Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Faith, Relief and Development: The UMCOR-Muslim Aid Model Seven Years On

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Faith, Relief and Development: The UMCOR-Muslim Aid Model Seven Years On

Article excerpt

On 26 June 2007, a ground-breaking partnership was formalised at the Houses of Parliament in London between the UK Islamic NGO Muslim Aid (MA)1 and the US Christian NGO the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR)2. The longterm vision for this partnership was to develop a model whereby a consortium of faith-based organisations (FBOs) would work together to bring relief, development, peace and reconciliation and provide a space for developing mutual respect and understanding in a world where faith is increasingly manipulated as a tool to drive conflict rather than resolve it. An article in FMR issue 30 in 2008 covered the story of the partnership and challenges that were anticipated. Some of the anticipated challenges proved prophetic and, seven years on, the partnership - although operating as an occasional cross-funding mechanism - as originally envisaged has yet to reach the hopes of those early days.

The beginning of partnership

In August 2006, the Muslim majority town of Muttur (in Sri Lanka's Trincomalee District) was attacked by the LTTE. Efforts by aid agencies, the UN and the Red Cross to negotiate a humanitarian corridor into the town came to nothing, and a few days later most of the inhabitants fled to the Sinhalese majority town of Kantale. With the influx of tens of thousands of IDPs, the Kanthale area, already under-resourced, was extremely tense and violence was common.

Most NGOs had left but UMCOR and MA were still working in the area. As the crisis developed, the two agencies gravitated towards each other and within a couple of days were working together, setting up a joint field office and warehouse, and sharing staff, vehicles, aid supplies and logistical support. Both agencies worked in coordination with their respective faith and community leaders and councils to coordinate the mobilisation of thousands of volunteers. MA engaged with the imams, the coordinating council for Muslim theologians and communities, discussing the impartial nature of humanitarianism with them and vouching for UMCOR staff's neutrality. Discussions centred on the imperative of both faiths to serve humanity and reduce the suffering of the disadvantaged - language which people could understand and relate to. UMCOR did the same through local Methodist priests in Christian areas, and with Hindus whom the priests knew. MA and UMCOR also jointly approached the local Buddhist chief monk to ask for help in bringing aid to the beleaguered Buddhist community; with the chief monk's support, inter-faith cooperation flourished, with the Buddhist temple becoming an aid distribution centre. The UMCOR-MA partnership continued once the emergency was over and it was agreed to work on developing a longer-term institutional partnership.

Difficulties in developing the partnership

Developing the partnership in the form that was envisaged was always going to be problematic. The concern that the Sri Lankan experience owed more to personal friendships between staff members of the two NGOs proved to be justified. Within a year after formalising the partnership, many key staff at the field offices in Sri Lanka had left or been replaced as had some key headquarters-based leadership which had supported the initiative. There were thus no opportunities for an incubation period in which the relationships at field and particularly at senior HQ levels required to cement the partnership could grow and develop. The staff changes left the NGOs with few senior staff who had been involved in developing the partnership and with little knowledge of the initiative.

Even though the partnership remained strong at the grassroots level for a while, it failed to garner enough support with two stakeholders: file faith communities in the NGOs' home countries which formed their core support, and the trustee/senior management level at HQ. For UMCOR there was negative reaction from some in the Christian community in the US while some in the Muslim community in the UK also reportedly voiced dissent. …

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