Issue 50 - Article 14

Cross-cultural collaboration: building partnerships

May 9, 2011
James Shaw-Hamilton, The Humanitarian Forum

The challenges involved in meeting humanitarian and development needs in the Middle East and North Africa are enormous. At the same time, there are few examples of cross-cultural collaboration, perhaps because misperceptions on both sides abound. Partnerships are needed, however, for practical reasons and to support humanitarian principles and demonstrate that humanitarianism is neutral. They are needed between ‘Western’ and ‘Islamic’ humanitarian organisations internationally, and between local and international actors.

A changing picture

The need for development and humanitarian aid is greater than ever: in 2010, 373 natural disasters killed over 296,800 people, affected nearly 208 million others and caused damage totalling nearly $110 billion.[1] Muslims or Muslim-majority countries seem disproportionately affected.

At the same time, Western aid is declining. Government income has been affected by the global financial crisis, while the cost of aid is increasing due to changes in exchange rates and food prices. Meanwhile, aid from Gulf states and international NGOs based there is becoming more visible and international. A few examples: Saudi Arabia’s $500m donation to the World Food Programme (WFP); the work of the Qatar Red Crescent in Somalia, Haiti and elsewhere; and the increasing prominence of the Qatar Foundation and the Al Makhtoum Foundation. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa gave $400m in humanitarian aid in 2010. Islamic NGOs have worked in Gaza, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere for many years. The Koran describes the religious obligation of zakat as one of the five pillars of Islam: this is calculated annually as a percentage of an individual’s net worth – and so the actual (and potential) giving throughout the region is enormous.

Cultural proximity may also be important. Donors who are inspired by faith prefer to give to organisations that share their values, and predominantly prefer to give to culturally similar organisations. Cultural connections between donor and recipient may also be a good predictor of access to beneficiaries.[2] In December 2010, WFP signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to deliver food aid in parts of Somalia. After the Indian Ocean tsunami, World Vision joined with the Indonesian organisation Muhammadiyah to rebuild schools. World Vision gained local legitimacy by working with a large, Muslim organisation that was respected throughout Indonesia, while Muhammadiyah gained international recognition through the partnership.

Developing partnerships may also help to break down the misplaced suspicion that marks relations between the West and the Arab world and promote humanitarian and development work as a neutral area to build trust between communities. There are widespread misperceptions on both sides. Crudely put, Islamic organisations are often seen as motivated by religion, and as supporting conservatism; their ‘humanitarianism’ becomes religion or politics by a different name, and they are thought to be run by zealots or terrorists, or they are seen as secretive, old-fashioned or ineffective. Conversely, there are widely held views in the Muslim world that Western and multilateral organisations are neo-colonial or intent on imposing their governments’ values; some see a deliberate policy to remove Islamic organisations from Muslim areas so as to enable proseletysation.[3] It doesn’t help that ‘non-traditional’ actors are also thought to be excluded from the mainstream by language or cliques. The UN too is tainted; many cite the two Security Council meetings on the expulsion of Western NGOs from Sudan in 2009, while none were held on the listing of Islamic NGOs as terrorist organisations after 9/11.

Collaboration may also give an organisation some protection if it faces allegations of wrongdoing, or at least a range of locally accepted reference points. For example, when several INGOs were expelled from Sudan in 2009, they found it hard to speak with the government; The Humanitarian Forum facilitated meetings in London between them and Sudanese government representatives, re-establishing a vital communication link.

Emerging lessons

There are a handful of interesting examples of cross-cultural partnership. They suggest some useful emerging lessons, many of which can be illustrated through the work of The Humanitarian Forum.[4]

The Humanitarian Forum is a network of multilateral, Western and Islamic organisations. It uses the large area of common ground between religions and cultures as a non-poltical environment in which to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of aid through training, dialogue and cooperation. Internationally and in pilot countries, it helps new humanitarian leaders to emerge and enables them to engage with other humanitarian leaders as equals. In the Middle East and North Africa, the Forum has convened conferences on Libya, Gaza and Somalia to discuss the humanitarian situation and build stronger relations between multilateral organisations, Western and Islamic international NGOs and local NGOs. It is also planning a conference with the League of Arab States on improved cooperation between NGOs and governments. In Yemen, it gives grants, mentoring and training to the Humanitarian Forum Yemen (HFY), an independent network of national NGOs. HFY developed a workshop with OCHA on coordination and cooperation for local NGOs, which also addressed issues of trust between local and international humanitarian organisations. The workshop helped set out concrete steps, such as translating reports into Arabic and broadening invitations to meetings, to ensure that local and international organisations can work together more closely.

Key emerging lessons for cross-cultural collaboration and partnerships include:

Investment. There is no ‘quick win’. Organisations need to have a strategy for engaging with other faith groups, and must build up credibility over time – and at a senior level – through their programmes, partners, policies and profile. Christian Aid and several other INGOs have employed an interfaith manager to lead on their relations with other faith-based organisations. Since 2004, The Humanitarian Forum’s steering committee of CEOs and Directors from key international Sunni, Shi’a and Western organisations has met regularly. It took several years to develop relations, but this has been vital to clarify and agree goals and commitments. Through this process, it has become possible to tackle contentious issues like Gaza and humanitarian principles in positive ways.

Mutual respect. It is vital to show that organisations respect each other’s experience and skills. Trust can evaporate very quickly. The author heard that one potential partnership between a US NGO and one from a Gulf country was destroyed by a passing comment from an American that ‘You have the money, I have the skill’.

Support base. Organisations’ leaders need to ensure that the support base understands and agrees with the cross-cultural partnership. Donors, staff, volunteers, partners and existing beneficiaries may all be suspicious about favouring another faith community before their own. This has been reported to me by Christian, Muslim and Jewish NGOs, but might be shared by all faith groups. In its early days, members of The Humanitarian Forum raised similar concerns, but the forum has the advantage of being ‘international’ and non-denominational.

Shared values. Ideally, partners need to share the same long-term vision and goals. They certainly need to understand each other’s incentives and share the same broad principles in their work. Clearly, there is a large area of common ground between faith-inspired organisations, but this cannot be assumed in all areas (e.g. views on HIV/AIDS or lottery funding), and may be diluted for other reasons (e.g. concerns about proselytisation).

For example, several NGOs have asked whether the Red Cross Code of Conduct of 1994 represents current, universal principles, and the OIC has developed a separate code of ‘Islamic’ humanitarian principles from scratch. To help organisations understand each other better, a working group of The Humanitarian Forum is identifying common ground in humanitarian principles and rooting the principles in Islamic law and tradition. To that end the Forum has brought together a diverse group from the Red Cross and from organisations in Indonesia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Yemen. This work is ongoing, but there is great congruence between the Red Cross and OIC codes: the OIC code suggests some extra principles, rather than disagreeing with the Red Cross ones.

Small may be beautiful. Tactically, it may be worth testing the ground – and stakeholders’ buy-in – starting with a practical, focused area of partnership, for example joint pilot programmes. After it has been successfully started, the partnership needs to remain practical, relevant and rooted in communities. Partnerships must be preserved through changing circumstances and personnel. As part of this, the more ambitious partnerships need to become embedded within organisations, through outreach to donors and in staff training, while maintaining each organisation’s separate identity.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) and Muslim Aid developed a very successful partnership in Sri Lanka in 2006, sharing staff, resources, supplies and logistical support; meanwhile, their collaboration with faith and community leaders, based on shared humanitarian goals, helped to build trust between religious communities. UMCOR and Muslim Aid tried to replicate the partnership elsewhere (there were plans to merge projects in Cambodia and Sudan), but with far less success, perhaps because it was not owned and driven locally.

The unfolding events in Libya, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere in North Africa and the Middle East have vast humanitarian and social implications. The communities and their histories are complex, and principled humanitarian action by the international community is not enough. Local organisations have to be involved in a genuine partnership, and Western and Arab donor organisations need to share a joint vision for the region.


James Shaw-Hamilton is Director of The Humanitarian Forum.


[1] At the end of 2010, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) referred to the ‘increasing vulnerability of populations and the growing magnitude of emergencies’ while the UN Secretary-General spoke of the ‘unacceptably slow’ improvements in the lives of the poor.

[2] Jonathan Benthall, in Religion and Humanitarianism, a conference organised by the Geneva Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, October 2009,

[3] Mohammed Abdul Rahim, ‘Arabic Organizations Absent from the African Scene in Charitable Activities’, QACA (Qatar Authority for Charitable Activities), Edition 1, February 2007.

[4] For more information see Other useful reading on the issues covered in this article includes Edward Kessler and Miriam Arkush, Keeping Faith In Development: The Significance of Interfaith Relations in the Work of Humanitarian Aid and International Development Organisations, The Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths; and Mark R. Janz, Noelle Soi and Rebecca Russell, ‘Collaboration and Partnership in Humanitarian Action’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 45, December 2009.


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