Faith groups engaged in humanitarian work are feeling sidelined - but they also recognise they've made some mistakes

Faith leaders played a crucial role in saving lives during the Ebola crisis that killed thousands in West AfricaREUTERS/Christopher Black/WHO/Handout

Evangelicals are providing humanitarian assistance to broken and impoverished communities around the world, but there are two things they desperately want from their secular counterparts: greater understanding about what their intentions are - and are not; and greater recognition of the contribution they are making.

The World Evangelical Alliance [WEA] has articulated these concerns in a new brief submitted to the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit taking place in Istanbul next year.

The paper starts by recognising areas where evangelicals have received "proper criticisms", including around the issues of gender discrimination and proselytism; and seeks to assure that evangelicals are ready to work alongside other faith and non-faith groups "with respect and humility".

Among the concerns the paper seeks to address are those surrounding neutrality and impartiality, and "perceptions of the evangelical community" that continue to "pose barriers to a more effective collaboration".

"Faith-based organisations have been seen as basing aid on conforming to religiously defined roles," the WEA states. "We acknowledge this as a failure which the evangelical community must address."

When it comes to gender, local faith communities have at times been "a source of discrimination or a source of healing and change", and on the question of proselytisation, the WEA acknowledges that work still needs to be done within the faith community to "foster greater compliance with ethical practice while still allowing for respectful expression of faith".

However, at the heart of the paper lies an appeal to the wider humanitarian community to engage with faith-based organisations more than they currently are in responding to humanitarian crises around the world.

In the area of proselytism, while there is an admission that things could have been done better, it comes with the caveat that there should be "greater acknowledgement of the progress that has been made" by non-faith actors.

And this is not the only area where the WEA wants greater recognition, as the paper makes a strong appeal to the international community to recognise the attributes of faith groups and faith leaders that make them well placed to deliver an effective humanitarian response.

Faith communities are, it argues, ideally positioned for rapid mobilisation in the face of a crisis and, being embedded in the community, they not only have local knowledge, but are trusted and have a long-term presence.

The WEA sees as a particular strength their ability to bridge the gap between major international agencies like the UN and key actors in local communities, citing the Ebola crisis in western Africa as an example of this, when faith leaders helped distribute vital life-saving information.

"In practice, faith-based INGOs are able to operate within and speak the technocratic language of the humanitarian industry while leveraging - through the local church - the local knowledge and expertise of target populations for relevant and sensitive humanitarian aid and development," the paper says.

While acknowledging room for improvement in its own backyard, the paper concludes that the international community is not engaging the faith community as much as it could in humanitarian and development response.

To redress this, the WEA is calling upon the UN to improve understanding – and acceptance - in the international community of the "unique value" of faith communities, and make sure that churches and faith groups are included in humanitarian decision-making.

Although the WEA speaks on behalf of evangelicals, it echoes concerns raised in the wider faith community.

In March, several faith-based organisations issued a statement expressing disappointment at the outcome of the Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction held in Sendai, Japan.

The purpose of the conference was to agree the Disaster Risk Reduction framework for 2015-2013 (HFA2). While the draft framework had included a reference to the role of faith-based organisations, this was omitted from the framework agreed at the conference. 

Faith-based organisations like Tearfund and Islamic Relief made their feelings known in their joint statement: "This has left many [faith-based organisations] feeling excluded from an area of work that is very close to their hearts and to their calling of service to communities." 

The HFA2 issue is also raised by the WEA in its paper to the World Humanitarian Summit. It suggests that, going forward, the UN takes steps to ensure that faith-based organisations are "actively integrated into national disaster preparedness including resource mobilisation, planning and training".

The summit and a preliminary consultation in Geneva this October are, in its view, the ideal kicking off point for dialogue on this.

"We welcome the opportunity that the World Humanitarian Summit provides to faith-based organisations to participate in a meaningful conversation on how to better respond to the ever increasing humanitarian needs around the world," said Bishop Efraim Tendero, Secretary General of the WEA.

The WEA's call is timely. A new report published jointly by CAFOD, Christian Aid, Tearfund and Islamic Relief in July argued that the hesitation around working with faith groups could mean the difference between life and death for some. 

According to the report, 'Keeping the Faith', Christian and Muslim leaders played an "essential role" in stemming the spread of Ebola across Sierra Leone and Liberia last year, acting as trusted sources of information, dispelling common myths and stigmas attached to the virus, and taking important health messages to communities that governments and NGOs could not reach.

However, the report warned that faith leaders were engaged by the government and NGOs only late in the day after the virus had already become entrenched. In some cases, it said government measures designed to tackle the virus had actually had the opposite effect because they went against cultural values and religious practices – hurdles that faith leaders were able to navigate in a gamechanging way.

"In Sierra Leone and Liberia, priests and imams have shared the same health messages as the government and health workers, but, because they are often closer to the people, their messages were listened to and accepted," CAFOD Director Chris Bain explained.

He continued: "It is vital that we learn lessons from the delay in involving them. In many parts of the world, local churches and mosques are the first places people turn to when disaster strikes - and the international humanitarian system is simply not good enough at working with them."

Alpha Sankoh, Programme Manager for Christian Aid's Ebola Emergency Response, agrees that the "distinctive" contribution of faith leaders is something that "demands wider recognition".

"If faith leaders are sidelined during future humanitarian crises, it is the most vulnerable individuals who could end up paying the price," said Sankoh.

Another voice looking to the UN to take the lead on changing the status quo is director of the Institute for International Health and Development in Edinburgh, Alastair Ager.

Ager was on the panel of an online consultation organised by Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection (PHAP) in June in anticipation of the World Humanitarian Summit. 

The consultation identified some barriers to the engagement of faith-based organisations in international humanitarian response.

Its executive summary stated that religion and faith in general are "not appropriately handled by humanitarian actors" and that there is a need for greater "faith literacy" in humanitarian organisations.

"Greater openness and acceptance of religious language in the interaction between secular and faith-based organisations is required," the document stated.

In an article posted to the UN World Humanitarian Summit blog in June, Ager articulated further concerns around the current state of global humanitarian provision, suggesting its effectiveness is being hindered by a prevailing secularist framework he feels needs to be adjusted in light of 21st century complexities.

In particular, he calls into question the concept of neutrality hitherto seen as a bedrock of humanitarian engagement, reasoning that total neutrality is as unachievable for secular groups as it is for religious, and that it is primarily religious groups that are disadvantaged by such a requirement.

As a way forward, he suggests the humanitarian sector should become more accepting of plurality, and he thinks dialogue is essential to opening things up.

"[The] recognition of plurality and difference, the acknowledgement that no one perspective – religious or secular – represents an uncontested 'neutral' view, and on this basis determining effective means of global and (especially) local dialogue between actors, are crucial steps for rethinking humanitarianism for the complexities of the 21st century," he writes.

But there are clearly challenges for the faith community too. The PHAP consultation suggests that faith-based organisations need to change the way they communicate with their secular counterparts and reassure them that they are on the same page where standards are concerned.

"Faith-based organisations should more actively explain their role and contribution beyond pure service delivery, while –along with all actors – demonstrate adherence to core humanitarian principles," it stated.

Similarly, the WEA paper was careful to include several recommendations to the faith community.

These included an emphasis on "humility and mutuality" in collaboration with others, a recommitment to "do no harm", and a call to "engage in active debate concerning the danger of coercive proselytising".

"As we worked on this paper and gathered the insights from participants around the table, we were reminded again of our call to serve a suffering world in the name of Christ. The paper can be read as a devotional, a call, a challenge to respond to those in need," said Commissioner Christine MacMillan, WEA's Director of Public Engagement and one of the authors of the paper.

After the disappointment of Sendai, it remains to be seen whether the WEA's call for understanding, recognition and change will be heard beyond the faith community.