Faith can greatly help those suffering from humanitarian disasters, and humanitarian aid groups who take inspiration from their faith.
But at what point does that faith take the form of proselytizing?
“Does Faith-based Humanitarian Aid Deliver Relief or Redemption?” a panel discussion hosted by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs on May 15, brought into focus the complexities that have been inherent in that question for centuries.
The panel was moderated by Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Ph.D., associate professor of political science, Northwestern University.
Susan Martin, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration, at Georgetown University, noted that the question of whether an aid worker should impose their beliefs on a local population is not limited to faith-based groups.
“I’m a proponent of women being very strongly involved in participating in decisions on aid.” In certain cultural contexts, she said, that position on women could be considered a sensitive one.
“It’s proselytizing, even if it’s on what we may consider a set of universal human rights. It’s not necessarily going to be taken by the local population in that same way. All humanitarian aid workers very often face this issue: to what extent do your values determine the way in which you provide relief and assistance?”
Masood Hyder, consultant at the United Nations World Food Program, Development Program and Office of Humanitarian Affairs, likewise noted an overlapping of the secular with the religious. On his first humanitarian assignment supervising the delivery of grain to Ethiopia in 1984, he found himself in charge of distributing a ship’s worth of corn to thousands of hungry people, through a potentially disorganized process.
“A thought struck me quite forcibly, that I was engaged in a job that was not like an ordinary job. If I did it well, I could be really helpful to many thousands of people, but if I did it badly, there might be consequences not only here, but also up there,” he said, gesturing upward.
“At the pearly gates, I might be told, ‘We gave you an opportunity to help your fellow creatures down there in Djibouti, and you blew it.’ So there is something spiritual about humanitarianism that affects not only those who come with their faith, but also those doing [secular]work.”
Hyder predicted that the contours of humanitarian aid would change soon, as future populations that require assistance will no longer be found exclusively in poor countries, but also rising ones. The challenge will be to help them influence domestic policy.
David Rieff, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (Simon & Schuster, 2003), was in agreement, alluding to the fact that, for all the advances India has made, 46 percent of Indian children are stunted from early-childhood malnutrition.
Humanitarian aid, he said, has historically been driven by religion and colonialism, and it has only been in the last century that secular organizations, such as Save The Children, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders, were founded.
Kenneth Gavin, S.J., assistant international director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), said the work of Mourad Abou Seif, S.J., in Aleppo, Syria illustrates how JRS is able to offer humanitarian aid to people of all faiths. Nine months ago, he said, a brother of the groups’ night watchman was killed in crossfire.
In spite of the danger to himself, Father Mourad put the boy’s body in his car at dusk and drove across town with the lights out to the Muslim cemetery, where the boy’s family buried him in their faith’s tradition.
“JRS is truly inspired by faith, but a faith that is inclusive rather than exclusive,” he said. “We believe in the intrinsic value of every human being, and because of that, we do not proselytize. Rather, we strongly support the right of all people to religious freedom.”
“With other faiths and other like-minded partners, we share common human values, such as justice, dialogue, peace and reconciliation. [They are] the sustaining force for a viable, workable community.”