1st Edition

Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response

By Olivia J. Wilkinson Copyright 2020
    136 Pages
    by Routledge

    136 Pages
    by Routledge

    This book investigates the ways in which the humanitarian system is secular and understands religious beliefs and practices when responding to disasters. The book teases out the reasons why humanitarians are reluctant to engage with what are seen as "messy" cultural dynamics within the communities they work with, and how this can lead to strained or broken relationships with disaster-affected populations and irrelevant and inappropriate disaster assistance that imposes distant and relatively meaningless values.

    In order to interrogate secular boundaries within humanitarian response, the book draws particularly on qualitative primary data from the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. The case study shows how religious practices and beliefs strongly influenced people's disaster experience, yet humanitarian organisations often failed to recognise or engage with this. Whilst secularity in the humanitarian system does not completely exclude religious participation and expression, it does create biases and boundaries. Many humanitarians view their secularity as essential to their position of impartiality and cultural sensitivity in comparison to what were seen as the biased and unprofessional beliefs and practices of religions and religious actors, even though disaster-affected people felt that it was the secular humanitarians that were less impartial and culturally sensitive.

    This empirically driven examination of the role of secularity within humanitarianism will be of interest to the growing field of "pracademic" researchers across NGOs, government, consultancy, and think tanks, as well as researchers working directly within academic institutions.

    1. Introduction: why secular-religious dynamics matter in the humanitarian system 

    2. The secular humanitarian system 

    3. How people affected by disaster understand religious dynamics in the humanitarian system 

    4. How Humanitarians Experience Secular Dynamics in the humanitarian system 

    5. Evolving secular-religious dynamics in the humanitarian system 

    6. Conclusion


    Olivia J. Wilkinson is Director of Research for the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. She publishes on humanitarian and refugee response, particularly around the role of local actors.

    "Grounded in rigorous analysis of the Typhoon Haiyan response and trends in current literature from the sociology of religion, disaster studies, and humanitarianism, Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response powerfully articulates the need for greater religious literacy to inform humanitarianism that is respectful of locality, diversity, and shared humanity." Professor Alastair Ager, Director of the Institute of Global Health and Development, Queen Margaret University, and Deputy Chief Scientific Adviser, UK Department of International Development

    "Humanitarian crises cause suffering and massive disruption in all corners of the world and the prognosis is that more are to come in the years ahead. Humanitarian responses bring out the worst and best of humanity, often in situations where underlying beliefs and biases (some explicit, others far less so) drive action. How governments, institutions, and individuals respond and work together is shaped by both shared and divided values, religious and even anti-religious, all in a quest to help while assuring "neutrality". While the importance of religious beliefs for many if not most people is far better appreciated now than 20 years ago, their implications for humanitarian work are often murky, especially so in unplanned crisis responses. Olivia Wilkinson's book tackles a topic where such values can clash or complement one another, in the tensions around what she highlights as secular and religious approaches. Her careful research highlights important questions that deserve reflection and response."Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, Georgetown University, and Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue

    "This book makes a major contribution to a conversation of growing importance. Whilst anchored in deep theoretical questions about 'the secular', as well as the moral and practical performance of humanitarianism, the freshness of this book lies in its fieldwork base. Wilkinson brings to often abstracted theoretical debates a rootedness in real contexts and conversations. In doing so, she enriches and sharpens the theoretical debates and opens the way to potential renewal in humanitarian practices. This is a welcome and much-needed book." – Dr. Anna Rowlands, St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought & Practice, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University

    "Taking responses to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines as her starting point, Wilkinson offers a powerful, nuanced and critical analysis of the ways that religion and secularism intersect in humanitarian imaginaries and practices. Written by one of the leading scholars in this field, this book is an essential read, with significant implications for all people and organisations committed to upholding the rights and needs of people affected by crisis."Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Professor in Migration and Refugee Studies, and Co-Director of the Migration Research Unit, University College London

    "This study is of great importance in trying to get humanitarian organizations to think more critically about what they do in response to disasters. A fundamental starting point is for them to be aware of how they must learn to operate amongst people whose beliefs about risk and are often fundamentally different from their own ‘institutional behaviours’. Trying to be ‘fair’ by being secular when working to support people who are often deeply religious is likely to be much less effective. When people interpret disasters in terms of their religion, it becomes difficult to engage with them in a meaningful way by pretending that religion is not significant."—Terry Cannon, Senior Research Fellow at Institute of Development Studies, UK. Terry Cannon was a lead editor of the IFRC World Disasters Report 2014: Focus on Culture and Risk.