How to…engage effectively with humanitarian organisations

BY FIONA KELLING, CMS MISSION PARTNER IN JORDAN

I’ve worked for both secular and faith-based humanitarian organisations in post-disaster and post-conflict response since 2010 and I am now a mission partner.

In these roles, I’ve come across suspicion and sometimes antagonism from various sides: people working in mission who think NGOs are wasteful and bureaucratic, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) who think faith-based organisations are only out to convert people, local faith communities who feel unrecognised or excluded from the humanitarian system.

These assumptions and experiences are symptomatic of a gap in understanding between humanitarian organisations and faith-based communities.

While often engaged in similar types of work, mission has a complicated history in humanitarian response and development.

The historical legacy of colonial missionaries has left many humanitarians sceptical about the activities of faith-motivated groups. This is especially true in relation to their knowledge of, and adherence to, the Red Cross Code of Conduct. This was established in the 1990s to set ethical principles by which organisations involved in humanitarian work should abide.

In addition, the past decade has seen an increase in the professionalisation of humanitarian response, advocating that good intentions are not enough and creating standards relating to engagement with communities in need.

However, this has often isolated faith groups who have long been involved in responding to crises and human need on a more personal but ad hoc basis.

Nonetheless, local faith communities are increasingly recognised by the humanitarian system as valuable partners due to their knowledge of and long-term links in their society. Faith communities are often first responders and are frequently sought out by residents, not only to provide physical help, but also emotional and spiritual support in times of crisis.

Although motivated by their faith to respond to people in need, many local groups do not have a good understanding of established humanitarian response frameworks and can therefore be overlooked. While proselytism (which is coercive) may not be prevalent, there is a wide range of motivations and practices when it comes to evangelism.

A lack of dialogue around differences in approach has led to misunderstandings and can cause tensions when local partnerships are established. Mission partners working with or embedded in local institutions may have the potential to be a bridge that can increase effective engagement.

Recognise mutual benefits

Local faith communities have certain strengths: knowledge of the community and culture, established trust and an ongoing presence long after INGOs have come and gone. While most of the world identifies with a particular faith, faith literacy is generally low in humanitarian organisations. Local faith groups therefore have relatability and understanding that most humanitarian organisations lack.

But humanitarian organisations also come with strengths. Few faith-based groups or institutions could provide the same range or scale of support. Much effort has also been made in INGOs to establish systems to ensure quality control, avoid dependency, ensure accountability and to try to transfer learning from past projects.

These strengths can complement each other: as INGOs use their access to resources to serve populations, and their knowledge and experience to build the capacity of local institutions, so local faith communities can provide access to vulnerable groups and the pastoral care that most humanitarian organisations can’t.

Learn the language

As a mission partner, learning the language and culture of our host country and community is vitally important. Similarly, every profession also has its insider speak, and the humanitarian system is well-known for its generous servings of alphabet soup.

While not becoming fluent in the various acronyms, it is useful to have a basic understanding of the established frameworks and in particular the coordination system in your country, as all aid is tracked to try to avoid duplication and overlaps.

Seek out information on how to coordinate, be willing to share information on what assistance you are providing and be open to contributing to the creation or updating of relevant context specific standards.

Recognise elements of concern

The key concern humanitarians have with mixing religion and aid is highlighted in the Red Cross Code of Conduct, which was set up in order to ensure dignity, non-exploitation and the building of local capacities.

The Code of Conduct states that aid should be provided on the basis of need alone, without adverse distinction of any kind and without any expectation of doing anything to receive the aid. It also asserts that aid is not used to further a particular political or religious standpoint. Rightly or wrongly, assumptions may be made that faith groups give assistance in order to proselytise, or that they may be prioritising their own faith community members over others.

Some churches may see the distribution of assistance as a good starting point for relationship. Although not intended as such, even an invitation to church may be misunderstood as a stipulation to continue receiving assistance.

However, the Code of Conduct does not prevent different viewpoints from being shared, only that assistance is not made dependent on adherence to them or provided with this ulterior motive. Notwithstanding recipients’ own agency and choices, be aware that some actions may be misinterpreted and make clear that that there are no strings attached to the assistance being provided.

Challenge assumptions

While some INGOs may think they are immune to proselytism, secular doctrines can sometimes be as strong as religious ones. These doctrines are often more foreign to highly religious communities and less readily identified by their proponents as such.

Critics of faith groups often cite the Code of Conduct, but can be blind to the evangelism of secular doctrines and political viewpoints embedded in their own organisations, or that sometimes come as conditions of funding.

Any situation, religious or otherwise, where the giver assumes they know best about what the recipient requires without attention to their wishes undermines human dignity. Be ready to challenge wrong assumptions and call out double standards.

Be challenged

There is a valid question around tactics and power dynamics when sharing a certain worldview while giving aid.

Recipients of aid are often in a vulnerable position, and while faith communities may often be better placed to meet people on a human level, even when there are no conditions attached the giving of aid can be perceived to be conditional or unintentionally put pressure on vulnerable groups.

NGOs and faith communities alike need to critically reflect on their own imposed values and practices. The good news Jesus proclaimed was one of action that healed the sick, sheltered the widow and gave food to the hungry. In crisis situations, the biblical mandate to relieve suffering is the sharing of the gospel itself.

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