Should emergency relief be used to build mosques and churches?

May 13, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

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!

May 13, 2010
Duncan Green