The U.N. Refugee Agency and Religions for Peace have since formed an advisory council on humanitarian and displacement issues. UNICEF has developed recent guidance for faith leaders on how to adapt religious practices and rituals during the pandemic.
UNICEF also quickly expanded a pilot project in five countries to become a global initiative, aimed at developing a comprehensive approach to engage with all faith-based organizations — not just the Islamic and Christian ones that tend to be more active in development work, according to Kerida McDonald, senior adviser for communication for development at UNICEF.
“When COVID broke out, we identified challenges like stigma, discrimination, and the fact that we had several faiths finding it difficult not to congregate when people are in crisis and need faith the most,” McDonald said. “Issues on religious rituals needed to be looked at more carefully. And also how do you get to the most vulnerable people and develop interventions relevant to their needs?”
“You cannot have just a one-size-fits-all approach. One has to meet the faith leaders in terms of their own constructs and ways of working.”
— Kerida McDonald, senior adviser for communication for development, UNICEF
Bridging a religious and secular gap
But building partnerships between the U.N. and faith-based organizations can be challenging, experts say. There are questions about how the U.N. can successfully connect with dispersed, local faith-based networks that are not organized through large NGOs.
“Faith communities are always often organized around churches, mosques, etc. and don’t have a formal organizational system. So it makes it quite complicated. There are also criteria for U.N. organizations to partner with others that can cause some organizations to hesitate,” said Annette Jansen, an anthropology professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and a policy adviser on religion, conflict, and secularism.
There are also issues regarding human rights concerns, proselytism, and the role of women in religious networks.
“Because religious leaders are predominantly men, there is a challenge overall on engagement because it has to be initiated through men,” McDonald said. In Niger, UNICEF had to do a risk mitigation exercise before conducting participatory consultations with communities, including women. “In some ways, you cannot have just a one-size-fits-all approach. One has to meet the faith leaders in terms of their own constructs and ways of working,” she said.
But religious organizations can sometimes also be finely attuned to cultural barriers that the U.N. might miss, experts say. And concern that faith-based organizations do not carry out development work according to U.N. standards has evolved, according to Sharif Aly, CEO of Islamic Relief USA.
“There was a misunderstanding and maybe even a bit of arrogance that the science of humanitarian and development work, the U.N. was at the forefront of accomplishing this, while FBOs are not at that level. I think that has changed,” said Aly, who noted that more than 80% of the world’s population subscribes to a faith. Islamic Relief is the World Food Programme’s largest implementing partner in Yemen.
“There is a major mistrust of the U.N. in a lot of the global south. It is not perceived as a neutral party. So if there is a positive agenda to help vulnerable people, like the SDGs [U.N. Sustainable Development Goals], the problem is not the SDGs; it is what is behind the agenda,” Aly said. “The only way to build that out is through trust. FBOs have been working for a long time and have built a lot of trust.”
Next steps forward
More capacity building is likely needed, though, to further engage faith-based organizations, according to Margaret Schuler, senior vice president of international programs at World Vision. The Christian humanitarian response group works closely with the World Food Programme and other U.N. agencies in more than 27 countries.”