Photo: SGI Exhibition at World Humanitarian Summit at Istanbul on 23-24 May 2016. Courtesy: Soka Gakkai International - Photo: 2016

Humanitarian Summit in Perspective: Faith Communities Crucial for Disaster Prevention

Analysis by Jacques N. Couvas

ISTANBUL (IDN) – While most of the world’s political leaders shunned the United Nations’ first World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) on May 23-24, the international religious community was alive and kicking in the congress halls and exhibition grounds of the event in Istanbul.

A series of meetings and activities gathered personalities representing a variety of faith movements from the very first hour of the Summit, with the WHS Side Event on ‘One Humanity, Shared Responsibilities: Evidence for Religious Groups’ Contributions to Humanitarian Response’.

Two panels of experts, coordinated by Jean Duff, president of the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLIF&LC) and Manu Gupta, head of the Asian Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN), examined the evidence for the contributions made by faith-based organizations (FBO) to humanitarian assistance.

The panels presented the findings of the initiative ‘Five Evidence Briefs’, which were developed by FBO executives, academics and UN staff around the vision expressed in the UN Secretary General’s ‘One Humanity, Shared Responsibility’ report.

The Side Event was jointly organized by JLIF&LC, Soka Gakkai International (SGI), ADRRN, Islamic Relief Worldwide, Malteser International, Religions for Peace, World Evangelical Alliance, and World Vision International.

The five ‘briefs’ presented covered a range of attempts, and achievements, to engage local faith communities (LFC) to meet the needs of people suffering conflict and disasters.

The role of religion in upholding humanitarian and human rights norms was at the centre of discussion of the panels. Speakers underlined that sustainability of such norms depends on appropriate education for the constituents of LFCs to correctly understand the meaning of religious texts, empowering and protecting girls and addressing gender-based violence, coordinating action among FBOs and LFCs in order to develop adequate capacity not only for responding to, but also for preventing humanitarian disasters, and influencing local and international political leaders to systematically work towards avoidance of conflict.

Financing humanitarian action has been a core theme of the Summit. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s report on “One Humanity: Shared Responsibility” was therefore of particular relevance to religious engagement, according to JLIF&LC’s Jean Duff.

More specifically, Ban’s report called for action in three key areas:

  • investing in local capabilities of LFCs so that they can manage their own risks and reduce the impact of crises;
  • increasing investment in fostering peaceful and inclusive societies and institutions; and
  • innovating in the work habits and practices of the international community in view of “promoting and incentivising collective outcomes” by allocating roles and resources depending on “which actor has the comparative advantage” to deliver results, rather than “funding in a way that promotes fragmentation”.

The briefs and panellists’ interventions illustrated the importance of LFCs in humanitarian crises’ management. For instance, following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in 2011, the Shiogama Bible Baptist Church served the entire local community, regardless of faith, going all the way to help rebuild the local Buddhist school and provide teaching.

SGI, one of the co-organizers of the event, also has been collaborating with other faith groups in a number of communities in Japan and abroad in relevant dialogues. SGI is a global religious movement of people connected by the Buddhism, explained Nobuyuki Asai, who is in charge of the programme for Sustainable Development and Humanitarian Affairs of the organisation.

Soka Gakkai emerged at the end of the Second World War in Japan as a new Buddhist movement based on the doctrines propagated by Nichiren, an important Buddhist thinker of the 13th century. As an international network of Nichiren Buddhists, SGI was founded in 1975. Under the leadership of Daisaku Ikeda, it has promoted the values of peace, culture and education.

One of SGI’s mottos has been that respect for others is the foundation for harmony in humanity and peace.

Starting with some hundred followers, SGI has now reached a membership exceeding 12 million people in 192 countries and territories. More than half of the adherents are based in Japan, with high concentration of followers in Asian countries, Nobuyuki Asai told INPS-IDN.

SGI is now considered to be one of the world’s largest and most ethnically and racially diverse Buddhist group, according to research published in the past decade by American and European sociologists and anthropologists.

Having already achieved such international status, what was then the motivation for SGI to sponsor and jointly organise the Side Event with other NGOs and FBOs?

“We were invited by the United Nations to participate in the Summit. The conference being consistent with our aims and beliefs as a religious movement, we thought that sharing the event with organisations having similar views on humanitarian relief was natural. This session is hosted by eight organisations, some from different faith paths and others from a secular field,” explained Asai.

Complementarity among those who participate in the humanitarian effort appears to have driven SGI’s rapprochement with other FBOs.

“The main common objective is to show the evidence of faith groups’, in particular local ones’, contribution in responding to crises,” continued Asai. “In order to achieve this, we need to collaborate in creating a common advocacy platform and speak with a unified voice. The humanitarian areas in which our respective movements have agreed to invest ourselves are: disaster response, conflict management, outbreak of serious diseases, and other man-made disasters. These are high impact concerns to all faith organisations today.”

In addition to sponsoring the Side Event, SGI participated with a full stand at the three-day WHS Exhibition held at the Istanbul Convention Centre. The fair was dedicated to showcasing the work, products, and programmes of governments, organizations, agencies, companies, and other institutions in support of humanitarian action. Particular emphasis was placed on displaying innovative products and solutions for responding to crises.

But outside of the involvement in international humanitarian endeavours, SGI is very much committed to grassroots educational activities on global issues, including the nuclear weapons issue, and to sustainable development, according to Asai.

SGI’s headquarters is located in Japan, so its global scope of action seems to be in contrast with the perception in the West that Japan has, since the end of World War Two, chiefly focused on its domestic issues and growth. What has motivated SGI to become proactive in participating in the global interfaith humanitarian effort?

“SGI’s local organizations have long been proactive in interfaith dialogue. In addition, after the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 and a subsequent nuclear disaster in Japan, its society is faced with a new reality – that such catastrophic events cannot be managed only with the traditional approaches, which rely mainly on state efficiency and on technocratic and technological solutions,” clarified Asai. 

He is of the view that the young generation is becoming keener to display solidarity with those who suffer as a result of disasters, at home and abroad. At the same time, this generation has become aware that disaster, conflict and man-made threats equally affect the entire Asian continent – indeed, the entire globe.

“We observe, therefore, a shift towards looking at these issues through an international lens, rather than an ethnocentric one,” Asai added.

It would be better if the Japanese public realises that there exists a variety of faith groups, and that inclusiveness of all those who embrace different beliefs is beneficial in light of their unique contribution in a humanitarian effort. “As immigration to Japan is now gradually growing, such open-mindedness will make a difference in view of keeping our society in balance as well,” concluded Asai.

Thinking globally, acting locally was the message to take away from this Interfaith Side Event of the WHS. Using a holistic approach to tackle humanity’s many needs and shortages is paramount to keeping intact the three pillars of crisis management: humanitarian, development and religion cannot be seen in isolation and must be cemented together, warned in her closing remarks at the Side Event Azza Karam, Chair of UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion & Development and Senior Advisor of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 May 2016]

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

Photo: SGI Exhibition at World Humanitarian Summit at Istanbul on 23-24 May 2016. Courtesy: Soka Gakkai International

2016 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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