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Aid agencies poised to offer relief

United by compassion, diverse groups focus on serving the devastated

Out of chaos, coordination. In a place of cruelty, compassion.

Behind President Bush's military "coalition of the willing" waits a small humanitarian army, a coalition of the called.

Many of the non-government organizations, or NGOs, are Christian – backed by Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Mennonites, Quakers, Orthodox and a variety of ecumenical movements. Some are resolutely multifaith or non-religious: the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, the International Medical Corps. And a few – the Red Crescent and the Islamic American Relief Agency – are Muslim, like most of the population of Iraq.

In a less dire situation, that kind of mix might be a recipe for bitter arguments. But in Iraq, as in so many other troubled places in the world, aid workers say differences that could lead to fighting pale before the size and importance of the task at hand.

"We always try to be clear about who we are. We always say, 'We are not missionaries.' We are a Christian NGO driven to help all people by our Christian ethos and spirituality," said Steve Matthews this week from his temporary headquarters in Amman, Jordan.

Mr. Matthews is emergency response communications manager for the Global Rapid Response Team of World Vision International, one of the largest of the NGOs. World Vision describes itself as a Christian humanitarian agency that is working in nearly 100 countries.

Mr. Matthews has worked in Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, El Salvador, Iraq, Kosovo, Mozambique, Peru and Sudan.

He's been meeting daily for the last month with other relief leaders who have also set up shop in Jordan, trying to coordinate their response to the inevitable enormous needs the war will leave behind.

As a result of those informal discussions, he said, World Vision will probably focus on providing shelter materials, shoes and some basic medicines.

Other groups preparing to help the Iraqis have formed more formal alliances. A new group called All Our Children, for instance, combines the efforts of the Church World Service, Jubilee Partners, Lutheran World Relief, Mennonite Central Committee and MCC U.S., Mennonite Central Committee Canada, National Council of Churches USA, Sojourners and Stop Hunger Now.

And the relatively long roll-up to war has given aid groups time to get ready, said Kevin King, material resources manager for the Mennonite Central Committee. "We saw this one coming," he said.

One of the particular challenges in Iraq is the potential religious and cultural clash between mostly Western, largely Christian aid organizations and the mostly Muslim population. One of the mysteries of this war is how the Iraqis will respond to Westerners if the dictatorship is not in control. Liberators or invaders? Helpers or occupiers? People of faith or people who threaten their own faith?

One way some NGOs have prepared for those questions has been to set up alliances with aid organizations based inside Iraq and nearby nations, particularly the Red Crescent. Other groups, such as the Mennonites, say they have built up trust during years of work.

The Mennonite Central Committee has spent more than $6 million in Iraq since the first Gulf War, Mr. King said.

Mr. King was in Iraq 14 months ago, meeting with farmers whom the Mennonite Central Committee had helped. The Iraqi farmers, just south of Baghdad, had been given tomato seeds and some relatively primitive farming equipment.

Mr. King, the son of a tomato farmer, recalls standing with the Muslim farmers in Iraq and sharing some freshly grown tomatoes. "It was one holy moment," he said.

One of the Iraqi farmers, who clearly didn't know a Mennonite from a melon, asked about Mennonite beliefs.

"I told him that we're peace-loving people," Mr. King said. "He said, 'Maybe we could become Muslim Mennonites.' "

That's how chasms across religious differences get bridged, Mr. King said.

"We could disagree about theology," he said. "But we could agree about feeding hungry people and getting their dignity back."

That's not to say that there aren't enormous – even potentially impossible – challenges to be faced.

The day before the war started, 60 percent of Iraqis had no regular access to clean water, according to some estimates. Of the 24 million people in Iraq, 16 million were totally dependent on food handouts. The first Gulf War, more than a decade of sanctions and 20 years under Saddam Hussein had left the economy in shambles.

And nobody really knows what additional burdens the war will create. How many refugees will flee across nearby borders? How many will be left without shelter? How many will be injured?

Then there are the horrible wild cards that make this crisis a particular test: Will chemical or biological weapons contaminate the country? Will brutal tribal warfare and revenge killings follow the fall of the dictatorship?

Larry Minear is director of the Humanitarianism and War Project at Tufts University. He's worked for Church World Service and Lutheran World Relief. NGOs have spent about $6 billion a year for the last three years on various emergencies around the world, he said. And the ability to work together is often a matter of survival.

"They realize that to the extent they can display a united front, they can negotiate greater humanitarian access and be more effective," he said.

That's particularly important in Iraq, where the Hussein regime has excluded most Western aid organizations for more than seven years, he said.

"Every international organization has a lot of homework to do in terms of getting to know the lay of the land and the politics and culture and religion," he said.

Some NGOs are struggling with an ethical question: Do they accept money from countries that are actively supporting the war? Major organizations such as Oxfam and the groups that created All Our Children have decided to turn away potential donations from the governments of the United States, Great Britain, Australia and any other country actively supporting the war.

Partly that's because the aid agencies don't want to give the impression they support a war prosecuted against the opposition of the United Nations. Partly it reflects an attempt to draw a bright line between warriors and relief workers, some say.

"We've come to the point in this day and age where there's not enough space between the military and humanitarian aid," Mr. King said.

For the immediate future, the U.S. military and its allies will carry the load of helping those in need in Iraq. More than $16 million in disaster relief supplies have been brought to the region by the United States. And a Disaster Assistance Response Team, known as DART and composed of U.S. civilian humanitarian experts, is ready to enter Iraq.

The United Nations has also collected tens of millions of dollars and has humanitarian agencies prepared to render help.

But NGO leaders say they know that much of the long-term burden of helping many Iraqis will fall to them. When, exactly, their time starts is another of the mysteries of this war. Even if the ground campaign is relatively fast, some NGO leaders say they will not be rolling in right behind the troops.

"We will not be in a very large hurry to get in there until we are pretty sure the area is as secure as it needs to be," said Mr. Matthews. In 1999, in Kosovo, "everybody went back too soon. Several journalists were killed and our people found themselves in scary situations involving land mines and an attack on a German Panzer tank." And yet, the very sense of mission that compels people to work in this field makes it hard to wait.

"At the same time when I talk about caution, we will go in as soon as we can," Mr. Matthews said. "We have the knowledge that, if you don't go in and start your work, you're late."

The Dallas Morning News
03/22/2003
By Jeffrey Weiss