Re-Defining Humanitarian Aid

This Encounter takes a unique approach to humanitarian aid, suggesting a focus on local empowerment.

Contributed by: Francesco Paganini

Local Empowerment

The ever-increasing desire that motivates people of faith to engage directly in the provision of service—thereby displacing professional aid workers—is another manifestation of humanitarian aid as traditional charity. One needs to fly only once from New York City to Port au Prince, Haiti, to understand the sheer volume of faith-based volunteers traveling to Haiti every day. They go to engage in recovery activities—but some such activities could probably be better performed by Haitians themselves. In a context where responding to a disaster is considered a duty rather than an option, faith communities would seek to build and rely on the capacity of local responders. Such responders function at lower costs and can provide quicker and more culturally appropriate aid. Instead, we continue to look for an emotional “direct connection,” regardless of whether that is our most effective role.

While many within the church world have complained about being told to “pay, pray, and get out of the way,” the fact is that, if humanitarian aid is not considered a “voluntary” action, then our ultimate goal should be to provide it in the most financially efficient way. This is not to say that volunteers from afar are never needed. It means that, in choosing when to use such volunteers, faith donors unfortunately are not considering efficiency as the primary criterion affecting their decision.

In a world that typically experiences at least one disaster per day, it behooves the faith community—given its biblical mandate to respond—to pursue greater levels of efficiency. Doing so would also mean demanding that our implementing partners use national staff as often as possible. Both implementers and funders in Haiti (and elsewhere) aren’t doing that right now. A shift to the more Christian paradigm of caritas (seeing love of neighbor as mandate rather than voluntary) would increase the pressure to do so.

Undignified Depictions

Perhaps the most disturbing distortion of the Christian mandate is the continuing use of exploitative imagery and language in fundraising. While the Christian community is not the sole perpetrator of this practice—secular agencies also being culpable—the practice violates a fundamental tenet of the Christian perspective: recognizing and respecting the human dignity of every individual.

The evidence of this distortion in Haiti is overwhelming. Christian organizations used a tsunami of graphic and exploitative images to solicit funds both within and outside of their faith communities. This kind of manipulation shows that many within the implementing agencies continue to opt for an emotional approach—invoking pity, which traditional charity requires, rather than relying on the Christian mandate of caritas. To my knowledge, not a single faith entity asked its members to give to the response effort simply because they were Christians and the need was verified. 

It will be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for many members of the Christian community to disavow charity and to embrace caritas. However, it’s fully possible to make significant progress toward that goal. Ultimately, the shift needs to start with faith leaders, whether they occupy pulpits or administrative offices. Those leaders can begin by embracing the Christian understanding that humanitarian aid should not depend on an emotional response manifesting itself as charity. Instead, aiding others in distress is a fundamental mandate of the Christian faith. This is a sermon that needs to be both preached and practiced. The mindset that embraces caritas instead of charity will manifest itself in church leaders who refrain from sending their constituents to do disaster recovery work when people already on the scene can do a less expensive, more effective job. It will mean choosing to invest in disaster risk reduction not because of some emotional connection but because of a cost-benefit analysis. (There are plenty of unreported and underfunded disasters we can respond to with the funds we save.) It will be most clearly visible when those who now choose to use emotive images or stories that exploit the victims and deny their human dignity are no longer rewarded with the lion’s share of funding.

Finally, it is in liberating ourselves from the traditional definition of charity that we are free to embrace the Christian concept of caritas. Caritas redefines aid as flowing freely from a God-mandated love for our neighbors. This kind of love doesn’t leave room for choice or convenience. It stems directly from the sincere, wholehearted, fully liberating assignment given to us by Jesus: that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.

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

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Giving of Ourselves as Prayer: Disaster

How can you think more deeply about giving to disaster preparedness and relief?

Extra wide 156534453 giving of ourselves

When we give as an agent of God, we must do so from a place of equality—for in every case we recognize that the person we are giving to is also an agent of God. By seeing other people as the image of the divine, they can recognize the same in us. With this kind of giving, we are able to build relationships through sacred sharing instead of creating hierarchical distance.

In this way, giving can be a spiritual practice, a kind of prayer that recognizes God’s presence in each person.

Begin this practice by letting images from your Encounter with disaster and human dignity return to your mind.

  • What did you see that was most compelling?
  • How can you use your resources to allow these people to avoid a similar experience?
  • How do you find connection, through your shared humanity, to those who have survived disasters?

Giving of yourself can take a lot of different forms, but the two primary ways are giving of resources and giving of time. As you reflect on how you can give of yourself to disaster relief and preparedness, have a conversation with a friend about what you have encountered here. In your conversation, discuss ways that you can give of yourself – your time, your resources, your love – for those who struggle because they do not have access to clean water or proper sanitation. 

To go deeper, see “Giving of Ourselves as Prayer.”

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Take Action

Assemble an UMCOR Birthing Kit

Put together a Birthing Kit that provides materials for a safe birth even in difficult circumstances.

UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief) Birthing Kits provide materials that will help create a safe birthing environment for mothers and babies.  

Assembly & Shipping Instructions

Birthing Kit Materials

  • 1 small bar of soap
    • 1-2 oz. size;
    • Do not remove from original packaging;
    • Small bars such as those found in hotels are acceptable.
  • 1 pair thin gloves
    • Surgical, latex, or thin rubber gloves are acceptable.
  • 1 square yard of clear plastic sheeting
    • Must be 4 mil thick;
    • Plastic trash bags and shower curtains are not acceptable.
  • 3 12-inch long pieces of cotton string
    • Must be clean;
    • Secure the pieces of string by bundling and tying them together;
    • No yarn please. 
  • 1 single-edge razor blade
    • Must be covered in paper or cardboard to keep it from causing injury;
    • Regular shaving razors are not acceptable.
  • 2 receiving blankets
    • Sizes may range from 28 x 28 inches to 32 x 32 inches;
    • No thermal or fleece blankets please.
  • 1 plastic bag
    • One gallon-size sealable bag only.

Assembly Directions

Fold the plastic sheeting and blankets so they will fit easily into the plastic bag. Lay the loose items on top of the blankets and plastic sheeting. Slide all items into the plastic bag. Squeeze as much air out of the bag as possible and then seal it.

Important Notes

  • All items must be new.
  • Do not wash any of the items as they will then be considered used.
  • All emergency kits are carefully planned to make them usable in the greatest number of situations. Since strict rules often govern product entry into international countries, it is important that kits contain only the requested items, nothing more. 
  • Do not include any personal notes, money, or additional material in the kits. These things must be painstakingly removed and will delay the shipment. 

Packing & Shipping Instructions

  • Box Weight: Each packed box cannot exceed 66 pounds.
  • Complete 2 packing lists: one for your records and one to put on the shipping box.
  • Paste the shipping label / packing list on the outside of each box you send. The shipping list helps the depot to quickly process kits.
  • Processing & Shipping Costs: Please enclose an envelope containing at least $1 for each kit you send. This donation enables kits to be sent to areas in need. For Cleaning Buckets, please enclose $1.50.

UMCOR Sager Brown Depot 
PO Box 850 
131 Sager Brown Road 
Baldwin, LA 70514-0850 

Contact For Help: 1-800-814-8765

Click here fore more information.

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