The humanitarian role of local faith communities

By Joey Ager

22 April 2013: In humanitarian emergencies across the world, people commonly look to their local faith communities for support. But does religion help people and societies to cope with and transition out of conflict and disaster, or is it ill-equipped, superstitious and fatalist, even creating conflict in the first place? Our preliminary investigation has found that the situation is complex and requires careful research.

LFC Local Faith Communities such as this one at a Malaria awareness raising event in Maputo, Mozambique, are providing humanitarian assistance to those in need. Photo courtesy of Jean Duff on behalf of PIRCOM.

In almost every corner of the globe, people gather together, deeply connected through shared allegiance and identity in religious communities
In almost every corner of the globe, people gather together, deeply connected through shared allegiance and identity in religious communities. This remains true, despite frequent predictions that modernity would inevitably supplant faith; in fact, religion in the twentieth century has been characterised by endurance and even resurgence. For the past six months, I have been working as a researcher with the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, a grouping of agencies – some faith-based, some not – and academics interested in better understanding how to effectively engage with local faith communities. Together, we have been investigating the various roles religion plays in the resilience of communities affected by humanitarian emergencies caused by conflict or disaster.

Our work has been motivated by the growing awareness of the role of religion in global affairs in the past two decades, with more and more agencies recognising that religion cannot simply be overlooked. Currently, however, many humanitarian actors are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the language, structures and operations of local faith communities (LFCs). So we set out to find what evidence and experience can inform agencies trying to better understand local religious dynamics and build productive partnerships with local communities of faith.

Religion can potentially both support and inhibit the resilience of victims of conflict and disaster.
Over the last six months, we have interviewed practitioners, reviewed hundreds of academic sources, and consulted the reports and papers from faith-based and non-faith-based humanitarian organisations. From this detailed review of existing perspectives on religion, it has become clear that religion can potentially both support and inhibit the resilience of victims of conflict and disaster.

IDP Camp A temporary mosque in the Stadion Maguwoharjo IDP camp, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Stark

LFCs certainly provide valuable support for those affected by conflict, displacement and other emergencies. They are often equipped with valuable resources – buildings for shelter and protection – and social capital – volunteers, staff and access to wider networks – that form the physical basis for faith communities’ response to emergencies. The fact that LFCs are already present prior to, during and after an emergency provides them with a uniquely immediate opportunity to deliver support in the first 24 hours after an emergency; it has been this recognition that has given major impetus to agencies’ attempts to partner with LFCs.

The ‘embeddedness’ of LFCs often endows them with a better understanding of local dynamics than international agencies, enabling them to ensure that assistance is culturally appropriate. In one case we came across, Muslim women in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami considered headscarves to be a ‘basic need’ that must be included in emergency services, since they were usually wearing their indoor clothing when the tsunami hit. This factor had been initially overlooked by the UN agency providing assistance. Such local understanding and authority can have particular value for the pursuit of transitional and durable solutions in response to conflict, with religious communities being particularly well placed to engage with controversial and localised issues.

We have also found good reason to view the resources of faith for affected populations as not solely physical. With growing recognition that the psychosocial well-being of people must be considered together with their physical wellness, the place of faith as a source of hope, support and strength to cope has been increasingly explored by academics and practitioners. We have found that many academic studies conclude that there is a positive correlation between certain intrinsic religious beliefs – that God is on your side, that hardship can be a test from God, that a positive attitude will lead to a positive outcome, etc. – and the ability to cope with and recover from suffering.

Beyond intrinsic beliefs, too, religious practices have also been found to operate in support of resilience: prayer may help a child to therapeutically tell the story of their experience of war or disaster; counselling is often among the primary pastoral duties of religious leaders within their communities; and religious narratives that re-tell received stories may serve to solidify community identity and ultimately build resilience.

Religion certainly cannot be seen to universally promote resilience.
But religion certainly cannot be seen to universally promote resilience. One concern raised frequently by respondents to our work and in the academic literature, is that the very idea of religious communities as groups delineated by worldview and with limitations on inclusion contrasts with the fundamental humanitarian commitment to impartiality and neutrality.

Others argue that faith can constrain resilience through a lack of professional training and preparation, having vested local interests, and promoting values that can lead to fatalism and inaction. It has not been uncommon to find religious narratives of conflict and disaster that refer to divine retribution for sin – such narratives arguably foster hopelessness and create obstacles to the attempt to solve protracted social and environmental problems.

LFC 3 Anglican priest of the Diocese of Tamale, Ghana, with local government responding to floods with food aid 2012. Photo courtesy of Anglican Alliance

However, even this commonly held criticism of religious communities has been challenged during the course of our work. One member of our collaboration encouraged us to see that the concept of human responsibility for disaster that roots the ‘divine retribution’ explanation can actually spur action in communities to prepare for – and mitigate – future events. The ambivalence of this example – i.e. retribution narratives could operate in support and/or hindrance of resilience – has been a common conclusion for us to draw regarding the correlation between religion and resilience. In the same way, the ‘embeddedness’ of leaders of religious communities can be an asset, but partnering with religious communities can risk bolstering power dynamics within communities that may be corrupt, undemocratic or overly biased toward their own community.

This pattern has emerged throughout our work, raising the question of the treatment of religion or religions as homogenous units. Instead of finding that ‘religion’ - or even particular religions – are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for specific development outcomes such as resilience, it has become clear that religions are complex and powerful phenomena, often at the centre of societies, that have the potential to support or obstruct the pursuit of such outcomes.

Our study – the scoping phase of a larger research programme investigating religion’s role in modern humanitarianism – has been motivated by the increasingly felt need to formulate policy on religion in world affairs. The continuing presence and public nature of religion in almost every part of the world demands that we carefully consider the promises and risks of engagement with this double-edged sword. It is our hope that the research we continue to do will open the door for humanitarian and peace-building agencies to maximise the positive outcomes of engagement with local faith communities.

This article is based on a larger scoping study.

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Comments

Brian Adams on April 23, 2013, 6:42 a.m.

<p>This is brilliant stuff. I am the director of a centre for interfaith and cultural dialogue at Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. We also partner with gov't., police, and others as a way of promoting dialogue between faith and secular institutions. I see your work as a good contributor to this broader area. Let's catch up for a chat Via Skype at some point. </p> <p></p> <p>Brian</p>

Ruairi Nolan on April 23, 2013, 10:27 a.m.

I last night attended a talk called 'War, Faith and Conflict', hosted by International Alert, the University of Sussex, and the Royal Commonwealth Foundation. It was a great event and the discussion was very enjoyable. However - I think it would have greatly benefited from your input! In order to provoke discussion, the panel were invited to discuss whether religions 'cause' or can 'prevent' conflicts. Naturally, everyone agreed that the situation is a bit more complicated than that. But I felt the conversation suffered a little from a problem that often occurs when discussing wars; namely that we focus mainly on situations where violent conflict does occur. This means we ignore the fact that although conflict is endemic to all societies, in the vast majority of cases, societies find ways to manage or resolve conflicts without resorting to violence. By looking at only the most high-profile cases of where religious beliefs play a role in conflict (either positive or negative), we can end up with a skewed view of the issue. Only by the sort of research that you are carrying out, looking at the actual experiences of local communities and faith groups, can we reach a more nuanced answer to a very important question.

Joey Ager on April 25, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

Thanks for your positive comments. @Ruairi Sounds like an interesting talk. Yes, we are interested in a more nuanced view of the place of religion; we hope to come closer to that by following the evidence at the level of local communities. What role do you think religions have played in preventing conflict? @Brian The interfaith movement certainly provides helpful vocabulary and framing for differing worldviews to learn the art of engagement, a dynamic that exists in humanitarianism in conversation on religion. We have focussed on the task of doing good research to inform the conversation, and to establish broad and evidential grounds for partnership. What has your experience been of joining faith communities with public entities like police and government?

Ruairi Nolan on April 26, 2013, 8:57 a.m.

Hi Joey, My personal opinion would sit somewhere closer to what you suggest in your article. Away from the high-profile conflicts, religious beliefs motivate and influence the behaviour of the majority of the world's population. Weighing up the impact of all this on conflict is a tricky task (so bravo for trying!) but I think a more sociological approach will bring out the many positive ways in which (as you call them) local faith communities support their members (and wider society) in conflicts or crisis situations. People often cite Northern Ireland (where I am from) as an example of where religion has caused conflict. But in fact the conflict there has never really been about religious dogma (for the vast majority of people at least), and instead is prominent because it is a useful 'ethnic marker'. At the same time, religious beliefs have motivated many people to play a very positive role for peace, usually in ways that would be unknown beyond their local communities, but are still extremely important.

Ikenna Ezeibe on May 1, 2013, 9:59 p.m.

Religion is like a double-edge sword...able to do both good and evil. We must find a way to tap into the positive potential it wields. If the locals could agree to use religion as a medium to promote peace and support life in all ramifications, life will me most liveable. We must shun every form of extremism practised in any religous circle in the world.

Narayan Dhakal on May 4, 2013, 2:50 p.m.

Dear Joey, You have brought a very important topics making religion to solve the human problem. The root cause of the conflict in many areas are still faith based. It is so challenging that human being are so divided politically that we may have forgotten ourselves we are human. Integrating faith for humanity would be a very good idea. I am promoting ideas to explore faith based biodiversity values to bring climate change adaptation. Please let me know if someone in your network is interested to collaborate

BYAMUKAMA RICHARD on June 10, 2013, 10:43 a.m.

From the on set of human race Religion Has been the highest player in conflict resolution save a few cases of clashes within sects.More effort is needed to help human race to recount on the original intention of religion .I have started from my Home country Uganda. We convene Peace meetings across the country.We have district alter prayers for peace in the World.Religion gives the best forum for spreading the peace message thus avoiding conflict .