INVOLVING religious leaders in international aid organisations’ responses to humanitarian disasters makes the responses more effective and helps the organisations to reach more people in need, the report on a new project suggests.
A pilot “bridge-builders” programme in South Sudan brought together Christian and Muslim leaders with international aid agencies, as part of the working out of a United Nations vision that aid should be as “local as possible, as international as necessary”.
The programme included coaching on WhatsApp, and involved Tearfund, Islamic Relief, the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities, and the University of Leeds.
South Sudan was chosen for the pilot programme because of the reliance of half of its population on aid, after years of conflict and natural disasters.
In previous emergencies, such as the outbreak of the Ebola virus, local religious leaders have been crucial to the successful exchange of health advice. During the Covid-19 pandemic, international aid agencies have had restricted access to many areas, while faith leaders have been able to continue to respond directly to the needs of their communities.
Joan Jane Moses, who works for the diocese of Kajo Keji, said: “Before taking part in the Bridge Builders project, we were simply seen as a Church. At the moment, we are facing the coronavirus pandemic; but we’re seeing how this model has equipped us with the skills to take part in humanitarian co-ordination meetings, and access life-saving funds to support returnees living in the refugee camps.”
The South Sudan country director for Tearfund, Anthony Rama, said that the improved relationships fostered by the programme had led to closer working during the pandemic. The diocese of Kajo Keji had opened up its premises to humanitarian agencies for use as office space and for deliveries of aid, and the diocese of Aweil was working closely with Tearfund to lead a food-distribution programme and mobilise the community to help.
He said that understanding had improved on both sides. “Faith leaders and people of faith understand the local challenges, and are present before, during, and after a crisis.
“The coronavirus pandemic has added pressure to existing challenges in South Sudan, which is facing a combination of threats, including locusts’ invading East Africa [News, 14 February] and the effects of flooding last year, which destroyed crops and cattle. Half of South Sudan’s population is facing increased food insecurity.”
Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are continuing in South Sudan. Borders and non-essential businesses are still closed.
A report on the pilot programme concluded that aid agencies had much to learn from religious leaders, who had an in-depth understanding of the communities that the aid agencies were trying to reach. Aid agencies should examine what had stopped them from working with religious groups in the past, and remove barriers to future working, the report suggested.
The Bishop of Salisbury, Dr Nicholas Holtam, has launched an emergency appeal for South Sudan. He hopes that it will raise £50,000 in 30 days. Tearfund has also launched an appeal.
“The funds raised will be divided equally between the Churches in Sudan and South Sudan, with which Salisbury Diocese has been in close partnership for almost 50 years,” a statement said.
Bishop Holtam said on Tuesday: “Our own problems with COVID-19 in this country are significant, but our brothers and sisters in South Sudan and Sudan face even greater problems with even less resources.
“The pandemic has added another frightening aspect to lives in the Sudan where ‘normal’ includes hunger and the threat of disease.”
Tearfund has launched an appeal to help feed 1.3 million children who are at risk of becoming acutely malnourished in South Sudan. In three districts of the country, Tearfund is the only agency running feeding programmes.