A Discussion with Bedreldin Shutta, Asia Director, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW)
March 21, 2011
Background: This discussion preceded a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The interview was conducted by telephone between Katherine Marshall, Michael Bodakowski and Bedreldin Shutta, and was finalized following an email exchange in March 2011. In this interview, Mr. Shutta discusses his motivations to work with a faith-inspired organization after a long career with secular development organizations. He reflects on his work in the Asia tsunami response in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and the role that faith actors have played. Coordination and partnership, he says, help make Islamic Relief Worldwide’s work more effective, particularly in Aceh, Indonesia. He discusses the work of Islamic Relief Worldwide in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as some of the challenges of being a faith-inspired organization in particular country contexts.
How has your personal journey brought you to do your work today?
I am from Sudan, and was born in the town of Nyala, Darfur. I had my first contact with development organizations work during the Sahelian famine. It produced many refugees from Chad and other parts of Central Africa, and led to an influx of Ethiopian refugees into Eastern Sudan. I did not have a clear understanding of the role of faith-based organizations in these types of conflicts at that time, but was driven to become involved. I spend many years working to address the underlying issues, working primarily with secular organizations.
I first started working with Oxfam UK from 1990, until 1997. I served in different positions, starting as a project officer, until I became country representative in Iraq, and regional desk officer in the head office in the UK. I then joined another British organization, called Practical Action. I was with them for about three years, mainly in Darfur, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. I then joined Save the Children, UK, in Sri Lanka, as program manager. During my five years there, I was mainly involved in child protection, aiming at preventing the recruitment of child soldiers. Later, I got involved with the peace process between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government, focusing on demobilization of children and reunifying them with their families. I then joined UNHCR in Chad for a year on secondment from Save the Children (London), mainly to work in camps with Sudanese refugees, and also to work on protecting the rights of children and refugees.
While working in Sri Lanka, I came across an organization in the north of the country that engaged imams in their programs to resolve problems between Muslim and Tamil communities. I found out that Hindu priests, Muslim imams, Christian groups, and Buddhist priests in Mannar, Vavuniya came to meetings together to dialogue about how they could build tolerance in their communities. They also addressed how to work out issues related to gainful employment, access to resources, and attacks from government and the then Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) at the same time. This work, however, did not progress very far, because the secular organizations I was associated with did not consider the work of religious communities particularly valuable.
I became convinced that there is something unique about faith-based organizations, because they are able to mobilize communities to engage in social work. In the project I referred to in Sri Lanka, 400 people came together to discuss social issues. From that day on, I took the work of faith-based organizations very seriously.
I am a Muslim myself, but I had never worked in a faith-based organization. While I was researching faith-based organizations and looking at different websites, I came across Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW). I spoke to the CEO of IRW directly, and had discussed the possibility of joining them in the UK . Unfortunately, that was the day that the tsunami struck. It was a massive scale disaster, and as I had firsthand experience from Sri Lanka on how aid organizations there work with government bodies, the UN, and other international NGOs, I joined Islamic Relief Worldwide in 2005 to work on the tsunami emergency response.
It has been an exciting time to be involved with Islamic Relief Worldwide. I believe that the organization has an opportunity to fill gaps in the development community. I had never seen a purely Islamic organization working in an organized manner. Islamic Relief Worldwide has great understanding about the codes of proper conduct, and it became clear to me that it was the best place for me to work. It was really the right fit. My work includes managing relief and development operations in Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, China, and India. In each country, we have a country director and a staff of varying sizes. We have a staff and volunteers of roughly 4,000 people worldwide, and we manage a budget of about 50 million British pounds per annum in the Asia Region. Within Islamic Relief Worldwide, there are different projects that mainly concentrate on emergency response, rehabilitation, and disaster relief. One of the main areas we are concentrating on is a five-year program in Pakistan concerned with restoring peace and building capacity based on traditional, tribal mechanisms to handle conflict.
Some of our work addresses the problems in Swat Valley and the devastation created by the July 2010 floods in Pakistan. We have around 500 communities that we serve and each community is supported in a specific area, for example, sustainable livelihoods. Islamic relief Worldwide plays a different role in South Sudan, which we started about 3 to 5 years ago, working towards developing a comprehensive peace agreement. Partly as a result of our work, my interest has focused more and more on the unique qualities of the Islamic religion and what it brings into the development field. I moved from my normal development framework to this theme of faith-based intervention and its effects on the community.
What gaps in understanding did you notice in the development work you witnessed?
The first difference that struck me when I began to work with Islamic Relief was that you address everyone as, “my brother,” or “my sister.” This is a very special way of dealing with people. Instead of a formal relationship, we broke the ice through bonds of family. Now, I have more brothers and sisters here than in my family!
When it comes to programming, the main issues revolve around planning and long-term thinking. Most development organizations generally look at how to respond immediately to a situation and to provide immediate needs to a community after a disaster or a calamity. This restricts us; we should rather be thinking longer-term and strategically; we have to look beyond physical outputs. Some organizations wanted to build schools and hospitals, but how do those things really help people on the ground in the midst of a disaster? In a sense, in the immediate, it does not matter particularly whether there are great teachers or curriculum, or good materials for children. Strategic planning was a real gap that I noticed; it is crucial to work together with communities to sustain interventions. Islamic Relief engages communities in planning. We also started to look into interventions in order to determine whether they were truly in conformity with the needs and culture of the community. In Aceh, there was a large construction project to build a community building, but this was not a high priority for the community. Their priority was fishing. We had to consider these types of cultural factors when we engaged in long-term thinking; we are changing the way we look at development interventions.
Another gap I noticed is in looking at other standards, frameworks, and coordination. I notice that most organizations and their work were not streamlined. Islamic organizations in general, were not involved in many forums due to the perception that links whatever is Islamic to terrorism; Islamic Relief, however, entered into the United Nations cluster system and used that framework to coordinate with the general body of development organizations. This has helped our work tremendously. Before, our work was seen as ad-hoc and that we work in isolation, but now it is much for strategic and organized in coordination with stakeholders.
We are interested in what happened in Aceh. Can you share some success stories of interfaith work, and what legacy has been left behind?
Basically, I think there are different angles in measuring success. For instance, governments have their own way of measuring success in the development field. We have completed multiple jobs and projects for which we received a certificate of achievement from the president of Indonesia who visited our work sites in Aceh; but whether our work has made a long term difference in those communities is still questionable. I tend to be somewhat of a pessimist. I felt, based on my experience, that we had done a massive job, building a few thousand houses and schools; that was the government priority, which may not necessarily be in line with what the people of Aceh were hoping to have. There was also some leeway to go beyond building, and to engage with the communities to improve their livelihoods and the capacity to maintain them, and while I think that our support was appreciated, from a professional point of view, the whole intervention was not sufficient. We did not put in enough effort to building long-term community capacity that could cope with further disasters similar in scale to the tsunami.
What are the most pressing development challenges facing South Asia today, and what are the faith dimensions?
Currently when I look at the map of the countries I manage—e.g. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh—I notice that the frequency of disasters has increased, which means that in these areas, we need long-term interventions and integrated development models. If you take a village approach, to streamline their ability to market their crops or increase the production of crops, there is always an additional challenge of when there is a cyclone or the next cycle of flooding; villages are not prepared to cope and recover.
Climate change adaptation is a big undertaking and is a long-term process. I think the effects of climate change will be a major problem for organizations as we move forward with development models in the future. Long-term development tends to be slower paced, and a major disaster can wipe out in a minute what you have done in the all the previous years. Basically, it can take a minute to eradicate all the structures that you have spent years building. The frequency disasters are happening is a major concern and challenge. Political instability is another challenge. There are more frequent occurrences of violent conflict in the area, in Bangladesh, and particularly in India and Pakistan. Also, some organizations say that when you have “Islamic” in your name when working in a Muslim country, you are immune to many challenges. In actuality it is not that black and white; there are other difficulties as well. At the moment we are okay in Afghanistan, and in Pakistan, but there is less support for Muslim organizations working in Bangladesh.
The role of faith in South Asia is visible at the village level where Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims have lived side by side for centuries. However, the positive role of religious institutions in social life has now been gradually misused to make political gains. The result is that people are becoming increasingly confused as to why the same unifying religion that has brought peace to people is now a source of tension and conflict. The way forward, as I see it, is for policymakers, governments, academics and humanitarian workers to recognize that there is a need, more than ever before, to support and strengthen the overwhelming peaceful message of faith that calls for peace and prosperity.
Can you speak more about Bangladesh?
Let me start with the example of the Rohingya refugees, who are a group from Myanmar. There are some real complications because the government does not recognize them as refugees but rather calls them workers/laborers. Islamic Relief Worldwide was managed one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh, and we met some difficulties with local politicians there. When we raised the issue with the NGO bureau, we noticed that the response was slow, and yet when other organizations went to the NGO bureau, they had a faster response. That is a direct example of the kind of challenges that Islamic organizations face in certain circumstances.
In the media, which is mostly run by the government, there is a lot of negative publicity about the work and the dangers of Islamic organizations, without crediting those who do good work. Media is an important part of propaganda which portrays Islamic NGOs in a negative manner. When media picks up a story and starts to promote it, it is not easy to escape, for instance, even among the Rohingya refugee leaders and associations within the un-recognized refugees camp, where we were working; even the refugees were not fully accepting of us. The main reason has been the fact that some refugees have spread rumors that we are not keen to support the refugees becauase we withdrew our services from this particular camp. The media reports did not mentioning the real reason we withdrew, that IRW is facing difficulties in protecting its own staff and has no choice but to withdraw. As a result of this rumors and not understanding the facts of the situation, the refugees felt that we were not sincere, and that by being a Muslim organization, we should have advocated more for their case. This is the kind of wrong messages which can turn the community against organizations that share the same faith with the beneficiaries.
Although we had the advantage of understanding the culture of the refugees, we simply do not have the ability to deliver the services up to the refugees’ expectations without the government support. If the government were to support the Rohingya as refugees, it would ultimately help us to advocate for them and to provide more services. There are around 10,000 families from Myanmar that are living in Bangladesh and not recognizing them officially limits the ability to raise funds for “illegal immigrants.” This is one of the challenges that we face when we try to do work in advocacy. We are not strong in advocacy but we have the potential to advocate for community harmony and peaceful coexistence, if only the government stopped being suspicious about the good performing Islamic organizations and the role faith-based organizations generally.
You have worked in Sri Lanka with Save the Children. How do you see the situation there today? What do you see as the role of religion moving forward?
My own assessment is that the situation is fragile, after emerging from the war. The human rights situation shows abuses, and there are still many people living in camps, with few organizations to help them because getting into the camps is difficult.
The role of religion in Sri Lanka is complicated. It is quite a religious country. I am amazed how all the four religions are living together in relative harmony. The priests and the imams have a very important role in society. The communities are very religious and very committed to their faith, and they listen closely to the religious leaders. However, most conflict is also somehow linked to certain religions in Sri Lanka.
The example I gave earlier about the four religious leaders working together has given me and others a great source of motivation. Working on peace agreements means that each community has to be ready to give up on certain positions and be ready to make sacrifices to move forward in harmony and peace. All religions in Sri Lanka believe in peace and they all believe in giving up some worldly needs so that people can live in harmony. I think that if we could all give up some of our worldly needs, we really could live in harmony. What about coordination efforts in different countries?
Looking at Indonesia, I think there is generally good coordination on the ground, but I think the problem with coordination in general is far more technical for Muslim faith-based organizations. Muslim organizations are trained in specific ways, as are other organizations; in some way, it all goes back to the level of training you receive. If I am a Muslim inspired organization, I will be trained in Islamic values and in Muslim family values. Other organizations have similar training and sometimes these values can converge. During the time of the tsunami, I found that the more communities mobilized (actively participating in the activities of the development organizations), the more work it was able to get done.
In Sri Lanka, the Catholic Overseas Development Agency (CAFOD) and Islamic Relief had a unique situation where they were able to work together; the response to our collaboration was overwhelmingly positive because we managed to coordinate our response. I think that there were other organizations working in Sri Lanka, like Christian Aid, that could have engaged in partnerships also. If all five or six organizations had worked together, the response time would have been still stronger.
There is a Catholic priest in Mannar, Sri Lanka (where I lived and worked) who has been crucial in his role in the country; the army and many LTTE leaders in particular, give him a great deal of respect. His role makes it easier for us to access communities, because he has created good relations with international NGOs, the army, and the Tamil Tigers. This priest brought these different groups to his own house to initiate dialogue between them about how to work together and solve the issues in the country. His message has always been constant that God wants peace on earth and that humans should not suffer from abuse and violation of rights. The priest has been the common denominator for the fighting parties and other stakeholders to come and meet to discuss differences and find points of convergence.
Looking on to Pakistan, what do you see as your chief challenges moving forward. What are the faith dimensions?
If I take the example of Islamic Relief Worldwide, we started working in rural villages trying to build local capacity to respond to the effects of fighting between India and Pakistan. We had about 400 female health workers and 400 male health workers and they trained people in the villages, using health kits. The majority of the people are Muslim, but there are some other groups as well.
The role of the religious organization, mainly the imams, has been to guide people in the villages and to train them for disasters. But conditions are dangerous in these parts. A staff member of ours lost his life due to shelling and people have also been victims of crossfire. Looking at the roles of religious organizations, it is clear that when the earthquake hit the area, the religious leaders were an asset to our work because they mobilized the jirgas, and pursued their own mechanisms of resolving conflict. We have realized that local conflict resolution mechanisms are indeed effective, and we are working to make them sustainable.
In Swat Valley, as a result of the military campaign, there are more than 2 million IDPs (internally displaced peoples). The role of religious leaders there has been tremendous. They are able to reach people before the international NGOs can and even before the local NGOS. They are already there, and they have the trust of the community. When they have materials or access to nurses and doctors, they can provide immediate relief for affected communities.
During the recent floods, 15 to 20 million people were displaced. The role of religious groups has been largely categorized, by the media and governments, as extremists. Some groups have, however, collaborated with UN agencies, providing accurate and up to date information, which the government cannot. The can cross into isolated villages, and provide medicines, clean water, and transport people out of disaster areas, because they know the terrain and the people trust them. The political aspect of all this is quite a different arena and another dimension from what these groups are doing to help the community of the humanitarian side of the wheel.
Are there many such groups?
I came across three groups. All were Muslim and they were mostly sect based, I saw Ismailis, Tablighis, and village based organizations, particularly in the former Northwest Frontier Province, working together. Before the disaster, I heard that they did not agree with each other and opted for fighting with each other from time to time, but after the disaster, they worked together to provide welfare and relief services. There is not always harmony between these groups. During the floods, there was some chaos and some ambushes and conflict, but I think the disaster has brought them together.
What about the work of Muslim-inspired organizations in India?
There are multiple groups that are part of the Islamic University and some groups have forums and peace talks on TV. The problem really lies for Islamic groups that are from the outside, and particularly with Islamic Relief. We started our work in India on a small scale, and chose to partner with organizations and charities already working in India. As we had a high profile at this time, when we first entered the country, and we felt that it would not be appropriate and that our staff might feel intimidated, so we tried to avoid that sort of exposure. We have also heard of cases of intimidation from security forces. We see a limited role in our work in India until we train our people appropriately to work in the specific context.
What about interfaith work?
We worked with two organizations, CAFOD UK and Christian Aid. We started at the program level responding to disasters in Aceh and in Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, we have the benefit of working with other Islamic organizations like Muslim Aid; we are part of a consortium, this has given us more strength, and protection to do our work. We feel more confident in partnership with international NGOs. In Aceh, we work with CAFOD, which has many partners and works in conflict zones; when the communities see us working together I think it provides them with insight. They start thinking, why are we fighting? As to the role of faith-based organizations like Islamic relief, Aceh has given us the chance to work closely with communities and engage with governments and other donors like UNICEF, the UN itself, and other faith-based organizations supporting education, peacebuilding and conflict resolution. As a Muslim FBO, our role is not fully utilized but I believe the opportunity is there. In Bangladesh, we have worked with Christian Aid on cyclone and flood relief.
How about transnational faith-inspired movements or organizations?
Honestly, we have not worked with these organizations, but we are aware of their role. We are trying our best to invest in good relations because we think that this will lead to a better way of working together with other traditions and organizations.
What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful?
We belong to the disaster community committee in the UK, which raises funds, over 300 million pounds for the tsunami, and 60 million pounds for floods. We are currently the only Islamic organization member of that committee. Another network is working on HIV/AIDS in South Africa—a Muslim/Christian network. We organized an international conferences presenting the role of Islamic faith organizations and the values we bring to HIV/AIDS.
What kinds of issues would you like to see addressed during the consultation? What are the most important gaps in knowledge?
The issue of values, related to humanitarian interventions, and to peacebuilding—whether Islamic, Christian, or Hindu, is important. Most organizations are not able to speak clearly and openly about both common beliefs and differences at the table. It is time for all religious actors to sit together and bring common values to the table. There may be differences in opinion but I think differences in opinion can be justified and should not serve to drive people apart. I think we should work together in an environment of mutual agreement about how to engage as one, single community.