Photo: Roundtable. Credit: Nobuyuki Asai | SGI - Photo: 2016

Faith Leaders Play Crucial Role in Disaster Risk Reduction

By Jaya Ramachandran

GENEVA (IDN) – Representatives of faith-based organizations (FBOs), United Nations agencies, NGOs and academic institutions have stressed the need for engaging with local faith communities to reduce vulnerability to disaster risk, listening to and taking into account the voices especially of women who are often worst affected.

A round-table ahead of the International Day of Disaster Reduction observed on October 13 also pleaded for supporting local faith communities with local disaster risk reduction (DRR) activities, and maximizing the contribution of FBOs, by ‘using’ their spiritual capital.

The round-table further appealed for working actively to remove the deeply rooted belief that disasters are a God given punition, ensuring that places of worship are prepared to respond to disasters, improving the role of faith leaders as communicators.

The discussion was organised on October 10 at the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, by Soka Gakkai International (SGI), the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith & Local Communities (JLIF&LC) and the World Council of Churches (WCC). It focussed on ‘The contribution of FBOs to the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction’.

The Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Sendai Framework) is a 15-year (2015-2030), voluntary, non-binding agreement. It was endorsed by the UN General Assembly following the 2015 Third UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR). It aims at the substantial reduction of disaster risk and losses in lives, livelihoods and health and in the economic, physical, social, cultural and environmental assets of persons, businesses, communities and countries.

Denis McLean from the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) said that faith-based networks represent an invaluable ‘spiritual capital’. In Tacloban, Philippines, during the Typhoon that killed 6000 people in December 2013, he recalled, faith institutions were the main providers of support to empower individuals in finding the necessary strength to cope with their loss.

The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR‘s Jose Riera-Cezanne emphasized that the role played by faith leaders, religious institutions and FBOs in providing resilience in the face of hardship and adversity has acquired remarkable recognition in the humanitarian communities.

Religious actors in fact often enjoy special trust. They speak to people’s hearts and minds, and are able to change attitudes and behaviours. They also play a part in public welfare in places where national institutions and service-delivery are weak. Churches, mosques, and other places of worship often serve as forums for people to talk about what is on their minds and to share messages on matters of interest to the entire community.

Riera-Cezanne said UNHCR offices were already partnering with faith-based or faith-inspired service-delivery NGOs, local faith communities and religious leaders. This cooperation is likely to grow in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

A key question for the UN partners has been how can the resources these organizations bring to the table – human, financial and spiritual – be better understood and more effectively tapped by all of those working to serve the very same communities.

The red lines that could impede cooperation with faith-based actors, if crossed, include behaviours such as, antagonism towards or exclusion of members of other faith backgrounds; incitement to violence directed against individuals or communities of another faith; proselytism and pressure to convert as a pre-condition for continued support; early marriage, gender stereotypes and stigma and discrimination.

The huge rise in the number of refugees and displaced people in the Middle East sparked off both interest in and concerns about the roles played by faith leaders, faith-based organizations and local faith communities in providing protection and assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers, said Riera-Cezanne.

In fact this prompted the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, the incoming UN Secretary-General, to devote his annual Dialogue on Protection Challenges in 2012 to the topic of “Faith and Protection”.

Dinesh Suna of the Ecumenical Water Network (EWN), an initiative of the World Council of Churches shared the good practice of CASA (Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action, a member of ACT Alliance and WCC). In 1999 Super Cyclone hit Orissa and over 10,000 people died. CASA had been involved in the process of Community Based Disaster Preparedness and mitigation and played a proactive role in raising awareness in the community.

Christophe Arnold of ACT Alliance explained the role played by faith leaders in the Ebola Response. During the crisis, one of the main challenges was the high level of stigma and fear from doctors’ messages. People didn’t believe in them and kept on using the same burial practices through which Ebola was spreading more easily.

Olivia Wilkinson of JLIF&LC shared evidence-based insight into Local Faith Communities (LFCs) and religious engagement in humanitarian response. LFCs overcome vulnerability through the strength of their already established community networks and their ability to use this sense of community to build resiliency.

The spiritual context of disaster should not be ignored as it is an important part of understanding risk perception, said Wilkinson. By engaging with local faith communities these perceptions can be better understood and help strengthen the relevance and appropriateness of Disaster risk Reduction interventions.

For instance, in the Philippines, the training of local pastors in preparedness and risk reduction was a key component to overcome the sense of vulnerability. Following Typhoon Haiyan, many local pastors were highly involved in leading preparedness and risk reduction efforts in their local communities. The trainings were reflections of their thinking, intertwined with technical knowledge from DRR, scriptural learning and inspiration to provide a holistic conception of disaster risk reduction.

Nobuyuki Asai of SGI said that after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and the Kumamoto Earthquake in April 2016, Soka Gakkai in Japan accommodated thousands of people in its community centers and provided relief supplies. One truck with relief supply left a neighboring prefecture for an affected area only one hour after the earthquake occurred and the promptness of the response was very helpful for affected communities.

Many SGI members voluntarily engaged in relief activities and in supporting the shelters both in Soka Gakkai centers and other community centers. People affected by the earthquake reported that these centers were particularly welcoming because of the care provided by SGI members to all individuals without any distinction.

Sasiwat Wongsinsawat from Permanent Mission of Thailand to the UN remarked that although FBOs are not mentioned directly in the Sendai Framework, the key role of civil society is underlined. Churches, mosques and Buddhist temples are among the oldest institutions having ties with communities and they can protect people and reduce sufferings.

In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the monks and nuns of the Buddhist temples displayed leadership, gave news about missing people and temples turned into shelters, giving relief and psychological support for instance to deepen the understanding about life and death. After the 2011 earthquake in Japan, the Thai Buddhist temple near Narita airport provided support and was also used as a storage and distribution centre. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 November 2016]

Photo: Roundtable. Credit: Nobuyuki Asai | SGI

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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