left), director of a development institute in Edinburgh and professor at Columbia University. Other panelists shown here (from left): Nahuel Arenas and Sahar Ali from Oxfam, and Manal Omar from the U.S. Institute of Peace. (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam)

Around the world, many of the most influential local humanitarian actors are religious leaders. What does that mean for secular aid providers?

When I travel to places in the world where disasters have happened, people to me talk about their faith. Whatever their religion, they use prayer and religious beliefs to help them come to grips with the chaos, destruction, and terrible personal loss they’ve experienced.  And religious leaders are often there to help—tending to people’s physical and spiritual needs. They open the doors of their churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues to people in need, distribute emergency supplies that could save lives, and do what they can to bring their followers some peace of mind.

Oxfam is committed to supporting local humanitarian leadership, but as a secular organization, how should we interact with local religious organizations whose practices merge with and diverge from our own in important ways?

On January 20th, panels of humanitarian actors and religious scholars wrestled with the question at a symposium at the Harvard Divinity School. (Watch the video.)

“In Syria before the war, there were no NGOs. Only religious charities were allowed to exist. There was no such thing as a local humanitarian leader who wasn’t religious,” said Fadi Hallisso. (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam)

Fadi Hallisso, a Syrian from Aleppo who directs a secular secular aid organization known as Basmeh and Zeitooneh that helps refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, was on the Syria panel. In his experience, religious leaders are often the first to respond to emergencies, and they can mobilize communities and resources effectively. They are trusted, he said—for better and for worse. In other words, people feel comfortable with their leadership, which is important in a crisis, but may not hold their religious leaders accountable for mistakes. “We can slip into romanticism about religious actors,” he said.

Anwar Khan, the CEO of Islamic Relief USA, pointed out that some religious leaders have significant resources at their disposal. “They have houses of worship and hospitals, and their own volunteer base. They have local knowledge. They can reduce tension in ways we can’t.”  But on issues of accountability and rights, he said, we need to strengthen their understanding and capacity.

Khan warned about the manipulation of religion to further political ends. “Claims to legitimacy are always cloaked in religious garb,” he said. And religion is often mistakenly assumed to be the root of conflict disasters. “The Arab Spring was not a religious conflict,” he said. “The people wanted freedom. They got bullets instead.”

Oxfam humanitarian coordinator Sahar Ali, who sat on the Sudan panel, underscored that point. While religion has played a role in Sudan’s armed conflicts—such as the decades-long strife from which the nation of South Sudan emerged, and the ongoing conflict in Darfur—it is the struggle for resources like oil and land that has driven the violence.

Oxfam has often partnered with religious organizations in emergencies, but, said Nahuel Arenas, humanitarian director for Oxfam in the US, “as important as religion is to the communities where we work, there’s been a reluctance to engage with it systematically.” Spirituality exists outside the frameworks and principles we’ve agreed to, and sometimes religious precepts conflict with our sense of fairness.

When it comes to religious local humanitarian actors, said Tara Gingerich, senior humanitarian researcher for Oxfam, “we need to think more deeply about when and how it makes sense to work together as partners.” (Photo: Elizabeth Stevens / Oxfam)

“Oxfam sees enormous value in shifting power and resources for disaster response to local leaders, but many of the most influential local humanitarian actors are religious,” said Oxfam’s Tara Gingerich, when I spoke to her after the event. “We need to think more deeply about when and how it makes sense to work together as partners.”

Which is why Oxfam has undertaken a research project—in collaboration with the Harvard Divinity School and with the support of the Henry Luce Foundation—that focuses on the intersection of religion and locally led humanitarian action.

“Easy assumptions like ‘faith-based humanitarian organizations will discriminate against people of different faiths’ need to be challenged,” said Gingerich, who is the lead researcher on the project, “and we should explore the issue of women’s leadership in relation to both religious and secular humanitarian organizations.”

The research will be published in the spring.

“Religion is a powerful force, period,” said Diane Moore, founder of the divinity school’s Religious Literacy Project, in her concluding remarks at the symposium. “It is not in and of itself good or bad. It is always used for good or ill.”

The life of Fadi Hallisso reflects that reality. Every day he finds himself face to face with the results of atrocities committed in Syria – sometimes in the name of religion.  But he is a deeply religious man himself, and each day he reminds himself of his spiritual connection to the human race. “Despise the act, not the person behind the act,” he tells himself, and don’t allow yourself to be transformed by the people you have to stand up to. In the end, it is love that he reaches for—the ability to love every human being.

Humanitarians talk about rights and wrongs, but sometimes it’s the religious people among us who are able to get to the heart of all we do.

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