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In good faith: working together in emergencies

Posted by Benjamin Phillips Information Management Officer

8th May 2014

Refugees gather in one of the makeshift mosques in Zaatari Camp for Tarawih, the extra prayers performed at night by Muslims during Ramadan. Credit: Karl Schembri/Oxfam

What does effective partnership with faith based groups look like? Ben Phillips our humanitarian information management officer introduces an exciting collaboration between Oxfam and other NGOs to research how we can work with local faith based groups in emergency response.

Faith is a sensitive subject at the best of times. Throw it into a humanitarian crisis where sectarianism is festering, and you have an area of people's lives we would probably like to turn a blind eye to. We all know that humanitarian responses should be secular and not benefit one faith group over another; however faith is for many people and communities an overarching, significant influence on their lives. Their lives to some degree are moulded by faith. This can be difficult to grasp when looking through our Western lens but we should be looking through the eyes of the beneficiary. The question therefore is should we ignore such an important part potentially of beneficiaries lives or should we take advantage of faith to improve our humanitarian response. 

Faith groups have access to numerous volunteers, a deep understanding of the local community, legitimacy and respect.Faith-based groups in countries can play a massive role in supporting humanitarian responses and in building resilience. These groups potentially have access to numerous volunteers, a deep understanding of the local community, legitimacy and respect, and buildings and resources to support a humanitarian response. With Oxfam aiming to increase its work in partnership, this is a fantastic time to take advantage of the opportunities of faith-based groups. 

There is of course the risk of a lack of neutrality of faith based groups and the Central African Republic crisis shows how sectarian violence can out of nowhere explode and create suffering but this all shows a need for greater understanding of faith in countries. Even in CAR, despite the sectarianism, Christian priests have helped Muslim communities with food and shelter, showing that even in the tensest of climates faith based groups can play a neutral supportive role to their communities. The negative aspects of some faith based groups shouldn't be a reason to dismiss such organisations universally. The Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities is a collection of people from a handful of charities (Oxfam, Islamic Relief, Christian Aid, Cafod, Tearfund and World Vision) and universities looking to research the role and potential of the use of faith based groups in emergency responses. 

Oxfam's presence as the only non faith based charity can potentially enrich the discussions further and opens the learning out of solely faith based charities. The most recent meeting mostly looked at how the hub has secured funding to send a researcher from Columbia University, New York in mid 2014 to Jordan. They will look to explore both in a camp and urban setting the interplay of international/ local and secular/religious organisations in the provision of humanitarian assistance for the Syria crisis

Humanitarian practitioners should go with their 'faith hat' on just like we talk of us having our 'gender hat' on.The nature of the Syria crisis will provide an excellent platform to look at the role of faith in a crisis. Will Sunni faith based groups support Shi'a or Allawite refugees despite the sectarian dynamic of the civil war? Will the research show significant disadvantages in being a faith based group in such a toxic religious situation? Either way the research should give a fascinating insight into the role of religious organisations and groups in the response. 

There shouldn't be a policy of solely working with faith-based partners, but the use of faith is a potential huge opportunity to be grabbed. There should be greater debate and research done by Oxfam on the role of faith based groups in humanitarian responses and perhaps with the determination to work better with partners Oxfam now has, this is the moment to do so. 

I believe in the long term humanitarian practitioners should go with their 'faith hat' on just like we talk of us having our 'gender hat' on in emergencies. The more we understand and encompass all parts of community's lives in our work, the better our support to beneficiaries can naturally be. Particularly when it comes to something as important to so many in the countries we work in as faith.

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Photo: Refugees gather in one of the makeshift mosques in Zaatari Camp for Tarawih, the extra prayers performed at night by Muslims during Ramadan. Credit: Karl Schembri/Oxfam

Blog post written by Benjamin Phillips

Information Management Officer

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