From Charity to Caritas: Re-thinking Disaster Relief

This Encounter re-imagines the concept of charity in response to disasters around the globe.

Contributed by: Francesco Paganini

When it comes to the concept of humanitarian aid as a fundamental right, we Christians have allowed ourselves to fall behind the secular community. Nowhere is that manifested more dramatically than in the notion of “charity” that is still pervasive among many Christian donors and those who implement humanitarian aid.

A look at how humanitarian aid is approached by the faith agents who provide it would enable us to judge whether or not our conception of charity is consistent with the Christian mandate. Since the discussion here is about language, we need to make a small but profound distinction between two basic concepts of charity. The first follows the traditional definition of charity as “the voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need.” This is often the mindset with which many approach humanitarian aid. Under this definition, aid is provided voluntarily (that is, optionally) and is motivated by an emotional response. The other form of charity, distinguished by use of the Latin term caritas, is viewed not as a voluntary action but as an obligation brought on by the love of God and by Christ’s call for his disciples to love one another. (John 15:12)

While there is no doubt that faith-based donors and aid providers are having a profound and meaningful impact on humanitarian response, there is still significant room for improvement. Making a distinction between the two ideas of charity may seem minor, but a true shift to the caritas approach would have a profound impact on the way faith agents see humanitarian aid. The implications are too numerous to be exhaustively examined here, but a look at the faith community’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti will illustrate how far we still have to go to fully embrace the Christian paradigm of aid.

Disaster Risk Reduction

The faith-based community’s response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a manifestation of profound solidarity. The Haiti earthquake also showcased the capability of modern technology to deliver an ongoing disaster right into our homes. As a result, there was a massive, almost instantaneous outpouring of support by Christians for those impacted by the earthquake.

Now consider the response to a catastrophe if, all along, such aid was embraced by Christians as a mandate rather than a charitable choice. We might well place greater emphasis on foresight and preparation by building up the resilience of vulnerable communities before a disaster strikes. A continuing mandate would enable Christian responders to invest more efficiently in disaster preparedness, thus mitigating the damage done when an actual disaster occurs.

This is not a revolutionary concept but an approach that many government donors have already embraced. USAID’s Office of Disaster Assistance is increasingly focusing on disaster risk reduction (DRR). This agency is fully aware that public pressure to respond to an increasing number of disasters around the globe will strain its financial resources and reduce its capability for response. Similarly, Christian donors and institutions should be clamoring for disaster responders to identify high-risk areas so that they can invest their support in reducing the impact of potential disasters in these highly vulnerable spots.

This logical solicitation and use of funds allows UMCOR to continue performing the duties with which the Methodist community has entrusted us. Still, it has been challenging to communicate our continuing need for risk-reduction funding and activities because such work does not elicit the kind of strong emotional reaction as does a response to an immediate desperate need. This challenge can best be met through a reinterpretation of aid as an ongoing obligation. Once humanitarian aid is regarded as an entitlement, it makes sense to invest in disaster risk reduction as a way to minimize our liabilities for future major events.

Francesco Paganini is the manager for International Disaster Response, United Methodist Committee on Relief. This article is an adaptation from one that originally appeared in the September-October 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.

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