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Examining the role of faith communities and faith-based organisations (FBOs) in humanitarian response

A man prays near a checkpoint on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border IRIN / J Hilton
A man prays near a checkpoint on the Syrian side of the Turkish-Syrian border

Although faith communities and faith-based organisations (FBOs) are often at the forefront of humanitarian responses to people affected by conflict, crisis and forced migration across the globe, little is known about the scale, nature and impacts of their interventions.

Aims

This three-stage project has explored the motivations and practices of faith communities and FBOs in their response to forced displacement around the world. A range of key questions explored include:

  • To what extent do faith-based initiatives challenge or complement international humanitarian norms of neutrality, impartiality and universality?
  • How do displaced populations interact with faith-based and secular humanitarian organisations, including those which may attempt to proselytise amongst displaced populations?
  • How do displaced people themselves develop faith-based humanitarian responses?
  • What are the gendered underpinnings and implications of faith-based humanitarian responses?

These and other questions are examined in relation to specific contexts of displacement from across the global south (with a particular focus on the Middle East), and engage with displaced populations and aid providers of diverse religious backgrounds.

Stage One (2010–2011)

Funded by The Henry Luce Foundation, The Commonwealth Foundation and DFID


Stage one involved a one-day international workshop with 60 scholars and practitioners on ‘Faith-based humanitarianism: the response of faith-based communities and faith-based organisations in the context of forced migration’ held at the Refugee Studies Centre in September 2010. Download the event reportListen to a podcast of the closing lecture by Dr Elizabeth Ferris, The Brookings Institute. Selected conference papers were subsequently published as part of a Special Issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies guest edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasimyeh (Sept 2011, Vol 24, No 3).

Stage Two (2012–2014)

Funded by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities


In stage two of this project, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh collaborated with a 'Joint Learning Initiative' on Local Faith Communities and Resilience involving academics, policy makers, practitioners and representatives from a diversity of faith communities to explore the nature and impacts of initiatives developed by local faith communities in humanitarian situations. A major JLI scoping report edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Alastair Ager (Program on Forced Migration & Health, Columbia University) was published in February 2013 as an RSC/JLI Working Paper, and a Forced Migration Online resource summary page on local faith communities and humanitarianism was launched in April 2013.

Stage Three (2014–)

Funded by The Henry Luce Foundation


The third stage of the project, 'Engendering understandings of faith-based humanitarian responses to displacement', explores the intersections between gender and faith-based responses to forced migration, with a particular focus on the gendered nature and implications of local faith communities’ responses to displacement from Syria. In-depth field research will be conducted with refugees and local faith communities in Lebanon in 2014 and 2015, and an international workshop will be held in 2015 to provide a space for meaningful debate and mutual learning on this important topic between academics, policy-makers, practitioners and displaced persons themselves. 

Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh is now based at the Department of Geography, UCL, where she is continuing this research. Read more>>

Activities and impacts

In January 2013, Elena was awarded the Lisa Gilad Prize by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) for 'the most innovative and thoughtful contribution to the advancement of refugee studies' in 2011 and 2012. The prize was awarded in recognition of her article 'The pragmatics of performance: putting 'faith' in aid in the Sahrawi refugee camps' which was published in the Special Issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies which she edited on Faith-Based Humanitarianism in Contexts of Forced Displacement in 2011 (vol 24, issue 3).

Presentations and workshops related to this project have engaged various academic, civil society, and religious and policy representatives:

  • 'Engendering Understandings of Faith-based Humanitarianism,' Keynote Lecture presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the 'Migration, Faith and Action' conference at the University of Oxford, May 2014 
  • 'Engaging Religion for Development,' contribution by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh to an expert panel discussion at the Westminster Faith Debates, London, May 2014
  • 'Humanitarianism and the Veiling of Religious Markers in the Sahrawi Refugee Camps,' paper presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the 'Religion in Diaspora' conference at Wadham College, University of Oxford, July 2012
  • 'Perspectives from Practice: A Response,' presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the Second Meeting of the Learning Hub Advisory Group on Local Faith Communities and Resilience in Humanitarian Situations, Lambeth Palace, May 2012
  • 'Introductory Reflections on Local Faith Communities and Humanitarian Situations', presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the First Meeting of the Learning Hub Advisory Group on Local Faith Communities and Resilience in Humanitarian Situations, Lambeth Palace, April 2012
  • ‘Reflections on Faith-Based Humanitarianism in Contexts of Displacement’, presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the launch of the Special Issue of the Journal of Refugee Studies, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University, November 2011
  • ‘Conflicting missions? The Politics of Evangelical Humanitarianism in Middle Eastern and North African Protracted Refugee Situations’ presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the ‘Transnational Religion, Missionisation, and Refugee Migrants in Comparative Perspective’ conference, Max Planck Institute, October 2011
  • ‘The Tyranny of Tolerance? Mobilising evangelical humanitarianism in the Sahrawi refugee camps’ presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the Conference ‘Faith-Based Organisations and Humanitarian Aid’ jointly organised by Friedensau University and the Max Planck Institute, April 2011
  • ‘Invoking Inter-Faith Dialogues and Good Muslim Refugees: a North African case-study’ presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at ‘The Modern Maghreb’ conference, Oxford University, March 2011
  • ‘The Pragmatics of Performance: putting “faith” in aid’ presented by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh at the conference 'Faith-Based Humanitarianism: The response of faith communities and faith-based organizations to people affected by conflict, crisis and forced migration', Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University, September 2010
  • A one-day international workshop with 60 scholars and practitioners on ‘Faith-based humanitarianism: the response of faith-based communities and faith-based organisations in the context of forced migration’ held at the Refugee Studies Centre in September 2010. Download the event reportListen to a podcast of the closing lecture by Dr Elizabeth Ferris, The Brookings Institute

Research in the news

The RSC/JLI Working Paper on  Local Faith Communities and the promotion of resilience in humanitarian situations edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Alastair Ager, and a blog posting by RSC/JLI researcher Joey Ager discussing the report, were referenced in The Guardian's article Faith-based organisations: should dogma be left out of development? (20 May 2013). Elena subsequently contributed to a debate on this subject on 23 May 2013, and her key insights are included here'Keep the Faith: 12 thoughts on dogma and development' (The Guardian, 10 June 2013)

In July 2013, Elena was invited to contribute to The Immanent Frame- a forum established by the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) - alongside other leading figures working on the intersections between religion, secularism and the public sphere, in response to the news that the US Department of State has announced the creation of a new office that will focus on addressing religious persecution and/by engaging with religious organisations around the world. Elena's contribution addresses the polemics of state-led 'religious engagement' in contexts of displacement and humanitarian crises. Read her contribution here: 'Engaging Religion at the Department of State' (The Immanent Frame, July 2013).

Our team

Selected publications