Faith, Relief and Development - the partnership between Muslim Aid and the United Methodist Committee on Relief in Sri Lanka 2005-08
Amjad Saleem - Muslim Aid Country Director, Sri Lanka
Dr Gerard Clarke - Senior Lecturer in Development Studies, CSES, University of Swansea
John Battle MP - Chair of APGOOD
The argument advanced was that faith-based organisations (fbos) have a major role in disaster relief (eg 5/13 DEC interventions are by fbos) because, having local roots, they are trusted more. Yet in longer-term activities, official agencies, not excluding DfID over the years, tend to see religion as counter-developmental, and prefer dealing with secular ngos. Even many faith-based ngos have tended to secularise themselves as a result of the wish to deal with offical development partners and to access their funds.
This strongly secular approach began to shift not with 9/11 but about a decade ago, triggered by the realisation in research for the World Bank's Voices of the Poor (where officials were surprised by the extent that poor people were faith-dependent and preferred the influence and agency of fbos) and the inter-faith working group developed by James Wolfensohn and Lord Carey, with Moslem and other religious leaders.
The enormous amount of funds raised for the December 2004 tsunami relief effort meant that relief needed to be rapidly transformed into a development effort. In the example of Sri Lanka operations, fbos had the best links with local populations, given Sri Lanka 's diversity, but found themselves duplicating each others' work.
Instead, Muslim Aid and UMCOR decided to work together in a common cause. They not only had the same secular relief and development aims, the particular political circumstances of Sri Lanka meant their common aim for partnership towards peace and reconciliation meant they had similar moral aims too. The argument was advanced that in fact faith was the "missing link" and that rather than 'taking God out of development', fbos were better than governments at 'taking conflict out of development'. Similar partnerships were now being tried in Lebanon and Bangladesh .
Nonetheless, there are difficulties:
Representation on the ground/sharing facilities
Compliance needs (especially by the lawyers of US ngos)
Resistance of supporters (some Moslems and many US Christian groups could be ultra-conservative)
Need to keep relevance to grassroots interests
Doubts whether funding and means raised and deployed were necessarily doubled when the effort was merged
Still, experience showed that many of the above could be overcome with a liberal outlook and a carefully-structured partnership approach.
Participants at the meeting from Nigel Varndell of Christian Aid to Lord (Leslie) Griffiths praised these achievements, warning however of the risk of backlash - no less a development expert than Amartya Sen had issued increasingly urgent warnings against "partitioning by religion".
John Battle was in the chair and spoke of his own experience in Asia and in his Leeds constituency.
The work between Muslim Aid and UMCOR in post-Tsunami Sri Lanka was formalised as a global cross-faith partnership in 2007. The partners have since done work together in Bangladesh and Lebanon, with plans for Indonesia and Cambodia under way. Dr Clarke has undertaken fieldwork for the research in New York, London and Sri Lanka and presented a paper assessing the partnership to the annual meeting of the Development Studies Association of the UK and Ireland three days before this APGOOD meeting. This meeting discussed their experiences.