Thought leadership and capacity-building require spaces to nurture, consider, develop and spread new ideas and approaches. With that need of the sector in mind, the Humanitarian Academy for Development (HAD) hosted a conference bringing together academics, practitioners, donors and thought leaders within the Muslim charities sector on Wednesday 15 January. The conference was organised by the Muslims in Britain Research Network (MBRN), in collaboration with the Muslim Charities Forum (MCF) and HAD.
Thoughtful and innovative presentations
Attendees were part of thoughtful and innovative discussions and presentations which covered diverse topics. These included for example presentations on case studies from Muslim charities such as the work by Muslim Charity in protecting street children through an informal education centre in Bangladesh or the work of Islamic Help in building ‘eco villages’. A representative of Muslim Hands presented about the support his organisation provides to MotherKind Community health workers in Afghanistan, and a member of Muslim Aid spoke about serving the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Presentations also covered more conceptual topics such as faith and ethics in global health, modest fashion in UK Muslim charities, sustainability, the tension between globalisation and localisation, and the importance of research for the work of charities.
Common trends, challenges and themes
The conference brought together actors from the same sector, with a diversity of organisations, roles, priority areas and projects represented at the event. Despite the diverse challenges and initiatives highlighted during the event, there were common themes that reflect a number of general trends across the sector for Muslim and other charities.
Localisation in a globalised world
One key trend that was recurring throughout the day (and which is currently a hot topic for the sector) is localisation. This was discussed in the context of globalisation, where international NGOs and charities are required to balance a global perspective with local needs and contexts. But beyond that, the issue of how INGOs work within their own countries and communities was also raised. Conference attendees discussed whether INGOs should be involved more within their local communities or mostly focus on beneficiaries from the global South.
Decolonisation of the sector
A further trend that came up repeatedly during the day was the issue of decolonisation of the sector and what one presenter termed the “humanitarian invasion”. This highlights a challenge for NGOs which are based in the global North but work in the global South. Conference attendees discussed how there can be a risk for such NGOs to adopt ‘colonial’ tendencies related to homogenisation, superiority of knowledge, lack of awareness of the role of local knowledge and context. This is obviously closely linked to issues of localisation and the #shiftingthepower campaign.
Accountability, transparency and governance
Moreover, there was a clear call for greater accountability, transparency and better governance within Muslim charities which are often perceived to be currently lacking. This was highlighted by a presentation on the development of the Muslim charities sector in Britain, which suggested that not enough charities are transparent in their financial reporting and that the sector could have greater impact by working in a more coordinated way. According to the presenter, Muslim charities in Britain raised approximately £450million in 2017; and the question is whether a shift towards greater transparency and accountability could improve the impact of this vast resource?
The importance of research
The importance of research for the charities sector was highlighted by presenters and participants. There was an emphasis on the potential for research to provide a number of opportunities for Muslim charities to increase their impact. Research is able to provide visibility about good practice initiatives, not only changing popular perceptions about the work that Muslim charities do but also as a fundraising tool for the charities themselves. Research within the sector can highlight trends, challenges and opportunities that can be used by charities to examine their own work and collectively find more innovative solutions to global and local problems. Research is also a key tool in challenging systemic issues rather than adopting a reactive approach to humanitarian and development work. The aim is to ensure that future platforms such as this event continue to bring together academics, researchers, practitioners, donors and charities so that learning will be fostered across the sector.
MBRF chairperson, Prof Alison Scott-Baumann, made a call to participants to challenge the corridors of power in an effort to ensure systemic change. She suggested key avenues for this include lobbying and advocacy by charities. Charities are in a unique position with vast knowledge about specific issues and events taking place across the globe. One of the challenges they face is transferring that on-the-ground knowledge to decision makers and policy makers. This could be done through lobbying MPs, providing evidence to parliamentary committees, high visibility advocacy campaigns and communicating better through the mainstream media to ensure support from citizens and politicians. Those present also highlighted the importance of religion and culture in the work that they do and in particular the importance of encouraging Muslim charities to promote their connection with faith as a force for positive change.
This event was a clear example of the positive impact across the globe of the work of Muslim charities and a first step in bringing together stakeholders who can make a difference, improve the sector and enhance humanitarian and development work across the global in thoughtful and innovative ways.
Written by Dr. Vanessa Malila
Research and Development Officer