In crisis zones, UN courts faith-based charities

An aid distribution from the Islamic Relief and IHH in the Syrian villages of Atmah and Kah. The World Humanitarian Summit included a special session on religion as part of the United Nations’ efforts to recognize and understand the humanitarian work of faith-based organizations. Photo by: IHH / CC BY-NC-ND

As the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs sought out faith-based charities, part of an effort to bring “emerging” and “nontraditional” aid actors on board during the World Humanitarian Summit, Islamic Relief Worldwide CEO Naser Haghamed puzzled over what he saw as an amusing contradiction. The U.N., an organization less than a century old, was calling his and other religious charities — some with millenniums of experience — newcomers.

“Historically, people were religious, and faith-based organizations were the ones that were helping,” he said. “The [U.N.] claims to be the ones that were there before and we are the new ones. I’m sorry, but that’s not how it works.”

Haghamed came to Istanbul and appreciated the U.N.’s outreach. But throughout the two-day event, religious leaders and faith-based organizations told Devex that U.N. efforts to recognize and understand their humanitarian work were long overdue and still lacked seriousness. Despite long histories of relief work, deep community access, and significant funding, participants said their organizations were either not taken seriously or turned to only as a last resort.

“I don’t think the vast majority of stakeholders here [at the summit] take religion as seriously as they should,” said Chief Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Community’s international director of interreligious affairs. “Almost 85 percent of the world defines itself in religious terms. ... If you want a delivery system that deals with both prevention and response and you don’t engage religion, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

At WHS, the U.N. initiated the process of engaging, these organizations told Devex. The summit included a special session on religion as well as an event the day prior to the summit gathering various faith leaders.

“Religious institutions and faith-based NGOs have a unique comparative advantage in humanitarian contexts: They have an established relationship of trust and familiarity with most local communities in which they are embedded,” the special session’s planning document reads. It said the summit was seeking faith-based groups’ “inclusion within policy- and decision-making at all levels of humanitarian response.”

Unrecognized — but growing

World Humanitarian Summit: What was achieved and what work remains?

The World Humanitarian Summit had ambitions to reform an overstretched, underfunded relief system. Devex Associate Editor Elizabeth Dickinson shares the highlights from Istanbul.

Faith-based groups are often on the frontlines when crisis strikes, based out of local houses of worship. “Religious organizations have the capacity to deliver on the ground because of their proximity to the people,” said Mohammed Abu-Nimber, senior adviser at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue.

Larger, Western-based charities have long coordinated with the U.N. humanitarian structures, for example the Financial Tracking System that charts funding for various emergencies. But this wasn’t — and still isn’t — the case for many smaller organizations and charities from the Islamic world in particular.

“We talk about a $15 billion gap in humanitarian finance [between need and resources]--that’s in recognized financing,” and doesn’t include, for example, Islamic social finance and other religious giving, said James Munn, head of humanitarian policy at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Yet that funding is there — and its importance is growing. Oil-rich Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar are now devoting larger portions of their gross domestic product to foreign aid than many European countries. Private wealth in the Gulf, and an emergent middle class in countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Malaysia, have further bolstered charitable funding.

While those trends were already underway before the crisis in Syria, it has laid bare the extent of Islamic charities’ influence, abilities and involvement.

Kuwait hosted two donors conferences and provided the largest contribution per capita in assistance of any country on the globe. RAF Foundation, an Islamic charity based in Qatar, is the largest philanthropic donor to the Syrian crisis, Director General and Chairman of the Board of Trustees Dr. Aize bin Dabsan al-Qahtani told Devex at WHS. Meanwhile Turkish charities such as IHH have also long boasted humanitarian access inside Syria well beyond what U.N. agencies and Western NGOs have been able to provide.

A stretched system in need

As humanitarian resources have grown increasingly stretched, the U.N. has sought out new avenues to finance and respond to global crises. Faith-based organizations are among the places they have turned.

“Resources are stretched. If donors want to reach more people with better quality help then they must use the ready-made tools at their disposal,” Catholic charity Caritas International’s president, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, said in statement ahead of the summit. “The World Humanitarian Summit is the chance to transform the current system by giving local organisations their rightful seat at the table.”

Since the Syrian crisis began, the U.N.’s OCHA and other agencies have undertaken a series of consultations and meetings aimed at bringing these faith-based groups ‘on board’ with coordination mechanisms and standard procedures in the humanitarian community.

The U.N. is also looking at the role of Islamic social finance in humanitarian work. One clear resource is zakat, an obligatory income contribution all Muslims who are able make. Some countries such as Saudi Arabia channel these contributions centrally; in other countries, citizens give to their cause of choice. Islamic banking and philanthropy offer alternative options for grants and loans.

“It’s about asking how do we better account for the cash in the system and ensure the effectiveness of Islamic social finance,” said Munn of NRC. “This is new to the humanitarian world, but it’s there.”

Reforms in good faith

Yet there were reasons that some faith-based groups hadn’t coordinated with the U.N. previously — and many of those reasons remain. Organizations have complained of a convoluted, often top-down coordinating system; onerous counterterror financing laws that disproportionately affect religious groups; and lack of voice in humanitarian policymaking decisions.

Coordination mechanisms are complicated and often mediated in English, a fact that limits local faith-based groups’ access.

Islamic charities express frustration with counterterror financing regulations, particularly in the U.S. and U.K. banking systems. “The word ‘Islamic’ is enough to scare banks,” says Haghamed, whose IR has had donations returned, bank transactions denied, and transfers to field offices delayed due to the rules. Such regulations have also deterred Western NGOs from partnering with local Islamic organizations.

More broadly, however, religious charities told Devex at WHS they need a more prominent seat at the table in humanitarian policymaking. “People are not wrong when they say that religion is part of the problem” in global conflicts today, said Rabbi Rosen, who is also a board member at KAICIID. “But if the world thinks that the right way to deal with the abuse of religion is to ignore it, they are in for a rude shock … it has to be part of the solution.”

A new page?

The WHS was pitched as a first step toward removing some of these obstacles, and building bridges with faith-based groups. In many cases, the most important first step was simply the chance to meet face to face and exchange business cards.

Princess Lamia Bint Majed Alsaud, secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies,* told Devex communication with the U.N. is improving. “It’s easier now because we are meeting more often, and there are more ways to connect with them,” she said.

“Better late than never,” said Faisal bin Abdulrahman bin Muaamar, secretary general of KAICIID. “We are now under the umbrella of the U.N.,” he said. “We can be brought to the front lines to help.”

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you FREE every business day.

* Update, June 8, 2016: This article has been updated to clarify that Princess Lamia Bint Majed Alsaud is the secretary general of Alwaleed Philanthropies.

About the author

  • Dickenson beth full

    Elizabeth Dickinson

    Elizabeth Dickinson is a former associate editor at Devex. Based in the Middle East, she has previously served as Gulf correspondent for The National, assistant managing editor at Foreign Policy, and Nigeria correspondent at The Economist. Her writing also appeared in The New Yorker, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Politico Magazine, and Newsweek, among others.

Join the Discussion