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Should emergency relief be used to build mosques and churches?

May 13, 2010
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Should Oxfam’s emergency relief money be used to build mosques? That was the fascinating question that cropped up in a recent internal discussion on faith and development. And it’s not a purely academic one. In Aceh after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Oxfam said no to one request.  But two years later, after the big Java earthquake of  2006, we said yes.

What happened? The request came in to a small grant scheme for infrastructure, aimed at helping communities recover their normal

What's the first thing we rebuild?

What's the first thing we rebuild?

routines as quickly as possible. While most requests were for furniture, building materials etc, one community asked for money to buy materials to rebuild its flattened mosque (the community had to contribute labour in return). According to El Tayeb Musa, the Oxfam staffer overseeing the fund for us in Java at the time, we supported it partly because the mosque was also used for community meetings.

The money was duly handed over, the mosque rebuilt, and the community in question was one of the success stories in a badly hit area, rapidly recovering both in terms of rebuilding its infrastructure, but also social cohesion and healing after the psychological trauma of the earthquake. The mosque was at the centre of the rebuilding effort.

El Tayeb stressed the non-religious aspects of the mosque-as-community-centre, but my response to him was ‘shouldn’t we have funded the mosque even if it was only used for prayer?’ If you take the concept of well-being seriously, religious identity is a vital element of the ‘good life’ for many poor people, and going to pray at the mosque is a central part of their daily routine for many muslims. Restoring the mosque restores a sense of control and order in a world of chaos. On those grounds alone, surely it merits support? This reminds me of the discussion in Vietnam over whether cash transfers can legitimately be used to buy coffins – if poor people define their needs differently from the standard NGO list (schools, food, water, shelter, health clinics etc), how do we react?

Questions this raises:

What if this was not an emergency and the mosque had not been destroyed, but local people really wanted a nicer one?

Any non-partisan NGO would presumably fund a religious centre whatever the faith involved, but what do you do in a multi-faith community, especially conflictive ones, for example in other parts of Indonesia in the late 90s, when both christian and muslim churches came under attack? Would you run the risk of being accused of favouring one faith over another, and how would you minimise that risk?

What should be a funder’s bottom line, where it is legitimate to reject the expressed wishes of a community? I once visited a community in the Philippines where a number of peasant farmers displaced by a tourism project had spent their compensation on karaoke machines – presumably this would not be a fundable proposition?

To what extent should that bottom line be determined by the values of the people who contribute an NGOs’ cash in the first place – i.e. does it have to balance a double duty to listen to the expressed wishes both to its supporters back home and the recipients of its cash?

Blurred lines and bottom lines – I would love to hear other experiences and views on this.

Update: Read the comments – much more interesting than the post!


  1. I just finished my undergraduate Philosophy dissertation on a closely related topic: should we always take people’s preferences to be representative of their well being?

    I argued that we should take other factors into account because of the possibility of malformed preferences – people having their preferences formed under conditions of oppression, for example. The claims of the battered housewife that her interest lies with serving her husband should not be taken at face value.

    Similarly, if a highly religious but impoverished community has had its only health centre destroyed but requests resources first for the rebuilding of a place of worship, we should think carefully about the benefits to the community each project can bring.

    (I’m graduating this summer; I’d like to intern for you researching this area further!)

  2. The expressed wishes of a community I once visited in southern Ethiopia were for new sharp knives to make female genital mutilation less risky. The answer to your question regarding the extent to which ‘we’ dismiss certain wishes coming from people with whom we work is that we have to decide what we are comfortable with funding, and not shy away from the fact that money is power… by the way, the Grand Mosque in Abou Dhabi, which I visited last month, is a jolly nice mosque indeed – it is home to the world’s biggest chandelier and the world’s biggest carpet, and has room for 40,000 worshippers. Everyone who uses it is very proud of it. Wouldn’t be happy to have my contribution to Oxfam used to fund this, though – or indeed a Christian church in the UK or elsewhere – and religious institutions tend to find enough money without our help, because people’s sense of wellbeing is indeed often boosted by direct contributions to their religious institutions. Let’s use ‘our’ money in ways which serve the whole of humanity, not just believers….

  3. Think it’s vital that organisations such as Oxfam continue to set themselves apart from that old paternalistic style of aid giving that existed in the past. There are many faith based charities (doing great work as well though) that would not be in a position to support such a project.
    However we also know how a bit of negatively slanted coverage in the media can seriously impact support – so it’s am important debate to have. My personal view is that the true needs of the community we are working with are the most important factor, and should always be given the higher priority.

  4. I’m not sure it’s right to view these as great moral dilemmas, more as hard-nosed operational problems. In a multi-faith co flictive area, an NGO, whether local or external, might well consider helping people of both (or all) faiths to rebuild their places of worship if it’s mandate and/or its strategy in that situation is to encourage reconciliation. The NGO would minimise risk and objections of favouritism by demonstrating even-handedness. It might emphasise its non-religious identity, and so on. All easier said than done, but I don’t see it as a serious ethical problem.

    Sure, you have to question who is pushing for the church etc to be rebuilt (what do women say? would they secretly prefer a health centre?). But generally, it’s patronising and arrogant to assume “we” know best what’s good for people (and we define what’s “good”).

    Years ago I went to a community in Ethiopia whose mosque had been blown up by the government to press them into relocating to a more “favourable” location where they could enjoy various benefits like healthcare (in theory)(and the government could keep a closer eye on them). They were deeply shocked and resentful. Had it been possible, I’ve little doubt that helping them to rebuild their mosque would have brought greater benefits and been a little resistance against oppression.

  5. I like that argument that malformed preferences should be taken into account, but it seems to me that almost all religious inclination has been influenced, to some degree in an individual’s life, through oppressive practices.

  6. Reminds me of a dilemma Christian Aid’s head of emergencies hypothesised about once, where CA might be asked to hand out bibles to a community that had lost everything and for whom the bible was one of the most important things they were asking for. It is perfectly possible that the request was important for the holistic well-being of a suffering community. So what should CA, an organisation of the churches but one keen to be non-religious in its aid work, do? He said he would not authorise CA to buy and hand out bibles, but would have a word with Save the Children (a secular charity) and ask them to do it instead!

  7. I’ve been working in development for 15 years. I was on mission in Banda Aceh 6 months after the tsunami. I was working at the time for a Spanish Jesuit NGO, supporting an NGO in Aceh (Jesuit Refugee Service). They were catholics working with muslims… and they spent part of the money in rebuild islamic schools and buying Korans. Spirituality is for people in Aceh as vital as food or water… on the other hand I was thinking what would be the reaction of Spanish people/donors if this NGO would have spent money in buying Bibles in Honduras after the Mitch…

  8. This is one of the issues where there is no right answer. Every organisation should create its own decision making framework, to prioritize interventions.

    At least some elements in this framework are easy to spot:
    1. the preferences of the local community.
    2. the analysis of material needs of the community and the ways to reach these goals (e.g. health care, shelter)
    3. Analysis of the pshychological and social needs: need to strengthen the group, need to “belong” need to accept differences.
    4. As Julian says: are the preferences “malformed”? Who are we to decide?
    5. There are agreed moral codes of priorities: e.g. in the declaration of human rights, in other international agreements. What if the community decides they want a center for FGM? What if a donor is imposing a ban on reproductive rights?

    6. The donor has a right to values too. E.g. a donor has a right to decide not to want to pay for guns, although the community might decide that the added security (?) though gun ownership is exactly what they want. An adult partnership should respect the identity of both sides. Of course within limits.

    So I could imagine that what the group really needs to improve their well being could be a mosque, but as an organisation you just warn them beforehand: “we don’t do mosques”. As simple as WFP answers: we do food, for shelter, go to the other shop.

  9. Building mosques/churches is slippery ground. In some contexts like Pakistan, mosques are unregulated by the State (except for a few big ones)and often are the breading ground for sectarian divide. So supporting to build a mosque in humanitarian context is “fundamentally” wrong.

    When a disaster happens, especially in Muslim context, lot of Muslim charities join the relief efforts. I have seen many Arab charities building mosques in humanitarian context and they are better positioned to do so.

    In my opinion, Oxfam should not engage itself in supporting the construction of mosques, churches or any other place of religious importance. In Muslim context, Oxfam should promote “community common use spaces” and should focus on providing some collective space for women and children, like Women Friendly Halls, etc.

  10. What a great question! Clearly one that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis – there’s no simple answer.

    It all seems to come down to a cost-benefit analysis. With the relief funds available, how can they best benefit people? In the article’s example, clearly rebuilding the mosque had secondary positive effects (social cohesion, etc.) in addition to helping with people’s personal well being. Can’t really argue that it was an effective way to spend money.

    But trusting that people will always request what is best for their community or their health is to assume people are a bit more altruistic than they usually are, and that everyone’s voice is heard/weighted equally. I once stopped by a project in East Africa where the funds for a community development/training center were entrusted to a group of men with the understanding that they would be in charge of turning the money into the envisioned center. Instead, they built a brothel and called it a community development project…

  11. Still more complicated than a cost benefit anaysis. Even if mosque rebuilding is the best use of funds , is it the best use of Oxfam’s funds if other donors would fund it and maybe wouldn’t fund a women’s rights campaign, and what if mosque rebuilding requires more spending back home dealing with the PR fallout ?

  12. This is a great question to be asking, particularly as Oxfam is meant to be a non-partisan NGO.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiment that, “If you take the concept of well-being seriously, religious identity is a vital element of the ‘good life’ for many poor people.” In my experience, this is all too true. But it is also where the values of poor people so often differ from the values of those who have contributed to an NGO’s coffers, the latter group being those who would perhaps dislike the prospect of their donations being used to in any way promote religious beliefs and practices.

    The reality is that ‘religious identity’ is complicated because of the powerful structures that lie behind it. While it is laudable that the building of this mosque provided a venue for community meetings and aided social cohesion, the decision to build should have gone beyond the building per se. It is the power structures behind that the building that should have been analysed, given that faith institutions are so often predominantly male-led.

    So, in this case, how much consideration was given to the different perspectives of all the members of the community? Were men and women, boys and girls, asked separately about their most pressing needs? Would the women and the girls have been able to be free in stating their preferences? More importantly, as one of your other readers has pointed out, would they have actually preferred a health clinic (or indeed a school)?

    By supporting the building of this mosque, and not necessarily addressing the strategic imbalances of power behind it, has Oxfam inadvertently supported a patriarchal culture that fails to empower women to realise their full potential?

  13. There are many consequences of using charitably donated money to (re)construct religious buildings.

    But one is very straightforward.

    Those of us who do not want our aid money going to support a particular religion will choose not to donate to any organisation that uses the money this way.

    Those who are in favour of religion will continue to donate.

    The collective opinion of the organisation’s supporters will become ever more favourable towards religion.

    Therefore the organisation will inevitably move even further towards becoming a religious one.

    If you’re okay with this then great! You’re going about it the right way.

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