Localising Response to Humanitarian Need

In October 2017, Dr Estella Carpi participated in the forum “Localising Response to Humanitarian Need. The Role of religious and Faith-Based Organisations”, in Colombo (Sri Lanka). Organised by the Partnership in Faith and Development the forum involved a wide range of secular and faith-based NGOs and built on the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. In her blog detailing the event Dr Estella Carpi reflects on the sometimes challenging and misunderstood role of localising response to humanitarian need.

Localising Response to Humanitarian Need.

By Dr Estella Carpi, Southern Responses to Displacement Project

The forum’s discussions were particularly relevant to the Southern Responses to Displacement project in light of the scarce public attention and acknowledgment that is usually paid to Southern – especially faith-based – provision of services and care in contexts of displacement. A deeper understanding of the criteria Southern actors set up to sanction beneficiary eligibility, the effectiveness of their programmes, and the way of partnering with other actors is also lacking. In this regard, I participated in the displacement and forced migration panel, highlighting the different nuances and relevance that the Geneva-born humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality involve for Lebanese Shiite faith-based organisations (FBOs) assisting the displaced during the Lebanon-Israel July 2006 war, and for Arab-Gulf FBOs addressing Syrian refugees in Lebanon. I also problematised the monolithic understandings of “localisation”, showing how some local and regional FBOs were not perceived as such despite common religious beliefs, shared language, and cultural customs. For other FBOs in Lebanon humanitarian leadership was an object of contention, even though representing the same community. The evidence-based arguments  lead to important considerations on how humanitarian work can challenge or catalyse the participation of Southern faith-based actors in the process of social solidarity building, much needed in times of crisis.

Throughout the forum’s plenary and the different panels the role of faith was discussed as a catalyser of humanitarian action in crisis-affected settings, acknowledging that local faith communities (LFCs) are not merely providers of assistance, as they are typically framed in the increasing number of partnerships with resource-rich international (secular) aid providers. Rather, LFCs can be agents of change, even if, inevitably, they are often part of the local and national conflicts that have caused displacement and forced migration.

In the effort to emphasise the spiritual dimension of aiding and to acknowledge the moral support and feeling of solidarity that faith is able to generate in crisis-affected settings, Benjamin Laniado from CADENA (Mexico) provided the example of his NGO approaching humanitarian work as a partnership with God. Ayman al-Mufleh from the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation instead highlighted how faith has constituted a large component of the local response and success in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis in Jordan, bringing hope and therefore comfort among members of the displaced communities. On the same note, Rev. Peter Kainwo from the Sierra Leone Mission for Ministries stressed how the message of fear around Ebola became a message of hope after religious leaders became involved in the response.

Highlighting the positive practical implications of local faith-based initiatives, Archibishop Masimango Katanda from the Anglican Church in the DRC, provided the example of a Congolese school, built and run by faith-based actors, which has become the highest quality educational institution in the village. In the same vein, Theresa Carino, from Amity Foundation (China), contended that NGOs, even when configured as a minority culture, are able to influence local governments. Amity Foundation, for instance, managed to start HIV educational programmes in local government funded schools. In this sense, she called for greater publicity of faith-based humanitarian action. Always in the framework of practical considerations, Sheikh Musa Bamba from the Interreligious Council of Liberia instead maintained that faith-based actors play a large role in the depoliticisation of aid, as happened during the Ebola crisis in the Horn of Africa.

By a different token, Judge Mohammad Abu Zeid, President of Saida Islamic Sunni Court (Lebanon) and the Adyan Foundation, and Sheikh Arkam Nouramith from Matara Jumma Masjid (Sri Lanka) pointed out the importance for religious leaders engaging in humanitarian and development work not to “represent” their own country, or their faith-based community, as this inevitably leads to exclusion/inclusion processes among beneficiaries themselves. The good that a religious leader can do becomes amplified if he can represent only a community within the community, therefore re-consigning internal diversity to national faith-based communities. In this vein, Abu Zeid stated: “I do not represent, and I do not desire to represent, Sunni Muslims in Lebanon”. Sheikh Nooramith similarly expressed his view on the problematic import of leadership into the dialogue between faith, development, and aid. Engaging in humanitarian work is, first, a responsibility, and, as such, it cannot involve the promotion or the protection of faith-based agendas. Sheikh Nooramith, in this regard, mentioned the very origin of the term Jihad, which relates to the process of betterment / improvement that humanity needs to undertake. This intimate struggle allows for a close connection with human beings in need, that is with providing humanitarian assistance and alleviating crisis-induced suffering. In this respect, a limit which was pointed out by participants is the lack of trust between different faith-based communities in crisis-affected settings. This raises the importance of not exchanging humanitarian work for discourses around the protection of one’s own community, or the public justification of human behaviours to the community in large.

The Forum also hosted interventions from secular NGOs and UN agencies. Among the many voices at the Forum, Mr Andrew Sisson, Director of the USAID mission in Sri Lanka, emphasised how internal capacities depend on cooperation between faith-based and secular actors. Likewise, Snyder Cannon highlighted that peacebuilding indeed depends on such cooperation efforts. Halimo Weheliye from the NGO Consortium (Somalia) echoed this perspective by reminding Forum participants that humanitarian aid is not an exit strategy for crisis-affected settings, but rather mutual social trust, which can depart from the trust placed in faith leaders and faith-based organisations. She therefore associated humanitarian work with peacebuilding, as peace is achievable by reconstructing communities, certainly not by simply delivering aid.

Some voices, such as that of Saba al-Mubaslat from the Humanitarian Leadership Academy (UK), underlined how we should not merely approach localisation as a particularly effective strategy, intended to have impact on the territories of intervention, but rather as an official form of respect towards indigenous culture and ways of tackling conflict-induced and natural crises.

Engaging with faith-based actors in humanitarian response is however an undeniably delicate issue. As Rev. Lucas Koach from Food for the Hungry (US) pointed out, it means bringing discourses of truth into this dialogue. It is in this sense that the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Una McCauley, broached up the importance of considering atheism as part of the dialogue. As religion has often played an articulated role in dividing people – a point that cannot be discussed in detail – it cannot play but a fundamental role in bringing people together, in resolving, responding to, and eradicating the roots for further crisis.

In light of the considerations forwarded during the forum, the risk remains that of believing that the solution lies in a “conciliation” between humanitarian work and faith work, as though the second could neither embrace nor challenge international humanitarian standards and principles, and, as a consequence, were not definable as a fully-fledged humanitarian provider in its own right. Similarly, the risk of replacing secular leaderships with faith leaderships in a bid to localise response to crisis-induced needs lurks around the corner. Instead, the challenge is contextualising responses to crisis by looking to communities. As affirmed by Rev. Ebanezer Joseph, General Secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, humanitarian engagement needs to respond to local people, who do not necessarily look to their faith leaders. The latter do not need to become the new bearers of a more “just” humanitarianism, which would lead us to a similar trap; rather, they are key actors of assistance in crisis settings that are not yet sufficiently recognised within the international humanitarian scene.

In this sense, asking how to engage local faith leaders and organisations is probably a limiting question, which departs from the beliefs that, first, there is an “outside” humanitarian gatekeeper who wishes to include them; and second, that faith leaders and organisations do want to be included in all cases. In this respect, every provider should rather question the extent to which one’s own organisation is truly willing to open up to different interpretations of need, crisis, and assistance, and cooperate with such diversities.

The Forum’s conclusions left participants with a constructive sense of having started a challenging process of building common grounds for secular and faith-based understandings of need and cultures of crisis management, and of working on the intersections between research, humanitarian practices and policy-making.

On a personal note, localisation should rather be framed as “contextualisation”, insofar as localising efforts are often mistaken for replacing international with local staff, and delegating risky tasks that require local knowledge to locals. Localisation should primarily mean “localising ourselves”, allowing ourselves to ‘hybridise’ as researchers, volunteers, or NGO workers, in our continuous effort to understand and learn from local languages, cultures, and ways of facing crisis.

It is only in full awareness of the contextual dimension of crisis that we are likely to be effective as aid providers and researchers. In the same vein, involving faith-based actors and communities in humanitarian response means understanding how people theologically re-think and navigate their experiences of displacement and deprivation. Providing an appropriate response is not a straightforward job, while solidarity is a spontaneous feeling which we would simply like to see translated into prompt support. Solidarity involves in-depth understandings of contextual specificities, being able to generate constructive – though compassionate – empathy. This is the only realistic pathway to build local and global solidarity, which is often underestimated in the resources and efforts it actually requires.

Featured Photo Credit: Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Colombo, Sri Lanka, October 18, 2017

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