Faith and religion in humanitarian action

In the Philippines, my country, disasters are sadly too frequent. The cost is great in term of lives lost, livelihood ruined, infrastructure destroyed and dreams shattered. Yet, what these communities have in abundance are faith and hope. These virtues drive them to rebuild their lives and communities from the rubble.

Needless to say love for their families impels them to believe and to hope. They are supported by local civil society, including faith-based organisations, among which Caritas has a leading role. Together these grassroots organisations play a key part in humanitarian responses to the chaos brought about by natural and human-made disasters.

Photo by Val Morgan/SCIAF

Photo by Val Morgan/SCIAF

These organisations live and work on the ground. They are a vital part of communities before any disaster strikes and remain there long after the emergency has passed. They suffer with those who suffer. For this reason they possess a wealth of knowledge and breadth of wisdom born out of faith, hope and empathy. They understand the culture which plays a crucial role in any recovery effort.

It is noticeable however, that the current humanitarian system of donors, present even in some UN agencies, fails too often to recognise or to engage these local organisations, including faith-based institutions. These agencies tend to direct humanitarian response from the top instead of valuing the experience and practices of those who are already living and working in the communities.

This top-down way of working has been proven neither efficient nor effective. It fails to give due respect to the communities who are being served. Many faith-based organisations propose a global vision where people, especially those in need, are supported in becoming “dignified agents of their own destiny” and recognized as agents of the transformation of society rather than mere beneficiaries of other persons´ charitable acts.

The World Humanitarian Summit is an opportunity to address this concern. We need to improve cooperation in the humanitarian sector by giving national and local organisations support so they could lead in humanitarian responses using their grassroots’ experience and wisdom rather than operate on a one-size-fits-all model.

We need to improve partnership and coordination, ensuring that the resources are made available to the grassroots. The Charter4Change sets as goal that 20 percent of the signatories’ humanitarian funding would be passed on to southern-based NGOs by 2018 and that the NGOs would also be given direct access to donors. This is the bare minimum. The bar needs to be much higher. In Caritas, we are almost at a 100 % level as it is our vision and mission to organise communities and work with them.

The experience of Caritas affirms that local institutions are the ones that offer extensive networks of critical infrastructure that serve as a source of shelter, care and education to affected populations. Parishes, village chapels and small Christian communities are examples. Our experience has taught us that many survivors of disasters need as much emotional and spiritual first-aid as they need relief goods. We need to invest in and strengthen these networks so they could withstand crises. They are not merely supplemental or parallel to public or government service that are often stretched beyond capacity.

Donors should direct their resources increasingly to these local efforts that promote grassroots’ action. We need long-term, multi-sectorial partnerships that prepare communities for disasters and help them recover. We have already seen the effective use of technology, social communication and cash assistance by local faith organizations. The appropriate use of innovation must keep the affected persons at the centre of our action.

The system must be willing to invest in the long-term capacity-building of these local organisations. Proper training, infrastructure and systems development can bolster their credibility and efficiency.

The type of partnership I am talking about already exists and is flourishing in some places. In Ebola-hit countries for example, Caritas worked with the WHO to organise safe and dignified burial programmes, bringing in the faith perspective.

We saw the promise of a long-term and profound change last year with the adoption of a new global climate agreement in Paris and with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals in New York, both of which need the vibrant participation of grassroots communities. We cannot ignore the role played by faith in ecological justice and integral human development.

This year the World Humanitarian Summit offers us the chance to transform the structure of power and control in the current humanitarian system and to give local organisations their rightful seat at the table.

Pope Benedict XVI said in his trip to the United Kingdom, “Where human lives are concerned, time is always short: yet the world has witnessed the vast resources that governments can draw upon to rescue financial institutions deemed ‘too big to fail’. Surely the integral human development of the world’s peoples is no less important: here is an enterprise, worthy of the world’s attention that is truly ‘too big to fail’.”


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