[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]
One question I am asked by MCC supporters is: “When there is a disaster, how does MCC decide who receives relief and who doesn’t?” This article attempts to answer that question by exploring the opportunities and challenges of working with local church partners when responding to humanitarian crises and disasters. In particular, this short piece explores the challenges in targeting, meeting minimum humanitarian standards and the potential for peacebuilding through humanitarian assistance.
At this year’s World Humanitarian Summit international humanitarian actors committed to channel more resources into partnerships with local humanitarian actors. That commitment reflects MCC’s primary approach for the last few decades: executing humanitarian activities almost entirely through local partners in recognition of their unique access and capacity to respond appropriately to people affected in their communities. MCC partners with a variety of local civil society organizations such as churches, denominational entities, faith-based organizations and community-based
In particular, MCC is committed to supporting local Anabaptist churches in responding to disaster. For example, this year MCC is working with the Brethren in Christ Church in responding to drought and acute hunger in Zimbabwe and Honduras and to flooding in Nepal. In Colombia and Ecuador, MCC works with local Mennonite organizations and churches to meet the needs of people displaced by conflict. And in eastern Congo and
India, MCC works with Christian ecumenical organizations where local Anabaptist churches are members.
One of the challenges in working with local churches is how best to target limited resources. Church leaders in communities affected by disaster and conflict often feel they should respond first to those in the family of faith. MCC was born in response to the call to Mennonites in Canada and the U.S. from fellow Mennonites in the Soviet Union to provide urgent food assistance, agricultural equipment and ultimately refugee resettlement assistance in Canada. Likewise, MCC’s current church partners are moved to assist those affected in their faith communities because they have direct relationships to church members and know their specific needs.
At times, this desire stands in tension with humanitarian principles requiring humanitarian actors to be impartial—that is, the principle that assistance should be provided based on need and vulnerability, without discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, race, ability or religious identity or affiliation. So while church partners may have the easiest access to people in their own congregations, they should also seek to support crisis-affected people outside the family of faith. Many of MCC’s church partners boldly respond beyond their immediate church family, faithfully answering the Christian call to love one’s neighbour, provide hospitality to strangers and care for the poor and vulnerable as well as and those perceived as enemies or outsiders.
Local church partners, particularly at the denominational leadership level, also face significant pressure to spread assistance across the denominational structure and a wide geographic area. At times, church leaders, with social and political pressure from the many congregations they serve, find it difficult to focus assistance. MCC is committed to
abiding by humanitarian standards, including Sphere minimum standards for disaster response that describe the essential conditions for ensuring that disaster-affected people can survive and live with dignity. People have the right to enough and appropriate food, shelter, water and medical assistance. Adhering to humanitarian guidelines requires MCC and our local partners to make difficult decisions about prioritizing the quality of assistance to a more limited number of disaster-affected communities instead of spreading resources too thin.
Working with local faith-based partners also gives MCC unique opportunities to engage in peacebuilding and conflict prevention when responding to conflict and disaster. MCC seeks to enhance capacities for peace when responding to disasters by building connections among diverse groups. In working with local church partners, MCC encourages their relationships with other local faith-based actors. In Nigeria, for example,
MCC supports the church in facilitating trauma healing with people from various religious groups, while in Syria local churches (Orthodox and Protestant) work with local Islamic charities to provide emergency assistance to both Muslims and Christians uprooted from their homes. By supporting local churches to build ecumenical partnerships and reach out beyond their walls, MCC accompanies churches in nurturing peace, reducing conflict and meeting urgent needs.
Bruce N. Guenther is MCC disaster response director.
Core Humanitarian Standard. Resources available at http://www.corehumanitarianstandard.org/
The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. Resources available at http://www.sphereproject.org/.
Bennett, Christina, with M. Foley and S. Pantuliano. Time to Let Go: Remaking Humanitarian Action for the Modern Era. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2016.
Crooks, Bill and J. Mouradian. Disasters and the Local Church: Guidelines for Church Leaders in Disaster-Prone Areas. Teddington, UK: Tearfund, 2011