The Reputation Of A Humanitarian Organisation

30/09/2016 12:40


Despite the incredible work I have witnessed when visiting the field responding to emergency situations and visiting long term development projects, I always feel a sense of powerlessness and helplessness. Even if I can't singlehandedly stop poverty, cure illnesses and build homes, but the least I can do is be the voice of those who can't speak for themselves.

It is often the case that the message that we put across is more important and how we deliver this message is as important as the work taking place across the world. In many cases, this messaging is a crucial element that enables charities to help the people they are supporting whether it is through fundraising, mobilising resources, or advocating for a particular cause at national or international level.

I am focussing on messaging because for a charity, the wrong message can be a matter of life or death for the people we support. The current climate is one that is increasingly challenging for an aid worker. For the past three decades Islamic Relief works in some of the world's most difficult areas -like areas of conflict - without compromising on our humanitarian principles or neutrality, as well as upholding our professionalism; where aid workers are doing heroic work despite humanitarian convoys are been bombed and hospitals, schools, where civilians and their facilities are targeted. This balancing act to keep our teams safe whilst delivering aid is a difficult balancing act.

This being said, an organisation like Islamic Relief has time and again been subject to allegations and smears of all kinds which has impacted our work through increased difficulty in access to certain parts of the world or increased difficulty in sending funds to our projects. Earlier this year research from the University of Berkley with the Council on American Islamic Relations found that between 2008 and 2013, an industry dedicated to anti-Muslim hatred and Islamophobia had access to over $200 million in the United States alone.

This securitisation and suffocation of the humanitarian space is a worry, not just for organisations like Islamic Relief, but for the entire NGO sector. Last year's report from the Overseas Development Institute highlighted the impact of counter-terror legislation on the work of NGOs. The fact that banks are spooked by this legislation is leading to charities having their bank accounts closed as a result which results in charities being unable to deliver aid resulting in deaths.

This securitisation is increasingly the result of what is seen online. Articles, comment pieces, blogs all feed into and form part of the public opinion of Islamic Relief. This opinion and profile of Islamic Relief is based on defamatory, inaccurate and sometimes false information. Whilst we are not immune from criticism and welcome it constructively, there is a trend of these damaging allegations being repeated again and again until it gives the impression that they are true. This reminds me about the book "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator" which chronicles the manipulation of the internet and traditional media to create narratives about people and institutions that are not necessarily true or accurate. The damage this does to trust and reputation is immense.

For an organisation that relies on this trust to help lift communities out of poverty, we can't respond to every allegation on every website on the internet and in every printed newspaper and magazine. This would be counterproductive to our aims and mission. But we are not in a position to remain completely silent as this has the potential to be deadly for our organisation. We can't get into the habit of diverting our resources from saving lives to saving our reputation.

We will continue to dedicate our efforts to lifting communities out of poverty and let our work speak for itself. Over the past 32 years we have supported over 100 million people around the world. We look forward to continue supporting hundreds of millions more out of poverty and into sustainable lives with dignity. As for our messages, we will continue to tell the world our key message - our mission and ultimate objective is to save lives - we ask the world to help us achieve this and not distract us in achieving it.

Image courtesy of Islamic Relief Worldwide