The World Humanitarian Summit: Rethinking the Role of Faith in Humanitarian Action

From the 23-24th of May, Istanbul will see the first ever World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) convened by the UN Secretary General.  The summit is unique in the sense that it will see a space being created for a multi-stakeholder engagement between member states, INGOS, civil society, academics and private sector.  The process leading up to the WHS has also been an interesting process as 23,000 people in more than 150 countries globally have been consulted as to their expectations for a re-imagination of what humanitarian response should be and what the humanitarian architecture should look like.

One of the key aspects of the rethink that has been suggested is the need to localise aid response and to empower local communities to respond.  At the heart of any response to humanitarian disasters is the local community as they are the first responders. In this aspect, the role of religious institutions, leaders and faith based organisations (FBOs) becomes very important as they have a unique comparative advantage as ‘first’ responders: they have an established relationship of trust and familiarity with most local communities in which they are embedded.  They are also linked through family, worship, economic ties and joint heritage, across the globe. This makes strengthened engagement with such networks an appropriate element of strategies to enhance local and national capacity for crisis preparedness, mitigation and response whilst being sustained financially. It is also increasingly recognised that through belief and ritual, local faith communities may provide a sound base for bolstering community resilience in the immediate aftermath of crisis.

Despite this involvement, there has been a certain reluctance to recognise and acknowledge this role and subsequently engage with faith organisations on such measures. This reluctance stems from the fact that despite faith communities and FBOs being highly active, there is a character to the religious playing field that complicates matters. The 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.

Thus it is against this framework of potential inter and intra disagreement and division, that the WHS now offers a chance to rethink and re-define the  engagement with FBOs, communities, leaders and institutions.  A special session at the WHS on ‘Religious Engagement in Humanitarian Action’ will seek concrete commitments from religious leaders and other humanitarian actors to increase the impact of faith-based actors in reducing humanitarian need and suffering, and their inclusion within policy- and decision-making at all levels of humanitarian response.  The special session will seek confirmation of the role of faith and faith groups in meeting some of the core commitments of the WHS including (amongst others):

  1. upholding and expanding the significant humanitarian response of faith-based organizations and to overcome the manipulative and abusive attempts to link religion with violence, terrorism, or exclusion of others.
  2. ensuring that women and girls rights are protected, their needs are met, and that their ability to engage in decision making is enhanced; as this is a proven strategy for increasing the effectiveness of humanitarian action as a means of building resilience for all members of families and communities.
  3. calling for constructive dialogue between faith and non-faith players in the larger interest of communities in need.


Ideally the Special Session at the WHS is the start of a discussion on how we can ‘engage with faith’ but for the process to move further, we need further conversation and space to innovate. New creative ways of providing solutions need to be identified which include engaging in understanding humanitarian assistance from a faith  perspective and also engaging in true partnership.   There is a trust deficit that engaging with faith faces.  One is based on the lack of evidence regarding the impact of faith organisations on individual and community resilience.  The other though is the recognition of the tensions between certain FBOs (vis-à-vis conversion and proselytization) and the humanitarian principles of ‘neutrality’ and ‘impartiality’.  Thus more is needed  to explore and discuss this 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 FBOs 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 possibly address tensions related to a trust deficit on the impartiality of FBOs.  Thus there needs to be greater dialogue within and between faiths (and FBOs) 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.  This goes along the lines of the UNHCR 2012 dialogue on faith and protection which called for greater religious literacy amongst humanitarian workers.

The reverse can be said for faith leaders and FBOS:  there is a need for greater humanitarian literacy.  Engaging with FBOS 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.

Ultimately as the world faces more disasters, we have to go local in our capacity and ability to respond.  The role of faith becomes important in this whole process.  The rethink has to go beyond Istanbul if we seriously want to reshape how we do humanitarian action for the future.






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