The opportunities and challenges of working with local faith actors in urban humanitarian response

Religious belief and practice are part of any urban humanitarian context, both for practitioners and for those affected by the crisis. Ignoring it, or pushing it to one side, will not make it go away but instead, as Dr Olivia Wilkinson argues, can lead to further mistakes and misunderstandings down the line. In this blog post, written as a follow up to her contribution to an ALNAP webinar on this topic, Dr Wilkinson discusses the opportunities and challenges of working with local faith actors in urban humanitarian response. Drawing on global evidence, Dr Wilkinson examines the opportunities of working with local faith actors, including gaining access to displaced people through existing religious networks; human, social, cultural and financial capital;  continuity, trust and psychosocial support, and some of the challenges, including the instrumentalisation of local faith actors; concerns regarding proselytizing; unequal power dynamics between local faith actors and aid donors;  and clashes in the priorities of faith-based and secular standpoints. These themes have also been examined in further depth by the Southern Responses to Displacement project here, here and here.

If you find this piece of interest, please see the recommended reading list at the end of this post, or visit our Introductory Mini Blog Series, including our mini blog on Faith-Based Humanitarianism.

The opportunities and challenges of working with local faith actors in urban humanitarian response 

By Dr Olivia Wilkinson, Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities

The Joint Learning Initiative (JLI) was happy to collaborate with ALNAP’s Urban Community of Practice to organize a webinar on local faith actors and urban humanitarian response in March 2019, which brought together speakers from the Southern Responses to Displacement Project, Soka Gakkai International, and World Vision. In 2017, we launched the scoping study from the JLI Refugees and Forced Migration Learning Hub, co-chaired by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (PI, Southern Responses to Displacement) with Atallah Fitzgibbon, that focused on Local Faith Communities’ Role in Forced Migration in terms of Urbanization and Localization. Although the JLI has not had a learning hub on urbanization, many of our collaborative studies and learning over the years have been with and on local faith actors working in urban centers, from HIV/AIDS work to gender-based violence (GBV) and refugee response. As such, at the ALNAP webinar, I was able to present insights from the combined knowledge from our 6 years of work at the JLI on the opportunities and challenges of working with local faith actors in urban humanitarian response.

We define local faith actors relatively broadly to include not only local and national faith-based NGOs, but also religious leaders, committees, community groups that are based out of religious institutions, and other groupings that mobilize to provide humanitarian support in urban areas. Humanitarian organisations mostly set up partnerships with registered and formalized local and national faith-based NGOs, but we also want to give due recognition to the wide variety of faith-affiliated entities that are responding to people’s needs and rights in urban settings.

Over the years, we have collated research from around the world to learn more about local faith actors in humanitarian response. Overall, we have found that there are several common areas in which the advantages of working with faith actors are clear:

  • Access through existing religious networks and infrastructure to people facing certain vulnerabilities and marginalization. In the past this was conceived of as access to rural areas through religious networks, and while this is still important, in urban areas this also means gaining access to people who otherwise might not be seen for other reasons, aside from geographic location, such as people with disabilities or out-of-school children.
  • Capital – human, social, cultural, financial. Human capital includes volunteer networks and the ability to mobilize people in faith communities to help with response. (Social and cultural capital is linked to trust and authority below). Finally, financial capital can mean that local faith actors are able to respond quickly, more quickly than other organizations who can be held up by bureaucratic financial procedures if they are transferring money.
  • First responders, but also long-term responders – local faith actors are both the first and last responders, staying the course after others have left, precisely because they are also part of those communities. Their embeddedness in their location has relevance for new humanitarian themes such as localization and the triple (humanitarian-development-peace) nexus as local faith actors are aware of the holistic needs of the members of their communities rather than being restricted by the silos of humanitarian, development, and peace work.
  • Religious motivations to assist others – linked to being long-term and last responders, religious motivations keep faith communities assisting others even when there are substantial gaps in social protection otherwise. This can lead to a challenge, which is the instrumentalization of or reliance on faith actors, discussed below.
  • Trust, authority, and embeddedness in the community – the role of religious and community leaders in helping with social and behavioural change needed in a public health emergency. For example, the response to the 2014-2015 West Africa Ebola Outbreak has been called game changing. Local faith actors in urban centers also play a role in countering xenophobic responses to refugees and forced migrants and helping integration and social cohesion within communities.
  • Need for the spiritual in psychosocial – people’s culture, beliefs, and practices do not disappear in crises. They may shift and change, but people’s spiritual resources are often a last line of coping when they suffer traumatic experiences. As such, psychosocial response in humanitarian actions need to be “faith-sensitive” and an interpretation of the IASC guidelines in this light has recently been published.

Conversely, challenges include:

  • Instrumentalization by external actors – co-opting local faith actors’ resources, access, and capital by external actors for their goals, without collaboration and cooperation with local actors, leads to instrumentalisation. This can happen across local organisations, not just faith-based ones, within the sub-contracting model that is common in humanitarian partnerships. This does not achieve true localization and risks abusing local assets to the point of complete loss and distortion.
  • Fears of proselytizing and partial aid – proselytizing can happen with local faith actors that tie conditions to their provision of assistance. While this is a common fear of partnering with local faith actors, we also find that it is not always proportionate to the reality: local faith actors are not only well-versed in the need for impartiality in humanitarian response, but are acutely aware of the damaging effects that proselytizing can have on their standing in their own communities. Furthermore, they often work within religiously-motivated principles of impartiality which are linked to human dignity.
  • Lack of technical capacity – local faith actors may find it challenging to meet the principles, standards, reporting, and various donor compliance requirements. As with any other local actors, the power dynamics of the humanitarian system favour international donors setting the requirements in terms of administrative systems, organizational policies, monitoring, and reporting. These can be burdensome on all actors, particularly those that are smaller or not familiar with these requirements, including some, but by no means all, local faith actors. There are also many highly technically proficient national faith-based NGOs.
  • Influence of theological positions that are in contrast to development priorities, such as around gender equality, can become sticking points in cooperation.
  • Influence of religions in conflicts – a research area in itself, the role of religions in peace and conflict has been much debated. Approaching the question from a position of religious literacy, we understand that religions are always embedded in and linked to the cultural, political, economic, and social environments around them. This means that religious actors can have ties to all aspects of involvement in a conflict, but also as peacemakers.
  • Secularity – secularity is assumed to be a neutral stance, and the humanitarian system operates on the basis of ‘functional secularism’, meaning that it is faith-based actors that must adapt to be part of the system. Likewise, a secular approach brings its own assumption about the place of religious beliefs and practices, and other related traditional and cultural practices, in humanitarian response. There can be a distancing from cultural and religious influences under the guise of secular neutrality.

While the challenges and opportunities outlined above offer a clear picture of main themes emerging in the evidence we have analysed at the JLI, it is also overly reductive of the complexity of these interwoven elements. The main takeaways are, therefore, that daily religious belief and practice are part of any urban humanitarian context, for both affected people and practitioners. Ignoring this reality or pushing it to the side will not make it better or go away, but can potentially lead to further mistakes and misunderstandings down the line. If localization is to happen and urban local actors are to be taken seriously as one of the key actors in an area-based approach, then it is clear that local faith actors will also be in this mix. In-depth contextual analysis, understanding of similarities and differences, and dialogue to build relationships will be part of the basis of future urban humanitarian partnerships that should be equitable and non-instrumentalizing.


If you found this piece of interest you can read ‘Religion and Social Justice for Refugees’, a major report offering fresh insights into the roles played by faith-based actors and local faith communities in contexts of displacement, or please visit our Introductory Mini Blog Series or visit the recommended readings below:

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) The Effects of COVID-19 on Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Akay Erturk, S. (2020) National and Local Responses to Support Syrian Refugees in Turkey in The Times of COVID-19

Asai, N. (2019) Soka Gakkai International – Faith-Based Humanitarian Action During Large Scale Disaster

Carpi, E. (2019) Local Faith Actors in Disaster Response and Risk Reduction – ALNAP Webinar

Carpi, E.  (2018) Does Faith-Based Aid Provision Always Localise Aid?

Fakih, F. (2019) Beyond Humanitarianism Paradigm: The Effect of Displacement on Religious Authorities

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020) Refugee-Led Local Responses in the Time OF COVID-19: Preliminary Reflections From North Lebanon. 

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) The Poetics of Undisclosed Care

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Faith-Based Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) Refugee-Refugee Humanitarianism

Kidwai, S. and Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Seeking Evidence to Provide Protection: How Can Local Faith Communities Support Refugees?

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N. (2019) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

Ozturk, M. (2019) Municipal-level responses to Syrian refugees in Turkey: The case of Bursa

Wagner, A. C. (2019) “There are no missionaries here!” – How a local church took the lead in the refugee response in northern Jordan

Wilkinson, O. (2018) When local faith actors meet localisation

Featured Image: Irbid camp, Jordan (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2019


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