a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
AID POLICY: Accountability in Islam
DUBAI, 4 July 2012 (IRIN) - The rights-based framework may only have
been formally adopted by the international humanitarian and development
community in the past decade; but the concept that people in need have
a right to assistance has existed in the Muslim world since the birth
"When we [in the international community] started thinking differently
about relief, and talking about a rights-based approach, it was very
easy to equate and put this within the Islamic perspective," said
Khaled Khalifa, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs for the Gulf Region. "It was there, but we didn't
know about it."
Despite an increased focus on accountability in recent years and a
growing role for aid agencies from the Muslim world
he-West-two-china-elephants> in mainstream humanitarian aid
operations, few analysts or academics - neither in humanitarian thought
nor in Islamic jurisprudence - have asked the question: What does
accountability look like in the Islamic context?
The answer can be contradictory.
On the one hand, the Muslim Holy book, the Koran refers to the "known
right" of the petitioner and the deprived to the wealth of observant
Muslims: "Give to your relatives, to the poor and to the traveller
their right, and do not spend wastefully [on yourself]," it says in
verse 26, surah 17.
Islamic scripture requires Muslims to give 2.5 percent of their wealth
in `zakat', or mandatory alms, to specific categories of people in
"`Zakat' is not charity," says Tariq Cheema, president of the World
Congress of Muslim Philanthropists (WCMP). "`Zakat' is an obligation.
`Zakat' is a mandatory discharge of duty. It's not your money. It
belongs to the poor."
As such, billions of dollars are spent each year in helping those in
On the other hand, aid in the Muslim world is understood to have more
than one purpose.
Fulfilling a religious obligation
Part of it is fulfilling a religious obligation, which means that
Muslims should see themselves as first and foremost accountable to God.
This can lead to what Marie Juul Petersen, a researcher in politics and
development at the Danish Institute for International Studies, calls
"the invisibility of the recipient".
"The provision of aid is a way to gain religious rewards and a place in
Paradise," she wrote in her PhD thesis, For humanity or for the umma?
r%20humanity%20or%20for%20the%20umma%20.pdf> , a study of four
transnational Muslim NGOs' ideologies of aid. "If the purpose of aid is
to ensure rewards for the donor, the recipient easily becomes
irrelevant as anything but an instrument to obtain these rewards.
"What the donor gives is not important; what is important is the
intention. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in the frequently
mentioned saying, 'If you save one person it is as if you saved all of
humankind.' It is not important whether you save one or 100 people, but
that you save - in other words, it is not the result of the action, but
the action itself (and the underlying intention) that matters."
Some Muslim NGOs complain of the challenges of raising funds for
certain activities, because some donors give based on what they believe
they will be rewarded for in heaven - building mosques or sponsoring
orphans - rather than what may be most needed on the ground.
"Even though donors are becoming more aware of the need to donate
toward sustainable development projects, a great deal of raising
awareness is still required, especially amongst the first generation of
immigrants in the EU and America, about the obligations Islam places on
its adherence to help community and eradicating poverty," said Inlia
Aziz, of MuslimAid, a UK-based international NGO.
During many humanitarian crises in the Muslim world - from Somalia to
Syria - some Muslim donors have simply sent whatever they have to
offer, instead of assessing the true needs of people affected.
"If you are doing charity simply to fulfil your own requirement, then
accountability is not there," Cheema told IRIN. "Accountability is
going to come when you are thinking from the perspective of the
'' If you are
doing charity simply to fulfil your own requirement, then
accountability is not there .Accountability is going to come when you
are thinking from the perspective of the beneficiary
But increasingly, civil society within the Muslim world is realizing
the potential of `zakat'
ion-in-the-Muslim-world> being spent more effectively and calling for
a more needs-based and sustainable approach.
Strengthening the `ummah'
Another perceived purpose of aid in the Muslim world, according to Juul
Petersen, is strengthening the `ummah', or global Muslim community, "as
a response to problems of spiritual poverty" - meaning that recipients
of Muslim aid are primarily Muslim.
Some see nothing wrong with this approach, pointing to other examples
of the same: Australian aid focuses on the Pacific region; Belgium
focuses on the Great Lakes; increasingly, other donors are targeting
their aid by reducing the number of recipients and the scope of work.
"A number of donors' aid allocation is based on historical, regional,
religious, cultural and language ties - should Arab donors be any
different?" asks Kerry Smith, programme officer with Development
Initiatives, a research and advocacy organization. "Aren't they best
placed to understand the needs of Muslim countries in their region?"
Some Muslim aid workers believe this solidarity between the "sons of
the ummah" makes them more accountable, because of their close ties to
the people they are trying to help.
"[Other aid workers] don't have the same feeling of family as we have,
that the orphans are a part of our family, that it's about humanity,
family, about making the orphans feel important. For them, it's
routine, it's just a job they need to do, it's about finishing work to
get home to your own family," one employee of the Saudi-based
International Islamic Charitable Organization told Juul Petersen.
But the approach has also garnered criticism from secular, Western
NGOs, claiming that they discriminate among recipients, thus violating
principles of universalism and neutrality so tied to accountability.
In any case, many of the Muslim aid agencies working in the world's
major emergency zones have long worked in the international system and
have adopted mainstream development practices. But that too raises
questions of accountability.
According to a study
Islamic Relief's work in Bangladesh, religious leaders in a refugee
camp complained that the NGO was not meeting their religious needs
because it had not built enough religious schools, mosques and
"We can live without food but we can't live without our religion," the
refugees reportedly said.
For more stories on humanitarian accountability, please visit our
Read report online
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United
Feedback | Terms &
Conditions | RSS feeds News
Feeds | About IRIN
UPI distributes certain third party submissions from official government news agencies, such as this article. Since UPI does not control the material included in these submissions, UPI does not guarantee the accuracy, integrity or quality of the material in such submissions, and UPI does not endorse any of the views or opinions expressed therein.