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News & Analysis

Faith Based Organizations Keen To Influence UN Development Agenda

By Kalinga Seneviratne*

BANGKOK (IDN) - 2015 is expected to become a watershed year for shaping the global development agenda with the post-2015 Millennium Development Goals, Sustainable Development models and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) frameworks, all coming up for review at major UN conferences during the year. [P] ARABIC | CHINESE TEXT VERSION PDFGERMAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | KOREAN TEXT VERSION PDF

Thus, the 6th Asian Ministerial Conference On Disaster Risk Reduction (AMCDRR) that concluded in the Thai capital on June 26gave a taste of things to come with a lot of emphasis given to discussion on community based solutions.

The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for DRR, Margareta Wahlström said in an opening remark to the conference that an inclusive and participatory work model is needed where grassroots communities and local government authorities need to play a central role in DRR activity.

In February this year the Civil Society Forum – a group of 38 civil society representatives – that met in Geneva released a position paper on post-2015 Framework for DRR that called for a radical rethink and advocated a community based approach to the problem as well.

“It will involve systemically learning from disaster events about the relative strengths and weakness of current development pathways and provide leverage points to promote the resilience agenda” the paper noted, adding: “civil society has a crucial role in broadening citizens’ participation in formulating and implementing disaster risk management strategies”. This idea was also presented to the AMCDRR in Bangkok at a side event organized by civil society groups.

In an interview with IDN, Harjeet Singh, International Coordinator, Disaster Risk Reduction and Climatic Adaptation of Action Aid noted that the UN has now started to listen more to civil society groups and is opening up spaces for them at UN events. “They invited some of us to join them in Geneva to contribute to this new framework coming up,” he pointed out.

During the five-day deliberations, a number of Faith Based Organizations (FBOs) were very actively promoting the inclusion of them in a more formal manner on UN’s development policy making frameworks.

FBOs held a number of side events and workshops including launching a statement during the Bangkok meeting saying that they are ready to commit to build resilient communities across Asia after a disaster. They argue that they could tap into a large reservoir of committed people at community level to assist in community rebuilding after a disaster.

Ye Win Tun of the World Concern – a Christian global relief and development agency based in Seattle, USA – said that FBOs are everywhere in Myanmar delivering disaster relief and they are the most respected and trusted aid agencies in the country. “Sometimes it is difficult to have paid staff (working on aid projects) but FBOs cam mobilize volunteers quickly and work well with local authorities,” he claimed.

However in a country where Buddhists constitute about 89 percent of the population with many of them among the poorest in the Asian region, they have felt threatened by incursion of aggressive Christian evangelical groups claiming to deliver development assistance. While Ye Win did acknowledge that Christian groups face certain skepticism in the country, and was at pains to emphasize that they work with Buddhist monasteries as well, figures he presented to his local partners included 28 Christian churches and only five Buddhist monasteries.

Action Aid, which is one of the world’s largest secular development aid agencies in the world, Singh argued, also use humanist principles, and they are staunchly neutral when it comes to issues of faith (religion). “We work on a needs based principle,” he told IDN. “We look for partners on the ground who are trusted and acceptable to the local community. They should not be in a charity mold. It’s not about being benevolent but empowering (the community).”

Christian aid groups

The most active among the FOB consortium members present in Bangkok were Christian aid groups such as Catholic relief organization Caritas Asia and ACT Alliance, a coalition of more than 140 churches and affiliated organizations. The only non-Christian member of the consortium was the lay Japanese Buddhist organization Soka Gakkai International (SGI), with members living in 192 countries and territories while there are 93 locally registered constituent SGI organizations.

Since Asia is predominantly a non-Christian continent, there were questions raised whether such a FOB coalition is best equipped to develop what was often mentioned during the conference as “multi-stakeholder collaborations”. It was pointed out that they need to be more broad-based by including Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and also more Buddhist groups since Asia is home to about 500 million Buddhists in addition to an equal number of Muslims, and Hindus.

Jessica Dator Bercilla, a Filipina member of Christian Aid said that as Christians when they deliver disaster aid they need to make God’s presence felt in the community and give people hope. But, when it was argued that since they work mainly with non-Christian communities in Asia that could lead to religious identity conflicts, her response was that “we don’t have to make excuses for our faith. It is because of our faith we do this work (and) we are able to give value to human life.”

When asked by IDN if such strong sentiments of faith could be counterproductive in building resilient and harmonious societies after a disaster, Mani Kumar, Coordinator of Dan Church Aid from Denmark in Myanmar responded: “We need to be very clear about our role as FBOs. We represent constituencies of right holders for whom we are working. Its more about (being considerate about) values and ensuring dignity and lives of people”.

“Any person has a potential to overcome difficulties. Therefore, our approach is not simply ‘to give something’ to the victims,” said Nobuyuki Asai, Program Coordinator Peace Affairs of SGI explaining their Buddhist approach to disaster relief work, in an interview with IDN. “We try to encourage and empower them to develop and use their own inner potential to find and create their own solutions to the problems they face.”

“What we do is not any different from (what) secular organizations (do),” he acknowledged, adding that “most critical point is motivation of FBOs. It’s based on strong faith (in what we do)”.

Asai believes that the roles and function of FBOs are not appropriately recognized by the relevant public administration in case of disasters. “There should be a need to objectively assess the contributions FBOs can make and how they should be positioned in the scheme of disaster relief and recovery,” he argued. “The public administration and FBOs can reach a disaster management agreement so that they can cooperate effectively”.

Zar Gomes, regional coordinator of Caritas Asia argues that indigenous knowledge is sometimes very valuable in disaster relief work and in building risk reduction plans.This knowledge needs to be built into the plans of UN documents such as the Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA2) adopted in Bangkok as the guide for regional action.

“We have brought in a number of community members from our network across Asia to get them to participate in these forums, so that their voices could be accepted into these frameworks,” he told IDN.

When asked, how they cope with the fact that many Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu communities across Asia are suspicious of the Catholic church of trying to convert them, he admitted that it is a challenge for them. “They suspect us of trying to evangelize them. We don’t go to the community to preach to them. We need to get the trust of the community before we start our development work,” he explained. “When we start the work and they find that it’s not about religion but about development, then they embrace us.”

Pre-Christian and pre-Islamic tradition and culture

Perhaps to prove that point, Caritas Asia flew to Bangkok three community leaders of the Subanon indigenous community in Mindanao in the Philippines. According to the Philippines National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Subanons are believed to be one of the few communities that have preserved the pre-Christian and pre-Islamic tradition and culture of the Philippines islands. One of their members, Victoria Cajandig, who spoke at a side event organized by Caritas Asia, described how they are fighting to keep control of the right to live in their ancestral land to which they have a spiritual connection.

Timuay Jose Anoy, Chieftain of the community speaking in the same forum thanked Caritas for creating the platform for them to bring their concerns to the international community. He explained how the government allowed mining to take place on their scared mountain Mount Canatuan. “We have our own traditional rules to protect us from natural disasters, today we need your help to protect us from a man-made disaster,” he appealed to the audience.

Most faith-based communities – whatever their religious affiliations – have a passion to help others, especially the dispossessed and the voiceless. All religions basically have common goals when it comes to concepts like social justice, self-reliance and compassion.

As Caritas demonstrated, when it comes to social justice for the Subanon people religious affiliation is not an issue. Even the Thai government was able to squeeze in the King’s Sufficiency Economics concept into the AMCDRR’s Bangkok Declaration, which is based on a Buddhist principle of controlling one’s cravings and living a sustainable lifestyle that will not negatively impact on the environment and plunder other peoples’ resources to satisfy your greed. Thus, there is much room for FBOs to collaborate if they can see common principles within their teachings.

“Every human being needs to have the basic needs met in a way that enables him to live with dignity. Aid from outside is necessary, and the exploitation of natural and human resources in those countries has to be stopped. For this, we believe it is important that the attitudes of people in developed countries have to change,” Asai told IDN, apparently putting into context how FBOs could cooperate to reform the global development agenda.

“They have to be more tolerant and compassionate and try to understand the world from the viewpoint of a true global citizen. From such a perspective, we feel that the input we are best placed to make is the promotion of inner transformation to develop courage and compassionate action as well as public education.”

*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications in Singapore. (IDN-InDepthNews | June 28, 21014)

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