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 in Turkey.
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 organisations are at the forefront of providing aid. In fact, they are already there before the conflict and during the conflict and when the international organisations 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 added, “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 organisation a bigger role is to recognise 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 on May 23. He said “the current humanitarian system of donors too often fails to recognise them.”
Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of 165 Catholic relief, development and social service organisations 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 one million refugees, mainly Syrians.
UN 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 organisations 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 recognise 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 utilise 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.”
Mgr Robert Vitillo, who heads Caritas Internationalis representation to the United Nations in Geneva, echoed his sentiments.
“Local and faith-based organisations 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 Mgr Vitillo, who will become the new secretary-general of the International Catholic Migration Commission on June 1.
Mgr 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 marginalised 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,” Mgr 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 realising that the role of faith is really necessary to engage in crisis and solutions is very positive.”
Fr 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.”
Meanwhile, Pope Francis sent a message to the summit urging participants to “contribute in a real way to alleviate the sufferings of millions” because of conflicts, violence, persecution and natural disasters.
“In this context, the victims are those who are most vulnerable, those who live in conditions of misery and exploitation,” the Pope said in his message. His remarks were read by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to a group that included 57 heads of states or governments with the aim of fixing the “broken” humanitarian aid system.
“Today I offer a challenge to this summit: Let us hear the cry of the victims and those suffering. Let us allow them to teach us a lesson in humanity. Let us change our ways of life, politics, economic choices, behaviors and attitudes of cultural superiority,” the Pope said.
“Learning from victims and those who suffer, we will be able to build a more humane world .”
He added: “First of all, we must do this in a personal way, and then together, coordinating our strengths and initiatives, with mutual respect for our various skills and areas of expertise, not discriminating but rather welcoming. In other words: There must be no family without a home, no refugee without a welcome, no person without dignity, no wounded person without care, no child without a childhood, no young man or woman without a future, no elderly person without a dignified old age.”
He also said the summit was a chance to recognise those “who serve their neighbour and contribute to consoling the sufferings of the victims of war and calamity, of the displaced and refugees, and who care for society, particularly through courageous choices in favor of peace, respect, healing and forgiveness. This is the way in which human lives are saved.”
Pope Francis said that what was needed today was a “renewed commitment to protect each person in their daily life.”
“At the same time,” he added, “it is necessary to preserve freedom and the social and cultural identity of peoples.”
“Cooperation, dialogue and especially peace” must be pursued, he said.
Aid groups, including Catholic organisations, have welcomed the establishment of the first global fund for education for refugee children, announced during the summit.
“Thirty million children have lost their homes — they must not lose their education,” Kevin Watkins, executive director of the London-based Overseas Development Institute, said earlier. The United Nations estimates that one in four of the world’s school-age children now live in countries affected by a crisis.
The “Education Cannot Wait” initiative initially seeks to raise $3.85 billion to help 20,000 refugee youth over the next five years. Ultimately, it aims to address $11.6 billion needed to support 75 million children worldwide, the institute said.
Until now, education has taken the back seat to other humanitarian assistance, receiving only two per cent of funding from international donors.
Giulia McPherson, assistant director for policy at Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, expressed hope that “this fund will mobilise the global attention that education deserves.”
“The argument we make is that education is certainly a life-saving intervention in addition to water, food, shelter,” she told CNS.
“Education should be offered to refugees at the very start of an emergency as well as in protracted crises because of the benefits it provides, not just in and of itself, but for healing trauma and returning a sense of normalcy to children.”
Acting in his role as UN special envoy for global education, Gordon Brown, former British prime minister, announced the initiative on the first day of the Istanbul gathering. Although the fund was inspired by the refugee crisis in Syria, financial assistance will be available for refugees worldwide who are being denied an education as part of “the largest population of displaced girls and boy since 1945.”
“This must be an agenda for all of us to act. We don’t need rhetoric, but resources. Today we are starting our appeal,” Brown said.