Ties between UN, faith-based groups poised to grow during pandemic

Our COVID-19 coverage is free. Please consider a Devex Pro subscription to support our journalism.
Participants at a congress for different faiths. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

NEW YORK — Following the Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake in Indonesia in 2004, Muslim NGOs were the first to recognize a “big gap in humanitarian packages” for displaced people, according to Azza Karam, secretary-general of the coalition Religions for Peace. Women were not leaving their tents because they did not have head coverings, creating a sanitary and public health emergency.

“It took a faith-based NGO to say, ‘We have to provide them with scarves,’ at which point the U.N. [United Nations] actors were like: ‘Absolutely not. As a matter of principle, we can't provide these religious things.’ And it's caused a massive furor,” Karam said. “It was a big issue, and it shows you how there's a different kind of sensibility that faith-based actors bring into this space.”

The U.N. and faith-based organizations have long faced challenges like these in their engagement, though their partnership had been improving in recent years, bolstered by the creation of the United Nations Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development in 2010. But COVID-19 sparked a realization for some U.N. agencies: As they face a sudden rise in humanitarian needs and new development challenges, they cannot easily do the work on their own.

“It was all of the stuff that we've been saying for so many years, which is, ‘If you want to work in delivering services to people in marginalized communities, your best bet is you need to work with these religious NGO actors,” said Karam, who has also served as a culture adviser at the U.N. Population Fund and was the first chair of the U.N. Interagency Task Force on Religion and Development.

A ‘call to action’

During the early days of the pandemic, the role of faith-based actors was clear in the public health response, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to New York City, where the evangelical Christian group Samaritan's Purse famously set up a pop-up intensive care unit in Central Park.

Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

U.N. chief Antonio Guterres has called on civil society actors — including religious organizations — to respond to COVID-19 and help implement a global cease-fire, legitimizing questions of faith-based groups’ engagement in development, according to Karam. She described Guterres’ words as a “call to action to engage religion and religious leaders across the board of the U.N. system.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency and Religions for Peace have since formed an advisory council on humanitarian and displacement issues. UNICEF has developed recent guidance for faith leaders on how to adapt religious practices and rituals during the pandemic.

UNICEF also quickly expanded a pilot project in five countries to become a global initiative, aimed at developing a comprehensive approach to engage with all faith-based organizations — not just the Islamic and Christian ones that tend to be more active in development work, according to Kerida McDonald, senior adviser for communication for development at UNICEF.

“When COVID broke out, we identified challenges like stigma, discrimination, and the fact that we had several faiths finding it difficult not to congregate when people are in crisis and need faith the most,” McDonald said. “Issues on religious rituals needed to be looked at more carefully. And also how do you get to the most vulnerable people and develop interventions relevant to their needs?”

“You cannot have just a one-size-fits-all approach. One has to meet the faith leaders in terms of their own constructs and ways of working.”

— Kerida McDonald, senior adviser for communication for development, UNICEF

Bridging a religious and secular gap

But building partnerships between the U.N. and faith-based organizations can be challenging, experts say. There are questions about how the U.N. can successfully connect with dispersed, local faith-based networks that are not organized through large NGOs.

“Faith communities are always often organized around churches, mosques, etc. and don't have a formal organizational system. So it makes it quite complicated. There are also criteria for U.N. organizations to partner with others that can cause some organizations to hesitate,” said Annette Jansen, an anthropology professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a policy adviser on religion, conflict, and secularism.

There are also issues regarding human rights concerns, proselytism, and the role of women in religious networks.

“Because religious leaders are predominantly men, there is a challenge overall on engagement because it has to be initiated through men,” McDonald said. In Niger, UNICEF had to do a risk mitigation exercise before conducting participatory consultations with communities, including women. “In some ways, you cannot have just a one-size-fits-all approach. One has to meet the faith leaders in terms of their own constructs and ways of working,” she said.

But religious organizations can sometimes also be finely attuned to cultural barriers that the U.N. might miss, experts say. And concern that faith-based organizations do not carry out development work according to U.N. standards has evolved, according to Sharif Aly, CEO of Islamic Relief USA.

“There was a misunderstanding and maybe even a bit of arrogance that the science of humanitarian and development work, the U.N. was at the forefront of accomplishing this, while FBOs are not at that level. I think that has changed,” said Aly, who noted that more than 80% of the world’s population subscribes to a faith. Islamic Relief is the World Food Programme’s largest implementing partner in Yemen.

“There is a major mistrust of the U.N. in a lot of the global south. It is not perceived as a neutral party. So if there is a positive agenda to help vulnerable people, like the SDGs [U.N. Sustainable Development Goals], the problem is not the SDGs; it is what is behind the agenda,” Aly said. “The only way to build that out is through trust. FBOs have been working for a long time and have built a lot of trust.”

Next steps forward

Faith leaders have key role in stopping spread of COVID-19, UNICEF says

Religious gatherings should respect social distancing guidelines, take place outside when possible, and include sanitization measures, according to guidance from UNICEF and Religions for Peace.

More capacity building is likely needed, though, to further engage faith-based organizations, according to Margaret Schuler, senior vice president of international programs at World Vision. The Christian humanitarian response group works closely with the World Food Programme and other U.N. agencies in more than 27 countries.

“What I have seen is, when you build capacity, they just run with it and are very strong and community collaborators on development activities. I don't think there are challenges in terms of getting interest, but I think capacity building is something that is necessary to make this a success,” Schuler said.

Formal partnerships between the U.N. and faith-based organizations will likely continue to grow as the pandemic drags on — and the prospect of a vaccine comes closer into view, according to Saskia Schellekens, intergovernmental and policy adviser on culture at UNFPA. The U.N. agency has several agreements with faith-based groups in their work, including on ending child marriage.

“The importance of faith-based leaders in ensuring vaccine acceptance will be very critical, because especially certain faith-based communities are sort of rejecting the idea of vaccines in general,” Schellekens said. “I know WHO [the World Health Organization] is keen to ensure that engagement, and that is also critical from a UNFPA standpoint. But the proof will be in the pudding, how we put this in place and implement the strategy. It is crucial to ensure that this is an effort.”

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.