Photo: Islamic Relief

A Muslim NGO perspective on humanitarianism and working in the UK

24 April 2017
Author: Imran Madden

Following his session at the Bond Conference, Imran Madden, UK director of Islamic Relief, talks about the potential of the Grand Bargain, concern for humanitarian principles and operating as a Muslim NGO in the UK.

How do you see the relationship between humanitarianism and development? 

We have to get better at integrating humanitarian and development activities. If you look at the Syrian crisis, the immediate need is to save lives with food and shelter. However. after six years of war and displacement, people need resilience-building activities (which are traditionally in the rubric of development) such as education and livelihoods. Most humanitarian agencies will begin to offer other "development" programmes during a humanitarian crisis; however, donor funding tends to focus on the immediate lifesaving issues and agencies often struggle to provide those services that are essential for the long-term rehabilitation of populations. There is also work to be done to educate our supporters about the real needs on the ground.

We believe that by investing in people’s long-term resilience and empowerment, we can deliver lasting positive change. We’ve seen this in Pakistan, for example, where community groups we helped set up over ten years ago are now negotiating with local government for improved services.

Please tell us about Islamic Relief’s experience operating within the UK as a Muslim charity?

Our identity as a faith-based humanitarian agency is a great strength. It is a significant motivating factor for supporters. For example, during the month of Ramadan, UK Muslims give in excess of 100 million pounds to charity. It is also an important resource to support key issues of concern such as climate change and gender-based violence, where we have worked with Muslim scholars to develop faith-literate resources to promote positive behaviour change and mobilise campaigners. 

However, the growing tide of Islamophobia has been hard on the Muslim charity sector. It often feels under intense scrutiny and has to expend additional time and resources defending the legitimacy of its humanitarian work. One example of this was the backlash we faced during our Ramadan campaign last year when some sections of the media objected to us publicising our Subhan-Allah campaign on London buses. The message of the campaign related to giving thanks to God for the good work we had been able to achieve through the generosity of our supporters. It was a message about aid effectiveness – but in the current climate some people are quick to assume ulterior motives.

What do you think the potential is for making the Grand Bargain a reality? 

The Grand Bargain was one of the most progressive roadmaps to come out of last year’s World Humanitarian Summit (WHS). Islamic Relief welcomes such clear commitments from donors and NGOs to improve transparency, enhance engagement and increase coordination in the humanitarian sector.

The reality of ever-increasing protracted humanitarian crises, springing up due to conflict and climate change, means we need to make innovative improvements and take bold steps towards changing the way we operate. 

We recognise there are significant challenges to realising these reforms and achieving consensus across this incredibly diverse sector, and in the spirit of the Grand Bargain will continue to push forward to affect change. 

We are working to support innovation and learning through our international programmes, and with broad coalitions of NGOs to promote research, learning and improved practice.

We are part of Charter for Change, which is spearheading greater support for local organisations working in humanitarian response. This complements the work we’ve done for many years in countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, where we have invested in capacity building for local communities to enable them to lead their own development. Another platform for improved programming arising from the WHS last year is the Inclusion Charter, which Islamic Relief is taking a lead role in on developing tools to help programmes increase the inclusion of people with disabilities in protection activities and service provision.

What do you see as Islamic Relief’s largest challenge to alleviating suffering, hunger, illiteracy and diseases worldwide? 

The biggest challenge to addressing these issues is political will. Islamic Relief has a long track record of working in some of the world’s most dangerous and difficult countries, including Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Iraq, to save lives, but we are increasingly concerned about the growing lack of respect for Humanitarian Principles. These principles are there to ensure lifesaving aid reaches those who need it most, even in the midst of war. Yet in some cases they are ignored by warring parties, and even humanitarian workers themselves have been targeted. Last year, we tragically lost several people working for us in Syria. This is unacceptable and jeopardises the whole humanitarian system.

More positively, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have shown that political will can be mobilised to support not just the basics such as poverty alleviation and healthcare provision, but also issues such as access to energy, environmental sustainability and gender equality, which are the preconditions for transformational development and dignity for all. This also means the UK has to implement SDGs in a domestic context. 

About the author

Imran Madden
Islamic Relief

Imran Madden has been the UK director of Islamic Relief since 2015. He previously heading Islamic Relief Worldwide's humanitarian department.