Attacks by Iraqi guerrillas on so-called "soft targets" that have claimed the lives of humanitarian aid workers have driven some large secular aid groups out of the country and left smaller, religious relief groups in the forefront of serving Iraq's neediest people.
Representatives from religious aid groups, which work largely in conjunction with existing Iraqi organizations, say they have been forced to abandon some relief projects as groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross pull out of Baghdad and Basra.
But the groups, which run on smaller operating budgets than large organizations like the Red Cross and have fewer than a handful of non-native staff members, have been able to remain in Iraq without a serious threat to their field workers. These groups, which often work on smaller, community-based aid projects, rely heavily on Iraqi staff members to carry out projects. Expatriate coordinators, some based in Iraq, some working out of neighboring Middle Eastern countries, advise aid groups on how to coordinate relief projects, donate funds and help them raise money.
And as secular groups pull out, in many cases, the religious aid groups are all that's left to combat malnutrition, shortages of hospital supplies, contaminated drinking water and other challenges.
Kathleen Moynihan, Catholic Relief Services' regional director for relief efforts in the Middle East, said her group, like other religious aid groups, focuses on a few specific relief initiatives. From her post in Cairo, Moynihan has most recently been working with Caritas Iraq, a local aid group that partners with CRS to promote a "Well Baby" program that educates new mothers about proper nutrition for their babies.
CRS also supports smaller projects in Iraq, including providing technical assistance and project design to a group trying to rebuild a local school or helping a group that is trying to repair a broken water line write a proposal for funding requests.
Moynihan said CRS' assistance "speaks to our principles, our faith, and it's the best of what the West has to offer: volunteerism and civil liberty."
But Moynihan said there also are hazards working in a country where Americans, even ones serving in humanitarian groups, are targets.
"It's a very unique challenge, and it's something that I think this agency and the universal church is up for," she said.
"There is that rogue element that does not always follow international codes for development," she continued. "We are very aware of the fact that it is very dangerous and that there is not the code of law in Iraq that will allow the community to truly advance and truly heal."
Peter Lems, Iraq program associate for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, said a challenge faced by all aid groups—both secular and religious—is that "humanitarian organizations are no longer immune from the violence of war."
Lems said the change was dramatic for the AFSC, which has had a humanitarian presence in Iraq since 1991. The group doesn't have the funds to do large-scale service projects, Lems said, but focuses on smaller, more community-based charity work. One of their larger projects is a $60,000 water relief mission in a shantytown community, he said.
Like Catholic Relief Services, the AFSC has a small staff in Iraq, a husband and wife team that relocated to Amman, Jordan, during the war. After the war, they returned to Baghdad. "It's been difficult in Baghdad, certainly, and the unpredictable nature of the violence has everybody on edge," Lems said. "Our staff is not immune in any way."
Lems said his group tries to involve Americans in the aid mission by asking for donations.
"It's kind of a humanizing thing," he said. "And then Iraqis see Americans care, and it changes the whole dynamic."
He said the new policy of militarizing humanitarian relief in Iraq—which some say explains the attacks aimed at armed, military relief workers—is a dangerous blurring of the lines between military and relief workers.
"Humanitarian aid groups need to work with military, but they also need to be independent and be able to work with Iraqis," he said.
Donna Durr, assistant director of Church World Service Emergency Response program, shares Lems' view.
"Security has been a challenge. There is no rhyme or reason about what happens," she said of the attacks on aid workers. "There are certainly places in the country where it is more critical and delicate, where you have to work with the local leadership to be effective."
"Ultimately, it's a challenge to hold as separate the humanitarian mandate vs. the military mandate," she said. "If one understands the humanitarian mandate, it's to always have a sense of neutrality and openness. What does it say if humanitarian aid providers travel with armed escorts?"
Jonathan Frerichs, communications director for Lutheran World Relief, said smaller humanitarian groups feel the absence of the larger nongovernmental organizations with whom they partnered for relief projects the smaller groups cannot orchestrate alone.
But, Frerichs said, close work with Iraqi staff members keep smaller projects running—projects that are "by no means adequate" in the absence of larger, NGO-staffed relief efforts.
Red Cross spokeswoman Amanda Williamson said the international group will retain a small expatriate staff, but outside of Baghdad and Basra.
She said the Oct. 27 suicide bombing that targeted the International Committee of the Red Cross headquarters "has been a serious blow, and it's forced us to quite drastically reshape the relief organization" with regard to Iraq.
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Other articles on humanitarian relief from CT's Iraq archive include:
Iraq's Good Samaritans | This past summer, pundits predicted that Iraqis would resent Franklin Graham's ministry. What really happened when the workers showed up? (Oct. 24, 2003)
Damping the Fuse in Iraq | A veteran peacemaker discusses how religion can help stave off religious conflict after Saddam. (July 09, 2003)
No Strings Attached | Christians seek to balance relief work and evangelism in Iraq. (May 20, 2003)
Before the Refugee Dam Breaks | Agencies prepare to help up to 900,000 people in Iraq War. (April 24, 2003)
As Baghdad Falls, Agencies Brace for Flood of Work | Aid and mine removal teams could move into Iraq within days. (April 11, 2003)
Mixing Iraq Aid and the Gospel Stirs Debate | Critics say proselytizing can reflect negatively on other relief groups and governments. (April 04, 2003)
Evangelicals Plan to Minister to Iraqis' Needs—Physical and Spiritual | Evangelism efforts will join relief work, say Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan's Purse (March 27, 2003)