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Local faith actors and protection in complex and insecure environments

- James Thomson

Faith leaders, faith-based organisations (FBOs) and local faith-communities (LFCs) play a major role in the protection of people affected by conflict, disaster and displacement. Humanitarians, however, have only recently begun to fully appreciate the depth, scope and variety of protection work being done by faith actors and the complex interrelationships between faith and protection. This article provides a brief overview of the learnings to date in the dialogues on faith and protection1.

James Thomson - Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy Image Frame
Despite common humanitarian values and principles, and common interests in providing protection, faith-based and secular humanitarian actors have often operated in somewhat parallel universes. At the national level, it is not uncommon to see two sets of humanitarian architecture with actors from each side struggling to understand, let alone navigate, each other’s structures, systems and ways of working despite both striving to protect the same conflict, disaster or displacement affected communities.

One reason for the divide stems from the fact that Western humanitarianism has been largely shaped by secular values, and has tended to overlook or downplay the influence of faith, delegitimising the role of faith outside the realm of private belief. Many early development practitioners and modernists, for instance, believed the world’s problems would be solved by science and rationalism, and thought religion - being an archaic or anachronistic belief system - would simply fade away.

Yet while religion has declined in industrialised countries, the vast majority of people affected by conflicts, disasters and displacement are people of faith, and for many, their religious beliefs and values play a major role in their lives. They help shape the way they understand the world and their role and place within it, provide a moral compass as to what’s right and wrong, and help people cope in times of crisis. They encourage acts of compassion, tolerance and respect for human dignity, while inspiring social justice, reconciliation and forgiveness, and conflict resolution.2

Bridging the gap between secular humanitarians and faith actors, and fostering engagement, collaboration and stronger protection partnerships, however, is no easy task. Faith actors and their motivations, structures and ways of working are as diverse and the cultures and societies that sustain them and comparatively little research has been undertaken to understand the depth, scope and variety of their protection work or what protection roles they are best placed to play and why. The low visibility of their work and the fact that local FBOs and faith leaders are rarely linked into the humanitarian system also make collaboration, coordination and complementarity a challenge.

The potential benefits of working with faith actors, however, are significant. Because of their local ties and widespread presence, the reach of local FBOs into crisis-affected communities often extends well-beyond that of humanitarian actors and even state authorities, particularly in complex and insecure operating environments where the legitimacy of state authorities and humanitarian actors are often called into question.

Local faith leaders and FBOs are usually deeply embedded in, and generally respected by, local communities, and intimately attuned to local cultural nuances and social and political dynamics. They also tend to have a high level of trust within their community and a high level of moral authority among the faithful, giving them great influence over local norms, culture and behaviour which is vital for community-based protection work. The sheer size of some of these constituencies, along with their influence and connectedness, often provides considerable leverage with state authorities and non-state actors.

The long-term presence, commitment and engagement of faith actors with local communities and government authorities also allowed for their protection initiatives to take root and more sustained efforts to address root causes, change norms, beliefs and patterns of behaviour, and through advocacy, changes in law and policy.

Their presence before, during and after disasters and conflicts meant they were ‘well-placed’ to provide early warning, early action to prevent conflict, and community-based disaster or conflict preparedness. Linked to this, their role as 1st responders after disasters is often critical. Schools, churches and mosques are frequently used for safe shelters and refuge and to coordinate response efforts. Their organisational structures and networks, while often disrupted, also provided a ready-made local response capacity. Faith leaders and FBOs can also draw on their social capital to launch new initiatives and gain community support and mobilise volunteers.

Faith constituencies also go well beyond the affected community so they are well-placed to prevent and resolve conflicts; deal with refugee and host community tensions; combat xenophobia and racism; mobilise support from the wider society, and; address the root causes of protection problems that require wider social and political change. Where religion is used a tool to incite and drive conflicts, and polarise and divide communities, FBOs and LFCs also have a unique ability to work with and through their faith communities to counteract extremist views, and reconcile the conflicts and tensions that drive displacement and fuel conflict.

Last but not least, faith plays a huge role in the lives of crisis-affected communities and not knowing or being sensitive to this reality results in barriers, unexpected results, missed opportunities to persuade and mobilise communities, and even unintentional harm. Conversely, FBOs and LFCs understand the role that faith plays in helping people recover from abuses (healing, reconciliation, psychosocial support etc.) and can provide relevant support (spiritual confirmation, religious guidance, counselling etc.). They also provide ‘safe spaces’ (both safe physical spaces and spaces for affected communities to organise and empower themselves).

Yet while the potential benefits are huge, there are real challenges. Many FBOs lack technical protection expertise. There are real and perceived fears of proselytising. Some may not be willing to take up sensitive protection issues. Being rooted in traditional cultures and beliefs, they may be creating and perpetuating harmful traditional practices or stigmas (HIV AIDs, LGBTI and SGBV), while other faith leaders and FBOs try to address these practices from within. Additionally, while many FBOs retained relative impartiality and neutrality, and most subscribed to humanitarian principles or their equivalents, others have been divided and polarised within tense political systems.

Last but not least, we must also recognise that we are not starting from scratch. FBO interlocutors as well as inter-faith actors, many of which have contributed to this edition of FMR, have been navigating between local faith actors and humanitarians and donors for decades and can provide valuable insights and ways of bridging the divide and fostering practical protection partnerships.

1 For more details on the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Faith and Protection and UNHCR-NGO Dialogues on Faith and Protection, along with the global survey findings and other resource papers and follow-up work, see http://www.unhcr.org/pages/501a39ce6.html
2 Indeed, as recently affirmed by faith leaders and scholars of the world’s major religions, there is a common obligation to ‘welcome the stranger’, which for centuries has had major impact in extending hospitality to those in need while discouraging racism and xenophobia. See: “Welcoming the Stranger: Affirmations for Faith Leaders” See: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/501a39ce6.html

James Thomson is Associate Director of Policy and Advocacy with Act for Peace.

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