Interview by Sofia Zolghadriha
As part of our student journey of understanding poverty and how attempts at alleviating it are made on local and global levels, it is useful to understand how a non-governmental organization that is both locally and globally entrenched views the issues. Islamic Relief provides us not only with the mainstream NGO development strategy, but it also incorporates some faith-based values.
The organization was founded in the UK in 1984, with its head office in Birmingham, England. It works in over 30 countries around the world and its mission is to contribute in the efforts to alleviate poverty and bring an end to the sufferings of the world poorest. Islamic Relief has been responding to natural disasters and complex emergencies since its creation. In the mid 1980s, devastating famines and the war in East Africa forced thousands of people to flee their homes, seeking refuge in camps in Sudan. The group’s first humanitarian aid project was focused upon these refugees. Since then, it has increased its efforts towards displaced people and refugees.
Since 2010 Islamic Relief has developed a new global strategy project on which they will focus on when identifying missions and areas of development. The new global strategy of 2011-2015 is based on the change from a sector-led and donor-based approach to an integrated and needs-based approach. The author of the new strategy, and the subject of this interview, is Atallah Fitzgibbon, the Policy and Strategy Manager from IR Birmingham headquarters. Contributing answers also is Dr. Muhtari Aminu-Kano, Senior Policy Advisor. This interview will explore the implications and significance of this new strategy of alleviating poverty as well as strengthen the diversity of our understanding of poverty.
Could you introduce Islamic Relief as a distinct organisation and thus what the difference is with other NGOs in the same field?
As a faith based organisation we understand Muslim culture and norms, and therefore a diverse understanding of society. We do not carry a particular collective view of Islam, rather we work with a conceptual framework combining faith teachings and secular discourse on poverty and development.
How do you define poverty?
Poverty is the result of a defect of human dignity. We don’t specify poverty as a result of economic underdevelopment, but we need to combine different approaches to view poverty. We view human development through a sustainable livelihood approach, a capabilities approach and a rights-based approach. This means that we look further than the economic development of humans, viewing our capabilities and rights in terms of human, social, natural and economic capital. In order to understand the definition, thus, one must understand the causes, which subsequently develops a change of theory and a global strategy. What our faith teaches us is to view the causes of poverty not simply through economics, but through a holistic perspective of human dignity. Human dignity is based on our belief of the purpose of creation, which is to worship God. This is not a view that isolates us as a Muslim community, but is identified within all the main religions.
Building on the theory of human dignity, we have defined rights and meanings in life. There are five human rights which builds our human dignity: the right of life, the right of family and society, the right of faith of religion, the right of intellect and education, and the right of wealth. If there is an absence of any of these rights, there is poverty. Therefore we view poverty in terms of universal human rights, as does most Western NGOs.
What will be the difference with the new global strategy 2011- 2015?
By taking a needs-based and integrated approach rather than before when we used a donor-led and sector-led approach, we will recognise those in need rather than just responding to emergencies and conflicts. We will identify the risks of communities and peoples and empower them so that they can cope better with future disasters and conflicts.
It will also be based on a spiritual recognition of development, which we base on the Muslim act of Ihsan. Ihsan refers to the inner social responsibility of deed and action to those in need as an obligation to achieve excellence in worship. It creates the basis of an integrated approach, which recognises spiritual capital and understanding of religion while at the same time practice development in the similar way as Western NGOs. It is important to incorporate religion into development as it subsumes the dimension of intellect into poverty by recognizing the need for moral guidelines, especially in these times of globalisation when communities become disintegrated.
What were the practical differences when a donor-led approach was used?
In a donor-led approach the organization was reliant on donors and therefore had a bigger responsibility to fulfill their agendas. It was very complex as we needed to also identify the needs and risks rather than responding to events as a result of donor priorities. By changing this approach we have had to build up our independence of our funding model.
What are the practical differences of the new global strategy since it was implicated?
We now seek funding for disaster preparedness rather than just disaster response. We carry out extensive research on climate change and environmental sustainability. As a result of an integrated approach we also recognize how different needs are linked with other areas of development, e.g. a water crisis will have extensive effects on health issues and education and therefore we identify these areas of work simultaneously. This affects our assessment significantly as we will work with many more global sectors of development.
Furthermore, we are developing our advocacy strategy of our conceptual framework. It is an important value for our organisation to utilise an advocacy strategy which combines our faith values and universal human rights. We recognise that religious institutions are an important function in development as it enables easier access into many areas in need of development through faith and value. Nevertheless, advocacy in form of civil society is a very sensitive matter, which is risky for all NGOs, and in these situations we practice impartiality.
Does it mean that as a Muslim organization advocacy is based on faith and therefore different to what Western NGOs propose?
No. Muslim advocacy is not different to other NGOs as they are based on the same universal human rights. What is different is the way of seeing the needs of advocacy based on spiritual capital and Ihsan, not what we advocate.
There is a lot of tension and controversy between the ‘developing world’ and the developed countries on the issue of climate change. Should developing countries such as China and India be granted the same rights of development and industrialisation as the developed world has, on the cost of the environment?
It is a very problematic issue indeed, and one cannot make an easy statement due to the complex nature of development on global and local levels. As Muslims, we believe that the needs of the community are larger than the individual, as they are interlinked through the community to the individual. There is a bigger emphasis on the collective right. By identifying community rights and individual rights, one might identify global community rights and individual nations right. Global issues need to be seen in a larger perspective, thus, and the global environmental issue is one of community obligation. The imbalance between the developing and developed world is one based on inequality but cannot be solved through the equality of development, as it would sacrifice the collective and global right. As such, it is a very complex issue, but when coming down to it, developing countries should have the right to develop to the same extent as industrialised countries have but need to recognise their obligations to the community and therefore seek green technologies and resources when possible.
What are the challenges faced by the new strategy?
Our biggest challenge is that of funding. We are very bound by resources and need new products to enable funding stream based on our new directions. We need to be very innovative right now in order to fund an integrated approach and advocacy building.
Lastly, what is useful to know about poverty alleviation as a student?
There are few areas in education which are not linked or do not affect poverty. Poverty exists on all levels as a universal and national purpose. It exists as a social obligation in all cultures and religion. Every activity can be concerned with poverty. Even a field such as biochemistry is related to poverty, for example, by researching on how different plants can be as much as possible so as to be used by as many people as possible, it is concerned with poverty reduction. This is one of our purposes on earth, to fulfill the rights of all human beings.