Religious Literacy: Critical for Both Secular and Faith-Inspired Humanitarian INGOs

March 31, 2017
Humanitarian action
Netting a trade and income in Northern Lebanon. Photo: Russell Watkins/DFID

Both secular and faith-inspired international humanitarian organizations would benefit from a higher level of religious literacy to understand the religious dimensions of the contexts in which they work, concludes a new report by researchers from Oxfam and the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School.

The findings in the report are the result of a months-long scoping research project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. It examined how international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) like Oxfam, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Islamic Relief, and others engage with local religious groups and religion in their work promoting leadership of humanitarian action by local and national humanitarian actors in crisis-affected countries.

For example, the report, “Local Humanitarian Leadership and Religious Literacy: Engaging with Religion, Faith, and Faith Actors,” found that faith-inspired humanitarian INGOs tend to work in networks of local religious groups, and primarily partner, support, and promote local faith actors as local humanitarian leaders. On the other hand, secular humanitarian INGOs tend to partner with secular local actors and engage with local faith groups or institutions on an ad hoc basis.

As the lead researcher for the project Tara Gingerich summarized, “If Oxfam and other humanitarian INGOs are serious about promoting local humanitarian leadership—if we truly believe that government and civil society in countries preparing for and responding to emergencies are almost always best placed to lead those efforts—then we cannot continue to avoid an entire segment of those actors: local religious actors.” The research confirmed, however, that engagement with local faith actors in local humanitarian leadership work offers both great opportunities and sizeable risks, necessitating a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the roles religion and religions play in local contexts.

The authors concluded that “a greater level of religious literacy would benefit humanitarian INGOs in all of their work, both in direct implementation, partnerships with local actors, and work to support and promote the capacity and leadership of such actors.” They also found that humanitarian INGO staff interviewed for the report were open to the idea of adding religious literacy to their skill sets.

"This report affirms the importance of better literacy about religion for those engaged in humanitarian action in diverse contexts,” said Diane L. Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project and one of the report’s authors. “Individuals from both secular and faith-inspired organizations indicate that a better understanding of how religions function in local contexts will deepen their cultural competence and enhance their abilities to support local humanitarian leadership. We at the Religious Literacy Project look forward to collaborating with Oxfam and others to develop useful resources and pilot training modules in response to this scoping report."

Gingerich, a senior humanitarian researcher with Oxfam, said that “this issue is only going to become more critical, given the commitments international actors—donor governments, UN agencies, and humanitarian INGOs—have made about increasing their support to local actors.”

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The Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School is dedicated to enhancing and promoting the public understanding of religion. It provides resources and special training opportunities for educators, journalists, public health workers, foreign service officers, interfaith/multifaith groups, students, and others wishing to better understand the complex roles that religions play in contemporary global, national, and local contexts. Learn more at rlp.hds.harvard.edu.

Oxfam is a global movement of people working together to end the injustice of poverty. With 70 years of experience in more than 90 countries, Oxfam takes on the big issues that keep people poor: inequality, discrimination, and unequal access to resources including food, water, and land. It helps people save lives in disasters, build stronger futures for themselves, and hold the powerful accountable.