10 years ago the president of the Methodist Church challenged me in the east of Sri Lanka following a humanitarian crisis caused by the upsurge in the conflict. "Amjad! Whenever there is a crisis, people flee to the religious institutions and religious leaders. They are there for the affected community and remain with them even as security gets worse, whilst you as NGOs withdraw when your security is threatened. Why do you never respect that?".
This question has plagued me since then and I have sought to understand why we as the international humanitarian community have failed to give the faith community the respect that it deserves and a seat at the table of policy makers and donors in terms of global programming, advocacy and decision making.
As the discussion around localisation of aid becomes more heated and pertinent, we have to realise that we can not have a full discussion if we do not also consider the role of faith.
Religious teachings, although diverse, teach the importance of compassion and of one common shared humanity, where each human being is important in him/herself. Human dignity and the welfare of all people are part of the main objectives of faith and religion, with the principal teaching of serving other people especially the downtrodden, irrespective of their faith, ethnicity, gender, and geography. Faith-based actors enjoy close proximity to, or are part of the populations affected by wider crises, and have therefore developed special relationships of trust, as well as insights and access to community members compared to many other actors. They are often present before crises, and are first responders when disasters hit. They are key providers of assistance and protection during crises and their aftermath.
In a world where conflicts, violence, and natural disaster affect millions of people, faith-based entities share a critical responsibility and role in working for peace, both at local and national or international levels. Faith-based organizations can thus facilitate sustainable behavior and relationship changes based on faith and worldview, offering mediation and sacred space for dialogue between parties.
Yet they are not a panacea. Engaging with faith and faith organisations also has its problems. There is a character to the religious playing field, that complicates matters. Our faith communities, whether they are numerous and powerful, a minority struggling for a voice, or even an influential tiny cadre, have undeniably, as strong a history of internecine strife and struggle as they do of cooperation and collaboration. There is a problem with the perception of what engagement with faith really means? In addition many faith communities are tied together across national boundaries, which have appeared or crystallised long after the faith community emerged. Globalisation has problematised, at one level, the very idea of the sacrosanctity of nation state borders. The flow of information and humans, respects no borders. This means that the faith communities themselves often feel united by mutual concerns and values, which are sometimes at odds with other policies.
This all speaks to a trust deficit that exists with engaging with faith organisations and leaders. So much more needs to be done to bridge that gap. We need more evidence and case studies about the role and impact of faith organisations on individual and community resilience.
We also need to work through an understanding of the tensions between programmes of certain faith organisationss (vis-à-vis conversion and proselytization) and the humanitarian principles of 'neutrality' and 'impartiality'. Thus more is needed to explore and discuss especially in 'understanding the spiritual wisdom of humanity' i.e. in using spirituality as a mechanism higher than just simply faith for developing a consensus towards understanding human value and responding to the need. Put simply if organisations and faith leaders can converge on shared religious values towards the spiritual values of humanity regarding the protection of human life and dignity and the relationship of these values to humanitarian principles, then they would be able to possible address these tensions.
There needs to be greater dialogue within and between faiths (and organisations) to not only understand humanitarian principles and instruments of International Humanitarian Law, but also look at relations with (and between) faiths, traditions and cultures which could then lead to new approaches for cooperation. We have to challenge ourselves to a new ethics of common concern that provides the moral commitments that relate to a sense of spiritual unity. On the flip side non faith organisations need greater faith literacy around humanitarian, development and peace building to have that understanding.
Engaging with faith based organisations and faith leaders will also mean building the capacity of local faith communities to mitigate against and respond to disasters whilst also equipping religious premises and assets such as mosques, churches and other sacred places as possible emergency facilities and for community education on disaster risk reduction and preparedness.
So there is a lot to be done in this space. Last year at the World Humanitarian Summit, a special session to rethink and re-define the engagement with FBOs, communities, leaders and institutions. The conversation was started but has to be continued. This week in Sri Lanka, an international forum will discuss scaling up engagement of local faith actors in humanitarian response. Exploring a wide array of topics including migration, gender based violence, peace and conflict, the forum will present evidence on the responses of successful partnerships and call for greater sector-wide literacy and capacity for local faith communities.
For many of the 'local' communities, we are talking about, faith (teachings, rituals, practice) are part of their DNA. We need to understand, respect and accept the role of faith-based actors in reducing humanitarian need and suffering. But we also need realise that this is still a process that will need to continue as we call for constructive dialogue between faith and non-faith players in the larger interest of communities in need.