For faith-based organizations, climate change is a natural fit

Men and women engage in participatory disaster risk assessment aimed at building community resilience to climate-related shocks as part of a project led by the Catholic Relief Services in Ethiopia. Photo by: USAID in Africa

BULACAN, Philippines — In 2013, flash floods inundated Lourdes Ijan’s home, here in northern Bulacan province, forcing her and her family to seek refuge with an aunt. When the water subsided, she had no savings to help rebuild her life.

“I had to take out loans with high interest rates,” she recalled. “Some people wouldn’t even let me borrow money so it was difficult.”

With scientists warning future typhoons will become even stronger in Asia due to global warming, it’s critical that families such as Ijan’s are better prepared to respond. Thanks to a project funded by the United States Agency for International Development and implemented by Catholic Relief Services and local partner organizations, Ijan now has access to a savings scheme that enables her and other climate vulnerable women to borrow money during emergencies. “It’s very helpful,” said the 28-year-old.

Ijan is one of millions of people in the developing world that faith-based organizations, or FBOs, are helping to adapt to the severe effects of climate change. FBOs — a broad range of organizations and voluntary associations with a religious foundation — are known in Washington, D.C., for their lobbying and activism on Capitol Hill. But in the global fight against climate change, FBOs, particularly faith-based humanitarian organizations, have also emerged as key players. They’re engaged in every step, from delivering immediate relief after natural disasters to building the long-term resilience of climate-vulnerable people in the global south. That includes supporting initiatives such as planting mangroves and facilitating exchange programs between developing countries to spread best practices.

There exist no complete figures for how many international development organizations are faith-based, but some estimates place it at nearly 60 percent of those based in the U.S. Faith-based groups have headquarters in other parts of the world, too. And Catholic Relief Services, Islamic Relief Worldwide, and the American Jewish World Service are some of the largest and most respected by their peers in the humanitarian and development sectors.

In January 2014, the World Bank relaunched an effort to strengthen ties with the faith-based community. Since then, the bank has worked with several FBOs on climate action. That includes collaborating with the multi-religious organization, Religions for Peace, the Catholic Church and others. (Catholic organizations have grown particularly engaged in such programs since Pope Francis released his groundbreaking 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si.)

“The World Bank recognizes the crucial role that faith-based organizations and religious communities have and continue to play in combatting poverty, responding to human need, shaping social norms and fueling social movements,” Adam Russell Taylor, who leads the faith-based initiative at the World Bank, told Devex. “Strengthening engagement with FBOs and religious leaders fits within the World Bank’s broader commitment to enhance stakeholder and citizen engagement as a critical way to improve development effectiveness and outcomes.”

What sets faith-based humanitarian organizations apart from their secular counterparts is their strong moral voice and vast networks throughout the global south. For instance, CRS is part of CARITAS Internationalis, a confederation of over 160 members who are working at the grassroots level in almost every country in the world. So when CRS funds a project in a developing country, it prefers to partner with a local CARITAS diocese, which in turn implements the project in local communities.

When Lori Pearson, a senior policy advisor for food, security, agriculture and climate change at CRS, was in Peru a few years ago, there were around 40 dioceses that were doing work throughout the country. This gave CRS, which supports efforts to address illegal gold mining and its toll on the Amazon rainforest, the potential to be a national presence. It also gave the organization the ability to reach some of the most remote areas through numerous offices.

 “And because these national offices have been there forever, they’re also trusted by the communities,” she says. “It facilitates scale and messaging and coordination.”

IRW takes a different approach, but also leverages the access and vast contacts that it has been able to cultivate due to its Muslim affiliation. The NGO, which has an international staff of 3,500 people working in 31 developing countries, currently implements projects themselves. Jamie Williams, a senior policy advisor at IRW, will be the first to admit that the organization is spreading itself too thin and its approach is not sustainable. So it is looking into partnering with local organizations. But, at the moment, IRW is maintaining its “can do” attitude because as a Muslim organization it can work in Muslim majority countries and with segments of society, particularly women, that can be difficult for other organizations to access.

Most notably, IRW is the only international NGO working throughout Syria. Scientists have argued that global warming very likely exacerbated an extreme drought in Syria that began in 2007. And that drought, which was the worst in the country’s modern history, played a role in the violent uprising that started in 2011. Over the past five years, IRW has been providing critical medical assistance and food to the millions of vulnerable people still in the country. “That’s because of the nature of our organization and there’s a great pride in that,” says Williams.

Many faith-based humanitarian organizations are guided by their faith principles to be stewards of the earth and care for the poor. They don’t provide help based on belief or creed. They provide it based on need. For instance, while IRW operates largely in predominantly Muslim countries, it opened an office in Nepal, which is a majority Hindu country, to provide aid after a powerful earthquake devastated the country in 2015. Meanwhile, AJWS is helping communities in Uganda, which is predominantly Christian, to defend their access to water and natural resources that are being exploited by oil drilling projects. “It very much is the case that local communities are making the decisions in terms of what those needs are,” says Nikhil Aziz, director of natural resource rights at AJWS.

AJWS supports about 450 organizations in 19 countries. In each of these places they have a locally based staff member who helps the organization identify groups to assist. On average, they support grantees for seven years, sometimes more. Unlike with many groups, the funding provided is flexible. “It’s not restricted to specific projects because that ties the hands of people who need the money and they obviously know how to use it,” says Aziz.

Faith-based humanitarian organizations mostly get their own funding from private donations and grants from governments in developed countries. Some of the largest groups have an annual budget that runs beyond tens of millions of dollars. For instance total contributions and revenue for AJWS in 2015 amounted to almost $60 million, while IRW had a total income of over 100 million British pounds ($128.6 million) during the same year.

“We draw inspiration from the best of our faith tradition, but we are not blinded by that in any way that prevents us from recognizing that there are other visions and perspectives as well.”

— Nikhil Aziz, director of natural resource rights at AJWS

That money should not only be used to support national and grassroots organizations to implement climate action. It’s important that faith-based humanitarian organizations also help translate international frameworks and policies into actionable, practical work that can be undertaken on the ground, says Isaiah Toroitich, global advocacy and policy coordinator at Action by Churches Together Alliance, a coalition of 144 churches and FBOs working together in over 100 countries. “What does a church in Malawi or a church in Bangladesh do with the Sustainable Development Goals?” asks Toroitich. “What does the Paris climate agreement mean for those national entities?”

But, for those faith-based humanitarian organizations that accept government aid, how money is ultimately spent and what actions are prioritized depends a lot on the donors, leaving the resources of faith-based networks quite untapped, says Toroitich. “It is our principle and policy as ACT Alliance to have faith-based networks participate in decision-making at government levels, but also related to donor priorities and resources allocation.”

FBOs are not without their controversies and critics. Some Muslim charities have been legally found to have ties to terrorism. In 2008, five leaders of the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development, which was then the largest Muslim charity in the U.S., were convicted on over 100 criminal counts. That included providing material support to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that has now governed the Gaza Strip for a decade.

And FBOs, particularly Christian groups, have long been dogged by concerns of proselytization. After all, the attempt to win Christian converts in far away lands is almost as old as Christianity itself.

All of the faith-based international development organizations Devex spoke to emphasized that they have an organizational policy of not proselytizing. Nor do they recall facing discrimination over fears that they may have a missionary message. That is possibly because those interviewed only work with people and organizations that are like-minded. “All the others that have different values are not necessarily part of our network as Act Alliance,” says Toroitich.

FBOs that take care to separate their beliefs from their development work proudly say that their staff is multifaith, while others such as AJWS prefer to describe themselves as “faith-rooted.” “The point being that we draw inspiration from the best of our faith tradition, but we are not blinded by that in any way that prevents us from recognizing that there are other visions and perspectives as well,” says Aziz. Aziz is atheist and sees no contradiction between his beliefs and those of the organization that he’s been working with for three years.

He offers the example of “tikkun olam,” which is the Hebrew phrase for repairing the world. “For me, and for us at AJWS, the deep rupture that we currently face and need to heal is the interconnected crises of climate, economy and society,” says Aziz. “So while tikkun olam might be a faith-rooted response, it’s a very universal response and a very humanistic response that I relate to.”

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About the author

  • Fatima Arkin

    Fatima Arkin is a Devex contributor specializing in climate change, human rights, and sustainable development. She has reported across Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America for Foreign Policy,, Maclean's, and many others. She holds a B.A. in international development and history from McGill University and a graduate diploma in journalism from Concordia University, both located in Montreal, Canada.