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“A clash of ignorances” – relief aid and the Arab and Islamic world

[Iraq] The Iraqi Red Crescent has resumed work in the capital though it is keeping a low profile for security reasons. [Date picture taken: 01/22/2007] Afif Sarhan/IRIN
The Iraqi Red Crescent resumes work in the capital

In its ongoing bid to promote a multilateral and coordinated approach to global aid provision, the United Nations is making a concerted effort to reach out to Arab and Muslim countries. In doing so, senior UN officials have drawn on the parallels that exist in the centuries-old tradition of charity in Islam and the modern humanitarian values of the global body.

“We respect the tradition,” Rashid Khalikov, director of the New York office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN in a telephone interview from Doha, Qatar. Khalikov said that achieving better “confidence” between the UN’s humanitarian actors and governments, NGOs and the Red Crescent in the Muslim world is an important objective for the UN’s humanitarian agencies and OCHA.

However, while humanitarian relief funded by Middle Eastern and Muslim countries has common goals to “western” and multilateral relief, it is often underreported and “both sides are losing” from a lack of coordination, information sharing and confidence, he said.

Arab and Muslim nations represent a powerful and influential global community. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second largest international organisation after the UN and has a permanent delegation at the UN headquarters in New York. It groups 57 mostly Islamic nations in the Middle East, North, West, East and Southern Africa, Central Asia, Europe, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and South America. The 22 members of the Arab League are all members of the OIC.

''There is a set of universal principles of charity that all religions profess.''
OCHA’s Khalikov welcomed diversity in humanitarian relief mechanisms but called for coordination. “The overall objective is that assistance reaches as many beneficiaries as possible in the most efficient way,” he said.

Generosity is not recorded

He added that Muslim governments, which make contributions to an estimated 100 countries around the world, do not always report their donations to OCHA’s Financial Tracking System (FTS), a central database of humanitarian donations. This means “the generosity is not recorded”, Khalikov said, adding that coordination on the ground could be improved on both sides.

During a mission to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the latest in a series of initiatives over three years to “strengthen cooperation”, Khalikov said there was no clash of cultures, but a “clash of ignorances”, and that mutual understanding and cooperation was improving. He noted an “amazing” concordance between Islamic charitable values and the guiding principles of modern international humanitarian action, such as compassion, solidarity, selflessness and protection of civilians.

“There is a set of universal principles of charity that all religions profess,” Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, author of a 2002 book entitled ‘Jihad humanitaire’ on Islamic NGOs, told IRIN. “In the Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage, this is certainly the case. Islam has gone very far in detailing the practical aspects of these principles. Humanitarian action derives directly from this religious tradition of charity, the main difference being that it has now taken a more secular profile.”

Dr Khaled Diab, head of international programmes at the Qatari Red Crescent, told IRIN that the UN should address the Arab and Islamic world in a way that does not deny social and religious beliefs, such as on population, gender and HIV/AIDS. He said the UN’s message should be "we are here because we have the tools that will help make your life better”.

Cautious approach to the UN

Diab believes that Arab and Islamic relief organisations deal cautiously with the various UN agencies. “There is a widespread conception in the Arab world that the UN agencies that are helping people on the ground are the same body that promises at international forums and never puts its words into action,” he said.

“Including more people [in the UN’s decision-making process] from the Arab and Islamic world will play a role in bringing both sides together and encourage more cooperation. The media in the Arab world should also reveal the actual role of the UN in helping the vulnerable,” Diab added.

''It’s not about dollars and cents. The most important thing is confidence, partnership and recognition. The rest will follow.''
Ghandour suggests, given a widespread Arab and Muslim perception of a “Western Christian” global dominance, western humanitarian organisations need to work “intensely” to stress that they are independent, apolitical, have no hidden agenda and that “their sole concern is the betterment of humanity, which, of course, includes Muslims”.

Keeping the distinction between the humanitarian and the political faces of the UN clear is essential, Khalikov said, adding that of a total of US $35 billion raised in humanitarian appeals since 1992, more than $9 billion, or 27 percent, was spent in Muslim countries.

Although contributions to UN agencies from countries in the region were increasing, “it’s not about dollars and cents. The most important thing is confidence, partnership and recognition. The rest will follow,” Khalikov said.

Khalikov said new initiatives between the UN and governments in the Middle East include joint training and preparedness activities, and the nomination of Saudi and Qatari officials in future UN Disaster Assistance Coordination training. Also, UN agencies will participate in the third Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development Conference and Exhibition (DIHAD), which will be held from 1 to 3 April 2007.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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