After being flown over some islands that were hit by the 2004 tsunami, Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General, made a very moving statement. “In my whole entire life, I have never seen such utter destruction,” he remarked. The scale of the disaster was lucidly imagined by his next few words. “Mile after mile, you wonder—where are the people?” The scale of this disaster was so large that for miles Annan could not see a trace of humanity. Buried in the rubble or swept away by the tsunami’s violent waves from the Indian Ocean, humanity’s routine had been altered. A whopping 275,000 people were estimated to be dead, hundreds of thousands injured, and millions more homeless. Never before had the world seen a disaster of such proportions.
So devastating was the 2004 tsunami that it remains a key reference point for learning how to coordinate a huge relief operation involving a lot of actors. This natural disaster also pointed to the fact that everywhere in the world mankind is still moved to respond proportionately when nature exerts its disproportionate force. Of the $6.8 billion (US dollars) that was raised within a month, $1 billion was from private and corporate donations and the rest from governments. Donations of every kind—monetary, in-kind, manpower, and others—came from virtually every corner of the globe. Among the many agencies that responded were Faith Based Organizations (FBOs).
FBOs have done a remarkable job in providing stop-gap mechanisms in humanitarian disasters. In fact, a 1953 analysis concludes that “Ninety percent of post-war relief was provided by religious agencies.” A good number of the FBOs involved in humanitarian relief today have their origins in these earlier efforts. In playing so prominent a part in humanitarian relief work, FBOs gain more relevance on the world stage. Historically, some FBOs were motivated by the need to provide some relief for refugees, especially during and after World War I and World War II. They also lobbied government as advocates for better relief in distressed communities. These interventions have continued up to the present day.
To a great extent almost all FBOs delivering humanitarian aid have signed onto a number of international standards such as the Red-Cross Code of Conduct or the SPHERE standards for Water and Sanitation interventions. During my early days in Liberia, many meetings on Water and Sanitation did not end without a government representative flashing a photo of a water well built by a renowned FBO in one of the communities at the end of that country’s civil war. The photo made the rounds in these meetings because the water well was so shallow that it dried up not many weeks after being built. The government pointed to the technical and design failures, and using some generalizations would occasionally make retributive statements about the quality of work of almost all non-government organizations (NGOs) like Faith-Based Organizations. This motivated the government to pass technical standards and guidelines for acceptable water and sanitation facilities in Liberia.
Along with the new guidelines, a clear message was passed—that everyone was subject to the same standard of measurement. There were obviously a number of factors that could have led to a particular FBO to build a very shallow water-well in an area where the well was going to dry up quickly, one being that they dug the well during the rainy season, hitting the water table sooner than in the dry season. In general however, the emergence of a code of conduct and other standards in Liberia marked an important milestone in the evolution of humanitarian relief efforts. A good number of FBOs abide by these standards and often impose even stricter standards on themselves in terms of accountability and preferential status for the poor to receive Water and Sanitation relief.
It’s in Your Hands
A good percentage of aid passes through FBOs to reach communities in need of humanitarian support. This aid is mostly from private donations. Some FBOs apply different policies on how much government support they can receive, and so can add government aid to private donations. It seems clear that there is an inevitable and expected role for FBOs to play in providing relief. FBOs can provide humanitarian relief using a well-coordinated approach working together with governments and organizations to effectively deliver support to affected people.
Now, recalling Part 1 of this discussion, we pose many questions about the role of Faith-Based Organizations in development and cover the small-scale direct relief to individuals provided by FBOs. Part 2, then, covers the larger scale component of support provided through big scale humanitarian interventions. In my view these form one side of the equation—the side that is reactive and tries to deal with the effects of either a man-made or natural problem. I believe that there is often a bigger issue at hand. Whether this bigger issue is structural, policy or market related, or something as difficult to categorize as climate change, it is often linked to some loop holes in the system. Herein is the challenge! How can FBOs do more preventative work like their ongoing advocacy and lobbying efforts rather than reactive work?
The example of the Dutch Interchurch Aid organization’s 1983 warning of a looming hunger crisis in Ethiopia is worth considering. As expected their warning was ignored until it became a big media-driven crisis in the 1990s. More of this early-warning action on issues of poverty and suffering can be critical in finding solutions.
The neglect by policymakers in the areas of poverty and suffering should motivate FBOs to make more critical alliances and partnerships in at risk regions with the aim of building and strengthening an early warning system, vital to early detection of need and the policy failures allowing that need to exist and grow. As allies with other institutions, FBOs can create additional leverage to head off crises arising from poverty and eliminate, or at least drastically limit, the attendant suffering. We may still have to be reactive when responding to a humanitarian crisis brought about by a natural disaster, but to reiterate what Nelson Mandela said,
Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.
~ Nelson Mandela