by Dale Gavlak
ISTANBUL (CNS) — Humanitarian aid can be carried out more efficiently and effectively if local and faith-based institutions are given a greater role, Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila told the World Humanitarian Summit gathering in this Turkish city.
Cardinal Tagle and others in faith-based communities argue that often they are the first responders in emergency and crisis situations worldwide and, as such, they should be included in how humanitarian responses are handled and developed.
“When a calamity happens, whether human-made or natural disaster, local communities and faith-based organizations are at the forefront of providing aid. In fact, they are already there before the conflict and during the conflict and when the international organizations have left the area, the volunteers from faith-based groups remain,” said Cardinal Tagle, president of Caritas Internationalis.
“And because of their connection to the communities, knowing the culture, the mentalities, the dreams, what works and what does doesn’t work,” Cardinal Tagle said, “they really should be given a bigger responsibility. Besides, most of these volunteers belong to those communities that are suffering.”
“Part of giving faith-based organization a bigger role is to recognize that people must become agents of the rebuilding of their lives and not be made to feel simply like beneficiaries of the goodness of other people,” Cardinal Tagle told Catholic News Service May 23. He said “the current humanitarian system of donors too often fails to recognize them.”
Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 Catholic relief, development and social service organizations operating in more than 200 countries and territories worldwide, believes the current top-down approach to humanitarian response must be replaced by an investment in local action, strengthening grass-roots capacity, and improving partnership and coordination.
Cardinal Tagle addressed the special session on religious engagement on the first day of the May 23-24 World Humanitarian Summit. The gathering has drawn 5,000 participants, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country has taken in more than 1 million refugees, mainly Syrians.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon sought more action to prevent conflicts from breaking out, saying they “take up more than 80 percent of humanitarian funding,” and a record number of people — 130 million — need such aid to survive.
Cardinal Tagle also challenged the international community to work harder to prevent conflicts from happening by using the strengths of the faith-based organizations and the religious principles they imbue.
“Tap the faith resources, the wisdom of the different religions in preventing conflicts, in peacebuilding and in how we recognize human dignity. We just cannot allow conflict to happen and [then] respond,” Cardinal Tagle told CNS.
Cardinal Tagle said: “As resources are stretched, if donors want to reach more people with better-quality help, then they must utilize better the ready-made tools that they have at their disposal. The World Humanitarian Summit offers us the chance to transform the current humanitarian system by giving local organizations their rightful seat at the table.”
Msgr. Robert Vitillo, who heads Caritas Internationalis representation to the United Nations in Geneva, echoed his sentiments.
“Local and faith-based organizations are there helping people before, during and after the crisis,” he told CNS.
“Yet often in these humanitarian situations, there’s a lot of attention given to international agencies, and the national governments which have an important role,” said Msgr. Vitillo, who will become the new secretary-general of the International Catholic Migration Commission June 1.
Msgr. Vitillo said getting the required financial help, especially in protracted emergencies, to those most affected can be a big challenge. International and multilateral agencies often receive the lion’s share of the financial and material resources available which “sometimes do not reach the most vulnerable and most marginalized populations,” he told CNS.
“So that’s why we feel it’s important to be sure that resources are available to the local communities and that those local communities also have a say in how those resources are used,” Msgr. Vitillo added.
Jesuit Father Tom Smolich, international director of Jesuit Refugee Service, said the fact that governments and the United Nations and its agencies “are realizing that the role of faith is really necessary to engage in crisis and solutions is very positive.”
Father Smolich said that, at the summit, he had seen “an expressed and confirmed sense that religious communities, especially religious communities of refugees and the communities which receive them, play a huge role in making sure anything happens.”
“JRS serves over 700,000 people. Over 50 percent of them are Muslim. It’s important for us to work with the Muslim community in services we provide,” Father Smolich told CNS.
Anwar Khan, CEO of Islamic Relief USA’s board of directors, appealed for the various faith humanitarian groups to “work together and speaker together.”
“The key issue is to bring people together, and that helps to recognize that we are from different faith-groups, different religions, but we have a role in humanitarian action,” said Ajit Hazra, faith and development director for World Vision International’s South Asia and Pacific Region.
“Where we go from here is a path that we still need to discuss. It’s a great start, but there is still a lot of work to do from all of us to see how we go on to practical issues. At the local level, we are doing things, but we need to see how we can broaden that up,” Hazra told CNS.
He said many of the groups still do not really know each other, and that is necessary before substantial regional collaboration can take place.