Global health leader argues humanitarianism needs religion

By Press Office

A global health leader is calling for governments and agencies to more fully embrace the work of local religious groups in helping support refugees.

Professor Alastair Ager, the new Director of the Institute for International Health and Development at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh argues that, despite religious differences, local religious groups have a positive role to play in supporting refugees and others who receive humanitarian aid.

Working with religious groups has often been a ‘no go’ area for humanitarian agencies because of fears that religion is an issue that divides populations and ferments conflict. However, Professor Ager believes that local religious groups can work together to provide vital services to vulnerable groups, and that governments and agencies should engage with religion rather than shying away from it.

Professor Ager and his team have recently completed a study in the town of Irbid, Jordan which documents the many ways in which local Muslim and Christian religious groups –- often working together – provide vital services to vulnerable Syrian refugee households.

Professor Ager explained: “The world is currently facing an unprecedented number of major humanitarian emergencies. The recent Nepal earthquake has added further strain to a system still trying to cope with major conflicts in Iraq, Syria and South Sudan. We need to rethink the system of humanitarian support and realise that major benefits can be derived from harnessing local knowledge and good will. Religious groups – often viewed sceptically by large humanitarian organisations – are emerging as key players given the renewed emphasis on local insight and capability.

Professor Ager continued: “We found evidence of religious groups providing significant material support including food, clothing, and buildings for storage and distribution, as well as cash, volunteers, pastoral help and education - all of which supplemented international efforts. Importantly, those in need really appreciated the social connections and the ‘spiritual capital’ that local religious groups were able to offer them during times of crisis.”

Habib Malik is Community Interests Director of the consulting group Napiershall Formula, the former head of Islamic Relief in Scotland and recipient of the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award. He also sees a key role for religious groups in times of humanitarian crisis: “They can not only mobilize significant resources to address key needs in times of crisis, but also link across a broad faith community to help restore hope and dignity and build recovery.”

Professor Alastair Ager, who has just taken up his new role as Director of the Institute for International Health & Development this week, will chair a session on religious engagement at the World Bank in Washington, DC on the 9 th July. As part of the World Bank’s Religion and Sustainable Development meeting, Professor Ager’s discussion will focus on how we can learn from emerging best practices to more effectively engage local religious groups in supporting refugees and other in humanitarian aid.

Kenneth Ross, Chair of the Scotland Malawi Partnership and previously General Secretary of the Church of Scotland international division and Professor of Theology at the University of Malawi, remarked: “With the world demonstrably becoming more religious in the early 21st century, the time is ripe to revisit the role of religious communities as a source of humanitarian assistance in situations of crisis and acute vulnerability. This initiative is timely and can have far-reaching effects for good.”

Notes to Editor

For further media information please contact Lynne Russell, Communications Manager, Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, E: ; T: 0131 474 0000, M: 07711 011239 or Jon Perkins, Press and PR Officer, T: 0131 474 0000, M: 07989 386968, E:

Case Study of Syrian refugee who uses religious group support

Fatima fled from Syria to neighbouring Jordan with her children in 2014. With little opportunity for employment in the town of Irbid where she stays, she and her husband are struggling to keep their family fed and clothed. UN agencies are seeking to help with the provision of food, but the ration doesn’t last long. The additional food distributions through the local mosque prove vital. At a local church-run centre she gets bag of clothes every few weeks for her growing children. Fatima also appreciates the discussions about dealing with her husband’s violence at a local project, which combine teachings from the Qu’ran. She was recently invited to break the Ramadan fast with an iftar meal with her family, which reminded her of many such happy celebrations back home in Syria.


  • The World Bank meeting ‘Religion & Sustainable Development’ is being held from 7-9 July in Washington, DC. Details of the session on humanitarian assistance (along with background reports including that on the case study in Irbid, Jordan) are available at:
  • Professor Alastair Ager and Habib Malik are due to discuss the role of religion in development – along with Scottish Minister for Europe and International Development , Humza Yousaf MSP - at the Just Festival  on Tuesday 25th August 2015
  • Professor Alastair Ager is author of the forthcoming book Faith, Secularism and Humanitarian Engagement
  • Alastair Ager took up his position of Director of the Institute for International Health and Development at Queen Margaret University on 1 st July 2015. See link to press release about his role at QMU.

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