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Today's Humanitarianism Reflects a World in Flux

Chris Herlinger  |  June 12, 2013

Haiti: Food ration

The humanitarian world is a world in flux; in Haiti, a boy displays a food ration. Haiti is a country where faith-based groups are common.

Photo: Chris Herlinger/CWS

When you hear the term "faith-based humanitarianism" (admittedly, a mouthful), what do you think of?

Do you think it means trying to promote a certain religious faith? Does it mean passing out religious tracts along with blankets and cleanup buckets during an emergency?

Or does it mean that, if you work for a faith-based organization, the foundation on which your agency stands is a religious tradition – but that assistance is given "neutrally," without regard to religious faith, political stance or other defining characteristics?

In today's world it can mean all three, as a recent event at New York's Fordham University confirmed.

Fordham's Center on Religion and Culture, which sponsored the May 15 event, noted in its promotion that faith-based humanitarianism "has become a growth industry in recent years, channeling the influence of privately held religious commitments into the public sphere around the globe."

That's hardly surprising. As I noted in a piece I did for National Catholic Reporter on the Fordham symposium, humanitarianism has always reflected its time. In the 19th and early- and mid-20th centuries, that meant humanitarianism reflected the growing strength of Protestant missionaries.

In the 21st century, that means more visibility for evangelical Protestant groups and, increasingly, Islamic-based agencies. "The world is in flux, so the humanitarian world is in flux," said David Rieff, who has written extensively on humanitarian themes.

It is important to keep in mind that, as I pointed out, groups that combine humanitarian assistance and proselytizing for a religious faith (common in Haiti, for example) are capturing a lot of attention these days.

But there is also a long (and proud) history of groups like CWS, as well as Catholic agencies like Catholic Relief Services and Jesuit Refugee Service, "being rooted in Christian tradition and receiving support from churches, but adhering to international standards of neutrality when it comes to providing aid. Such agencies believe firmly that proselytizing is not in line with such standards."

(As one small but telling example, most who work for CWS's Pakistan and Afghanistan program are Muslims.)

Take a look at the piece and see where you come out in this debate over faith-based humanitarianism and what it means.

Chris Herlinger is a writer with CWS.

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