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Dignity in humanitarian action: an Islamic perspective

by Sahedul Islam
7 May 2019

‘We have bestowed dignity on the children of Adam … and conferred upon them special favours above the greater part of Our creation.’ The Quran (17:70).

On 28 September 2018, a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Central Sulawesi in Indonesia. Thousands of people were killed and over 100,000 displaced.

This was my first time playing a pivotal role in supporting an emergency response with the British NGO Muslim Aid. The devastation was enormous – schools, clinics and places of worship were flattened, and road and air travel badly disrupted, making it extremely difficult to reach affected areas. Amid the havoc we set up operations to provide food and water, working through our local partner Yayasan Kemanusiaan Muslim Aid Indonesia (YKMI).

Assistance in the immediate aftermath of a major disaster is inevitably haphazard and disjointed; information is sketchy, and the scale of the damage unclear. Markets typically break down, traders shutter their shops and it is difficult to recruit anyone, from drivers to operational staff. It was only later, in retrospect, that I realised that, in the rush to help, we often overlooked a fundamental principle – the intrinsic dignity of affected people.

Dignity is a vital concept in humanitarian action. It is also central to my faith. In Islam, any human interaction begins with the natural disposition of the human being, an inherently venerated, valued and honoured creation before God, without qualification or exception. This necessitates justice, which in this context means helping people according to their specific needs. Beyond that, dignity is also about how, when and where aid is provided, and how you interact with the people you’re trying to help.

Looking back, there were undignified moments, especially at the beginning. During one distribution in the very early stages of the emergency, in a makeshift settlement of some 350 displaced people in Donggala district, we failed to engage people in planning the distribution of hygiene kits. Delivering aid quickly and meeting immediate needs meant that we had to make snap decisions about the timing, location and method of delivery. Many people struggled to get to the delivery point, while others had to wade through knee-deep mud as monsoon rains turned the settlement into a swamp. People did get the kits, but we could have done better.

As the weeks went by, I found myself rejecting in-kind aid such as water purification tablets and ready-to-eat meals. People wouldn’t use the tablets because of the strong chlorine taste and smell. We also turned down ready-made meals that catered for Western palates, largely supplied by Western companies. Instead, we invested our resources and time in building sanitation infrastructure and hygiene promotion, and addressing concerns around access, protection and safety, with basic components such as lockable doors, electricity and lighting and separate toilets for women.

As the scale of the aid operation increased we geared up our staff and expertise, and engaged more with affected individuals and communities. From a trio of committed Muslim Aid coordinators we built a team of 40 local people working for YKMI. Muslim Aid supported YKMI with technical assistance and help with finance, procurement and logistics. We also connected them with funding agencies including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and international NGOs.

Muslim Aid has a long-established practice of building up local organisations, but the Indonesian government’s decision to place restrictions on international NGOs working in the disaster area undoubtedly speeded up the process and forced organisations to fully commit to investing in local frontline responders. In doing so, we were also investing in the bonds between communities and existing local NGOs.

Back in London, I feel proud of the work we did. Emergencies are emergencies and not all responses go to plan. But next time round, I will try to uphold personal and collective rights, acknowledging each person of concern as an individual with specific needs, constraints and values.

It’s a lofty ideal. And it’s easier said than done in the aftermath of a disaster. But a more pragmatic approach must be taken in the delivery of aid – only then can dignity be fully realised.

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