Moving from Charity to Caritas
by Francesco Paganini
When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted more than 60 years ago, it established the basic framework for a rights-based approach to disaster relief. This approach to emergency aid now commonly undergirds the practices of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Yet, as revolutionary as the UDHR’s ideas once seemed, the concept of humanitarian aid as an entitlement—one mandated by the intrinsic rights of all people to a life with dignity—was a basic tenet held by Christians long before the Red Cross was founded or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed.
The Christian mandate established by Jesus in the New Testament is unequivocal in its approach to humanitarian aid. The well-known example of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 ends with a clear directive to Christians to “Go and do likewise”—show mercy to those in distress. The provision of aid to people in need of help is not meant to be a voluntary action, motivated by the giver’s emotional response to the plight of others. Rather, is an obligatory manifestation of our love for God and for our neighbors.
In the summer of 2002, when I was interning with the Jubilee Network in Washington, DC, doing work on macro-economic country analysis, we started an effort to shift the language around debt away from “forgiveness.” Until then, the debt of the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) was being framed in terms of the rich countries of the global North magnanimously forgiving debts owed by poor nations in the global South. That summer, however, we began to shift the debate to a notion that the debt itself was odious. Essentially, this debt couldn’t be “forgiven” because it had been acquired illegitimately and thus wasn’t owed at all.
Obviously, this discussion wasn’t limited to a mere choice of words. In fact, the language used had a profound effect on the way the debt was perceived. Our shift in word usage was a means of renegotiating the power relations between the two groups of nations—those that owed money and those that received payments on loans. The idea was to move away from “generosity-based” lobbying to a more aggressive “rights-based” perspective.
Deep Roots in the Bible
The Jubilee Network was a movement that had its roots in the biblical concept of Jubilee (Leviticus 25:8-17). However, when it comes to the concept of humanitarian aid as a fundamental right, we Christians have allowed ourselves to fall behind the secular community. Nowhere is that manifested more dramatically than in the notion of “charity” that is still pervasive among many Christian donors and those who implement humanitarian aid.
A look at how humanitarian aid is approached by the faith agents who provide it would enable us to judge whether or not our conception of charity is consistent with the Christian mandate. Since the discussion here is about language, we need to make a small but profound distinction between two basic concepts of charity. The first follows the traditional definition of charity as “the voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need.” This is often the mindset with which many approach humanitarian aid. Under this definition, aid is provided voluntarily (that is, optionally) and is motivated by an emotional response. The other form of charity, distinguished by use of the Latin term caritas, is viewed not as a voluntary action but as an obligation brought on by the love of God and by Christ’s call for his disciples to love one another. (John 15:12)
While there is no doubt that faith-based donors and aid providers are having a profound and meaningful impact on humanitarian response, there is still significant room for improvement. Making a distinction between the two ideas of charity may seem minor, but a true shift to the caritas approach would have a profound impact on the way faith agents see humanitarian aid. The implications are too numerous to be exhaustively examined here, but a look at the faith community’s response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti will illustrate how far we still have to go to fully embrace the Christian paradigm of aid.
Disaster Risk Reduction
The faith-based community’s response to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti was a manifestation of profound solidarity. The Haiti earthquake also showcased the capability of modern technology to deliver an ongoing disaster right into our homes. As a result, there was a massive, almost instantaneous outpouring of support by Christians for those impacted by the earthquake.
Now consider the response to a catastrophe if, all along, such aid was embraced by Christians as a mandate rather than a charitable choice. We might well place greater emphasis on foresight and preparation by building up the resilience of vulnerable communities before a disaster strikes. A continuing mandate would enable Christian responders to invest more efficiently in disaster preparedness, thus mitigating the damage done when an actual disaster occurs.
This is not a revolutionary concept but an approach that many government donors have already embraced. USAID’s Office of Disaster Assistance is increasingly focusing on disaster risk reduction (DRR). This agency is fully aware that public pressure to respond to an increasing number of disasters around the globe will strain its financial resources and reduce its capability for response. Similarly, Christian donors and institutions should be clamoring for disaster responders to identify high-risk areas so that they can invest their support in reducing the impact of potential disasters in these highly vulnerable spots.
The funds raised through the Haiti Emergency Advance established by Global Ministries have allowed the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) not only to respond to the urgent needs that immediately followed the earthquake but also to support long-term recovery and development in the stricken communities. Thus UMCOR is able to continue its work while most other agencies’ funding has dwindled and many other organizations are forced to scale back their operations. In fact, UMCOR’s ongoing activities in Haiti, which are being implemented in an integrated manner, allow us to employ disaster risk reduction initiatives throughout our sectors. From rebuilding schools and homes to supporting agricultural projects, we are working to ensure the relative safety of the social and human investments we have already made in Haiti during recent years.
Indeed, it is imperative in Haiti that we not only build back all that was destroyed by the earthquake—while also helping Haiti recover from the devastation wrought by years of cyclical natural disasters—but also that we “build back better” to reduce vulnerabilities and increase resilience. In this vein, much of the disaster risk reduction work in Haiti is being implemented with funds raised during the initial emergency phase.
This logical solicitation and use of funds allows UMCOR to continue performing the duties with which the Methodist community has entrusted us. Still, it has been challenging to communicate our continuing need for risk-reduction funding and activities because such work does not elicit the kind of strong emotional reaction as does a response to an immediate desperate need. This challenge can best be met through a reinterpretation of aid as an ongoing obligation. Once humanitarian aid is regarded as an entitlement, it makes sense to invest in disaster risk reduction as a way to minimize our liabilities for future major events.
The ever increasing desire that motivates people of faith to engage directly in the provision of service—thereby displacing professional aid workers—is another manifestation of humanitarian aid as traditional charity. One needs to fly only once from New York City to Port au Prince, Haiti, to understand the sheer volume of faith-based volunteers traveling to Haiti every day. They go to engage in recovery activities, but some such activities could probably be better performed by Haitians themselves. In a context where responding to a disaster is considered a duty rather than an option, faith communities would seek to build and rely on the capacity of local responders. Such responders function at lower costs and can provide quicker and more culturally appropriate aid. Instead, we continue to look for an emotional “direct connection,” regardless of whether that is our most effective role.
While many within the church world have complained about being told to “pay, pray, and get out of the way,” the fact is that, if humanitarian aid is not considered a “voluntary” action, then our ultimate goal should be to provide it in the most financially efficient way. This is not to say that volunteers from afar are never needed. It means that, in choosing when to use such volunteers, faith donors unfortunately are not considering efficiency as the primary criterion affecting their decision.
In a world that typically experiences at least one disaster per day, it behooves the faith community—given its biblical mandate to respond—to pursue greater levels of efficiency. Doing so would also mean demanding that our implementing partners use national staff as often as possible. Both im
plementers and funders in Haiti (and elsewhere) aren’t doing that right now. A shift to the more Christian paradigm of caritas would increase the pressure to do so.
Perhaps the most disturbing distortion of the Christian mandate is the continuing use of exploitative imagery and language in fundraising. While the Christian community is not the sole perpetrator of this practice—secular agencies also being culpable—the practice violates a fundamental tenet of the Christian perspective: recognizing and respecting the human dignity of every individual.
The evidence of this distortion in Haiti is overwhelming. A tsunami of graphic and exploitative images was used by Christian organizations to solicit funds both within and outside of their faith communities. This kind of manipulation shows that many within the implementing agencies continue to opt for an emotional approach—invoking pity, which traditional charity requires, rather than relying on the Christian mandate of caritas. To my knowledge, not a single faith entity asked its members to give to the response effort simply because they were Christians and the need was verified.
It will be extremely challenging, if not impossible, for many members of the Christian community to disavow charity and to embrace caritas. However, it’s fully possible to make significant progress toward that goal. Ultimately, the shift needs to start with faith leaders, whether they occupy pulpits or administrative offices. Those leaders can begin by embracing the Christian understanding that humanitarian aid should not depend on an emotional response manifesting itself as charity. Instead, aiding others in distress is a fundamental mandate of the Christian faith. This is a sermon that needs to be both preached and practiced. The mindset that embraces caritas instead of charity will manifest itself in church leaders who refrain from sending their constituents to do disaster recovery work when people already on the scene can do a less expensive, more effective job. It will mean choosing to invest in disaster risk reduction not because of some emotional connection but because of a cost-benefit analysis. (There are plenty of unreported and underfunded disasters we can respond to with the funds we save.) It will be most clearly visible when those who now choose to use emotive images or stories that exploit the victims and deny their human dignity are no longer rewarded with the lion’s share of funding.
Finally, it is in liberating ourselves from the traditional definition of charity that we are freed to embrace the Christian concept of caritas. Caritas redefines aid as flowing freely from a God-mandated love for our neighbors. This kind of love doesn’t leave room for choice or convenience. It stems directly from the sincere, wholehearted, fully liberating assignment given to us by Jesus: that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Francesco Paganini is the manager for International Disaster Response, United Methodist Committee on Relief. This article originally appeared in the September-October 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.
Rosemine Princiville, from Port au Prince, had to move to a tent city after the 2010 earthquake. She was then subject to flooding from the waters of Hurricane Tomas in Haiti. PHOTO: ARNE GRIEG RIISNAES/ACT/NORWEGIAN CHURCH AID
Haiti is susceptible to repeated hits by hurricanes and other tropical storms. PHOTO: UMCOR HAITI OFFICE
Often, volunteer teams do work that the local population can and should be doing themselves. Haitian workers supply the labor for an UMCOR-supported school under construction in Tabarre Issa, Haiti. PHOTO: PAUL JEFFREY
St. Martin Methodist Church in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, was rebuilt following the Haiti earthquake in 2010. It reopened in September 2012. PHOTO: MIKE DUBOSE/UMNS