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Disaster-affected People's Understandings of Secular Humanitarianism

Date:03 March 2020
Church in the area hit by Typhoon Haiyan
Church in the area hit by Typhoon Haiyan

In today's post, Dr. Olivia Wilkinson discusses her new book, Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response (Routledge, 2019).

When I first started researching humanitarian action, I was disheartened by how infrequently elements of people's cultures were mentioned in the practice of disaster response, given that this has been critiqued in broader development work for many decades. I was equally shocked, but not surprised, that religions were left out of this mix. This was 2010 and there were some initial forays into religions and humanitarianism research - with more on religions and development - but it was only in the following years that there started to be a greater body of research on this topic. Research interest has grown from a number of areas: a group of disaster researchers focused on cultures and disasters as a key subtopic,[i] for example, and humanitarian and refugee researchers began to contend with the topic of faith more extensively.[ii] The surrounding context of international relations, however, had seen an upswing in interest since 2001 related to topics such as freedom of religion, as has been widely documented by Hurd and Wilson and others.

Given this background, I was intrigued as to why humanitarians were particularly entrenched in their sidelining of messy cultural and religious aspects of response. A 2011 article from Ager and Ager[iii] contended that the humanitarian principles and other elements of contemporary humanitarianism displayed element of “functional secularism” in the humanitarian system, setting me on the path to question secular and religious dynamics in humanitarian response for my Ph.D. and ultimately resulted in my newly released book from Routledge's Research Series in Religion and Development.[iv]  

The focus of the book is largely on how outworkings of secularity have affected the humanitarian system. The secular approach in humanitarian response is summarised as a distancing and boundary-making process from religious beliefs and practices. It believes in humanity in this world, removed from the transcendent, it believes in technical and material responses over the immaterial and spiritual, it allows religions in to a certain extent, but always sets boundaries to privatise, marginalise, and instrumentalise[v] religions and maintain a secular humanitarian public sphere.

One chapter, however, focuses on religious responses to disasters. While I spend much of the first chapter arguing that religious and secular categorizations are co-constitutively constructed and exist as both/and, rather than either/or, as Wilson puts it,[vi] I felt that a focus on the specifically religious interpretations of my research participants was needed. These were all people who had experienced Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and the humanitarian response to it. I felt it was needed, first, to honor the words, and emotions behind the words, that I had heard from the research participants. To portray only secular and religious dynamics from humanitarian staff perspectives would undercut the real reason why it is important to understand these dynamics: disaster affected people's religious beliefs and practices do not disappear following disasters. These beliefs and practices may change, they may weaken, they may strengthen, they may be damaged beyond repair, but they are still part of their cultural milieu, influencing their mental health and overall wellbeing.

For the purposes of this post, I will focus on disaster-affected people’s experiences of the secular humanitarian system, as represented in Chapter 3 of my book. There has been scholarship into religious interpretations of disasters for a number of years.[vii] The interest in cultures and disasters, as mentioned above, has also helped illuminate the lens through which people interpret disaster.

The Philippines is known as a country that faces many natural hazards, from landslides to typhoons, earthquakes, droughts, flooding, and volcanoes, as is in the news with Mount Taal at the moment. To this extent, the Philippines has been described as having cultures of disaster[viii] or disaster subcultures,[ix] which are expressions of culture that have been shaped by disasters. This has also become part of religious expression, with those arguing that religious beliefs and practices are shaped by people’s experience of suffering and the support that can be provided from religious communities and beliefs. Cardinal Tagle, Archbishop of Manila at the time and president of Caritas Internationalis, expressed this notion to Pope Francis when the Pope visited the country in 2014. He said:

“This cathedral has been razed to the ground many times, but it refuses to vanish. It boldly rises from the ruins - just like the Filipino people. Yes, Holy Father, we bishops, priests and religious men and women have seen and lived the suffering and determination of our people. "We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed." (2 Corinthians 4:8).[x]

Religious beliefs and practices are framed in the context of Filipino resilience to disasters as part of people’s ability to “cope up” as research participants said to me. While the psychosocial effects of religious beliefs and practices on resilience and coping are notable and have been studied by others in relation to Haiyan,[xi] I also studied the opinion of disaster-affected people, who were also religious, in relation to the assistance they received from the secular international humanitarian system following Haiyan. The question was whether they identified the humanitarian system as secular (as has been posited by Ager and Ager and is argued in other chapters in my book), and why, and what effects that had on the response in their opinion.

Secular humanitarians that spoke to me noted their intrigue at how people interpreted their assistance as God-given, sent from God, and saw INGOs as part of God’s plan. This was unexpected and outside of their usual frames of reference for some of the secular, international humanitarian staff. For people in the typhoon-area, however, it was part of their meaning-making, linked to other aspects of Filipino culture and society, such as feelings of utang na loob, or debt of gratitude[xii] to the INGOs for their help. As God-given, this meant that, in one sense, people perceived all INGOs to be faith-based. This gives a new sense to the term “faith-based,” whereas in other research it has been categorized by organizational mission and vision, fundraising base, staff recruitment policies, and other aspects.[xiii] For these research participants, all organizations were connected to faith, to their faith that God has a plan, and will provide for them in an hour of need. It is not the organization’s faith background that is important at this stage, but the faith background of the disaster-affected people, demonstrating that our previous conceptions and debates about what faith means for organizations in humanitarian and development work have missed a vitally important angle.

People also disrupted standard secular and faith-based categorizations by adding different layers to the analysis. What stood out as a faith-based approach to these people was often identified with small, local faith-based organizations, like the groups of women religious working on the island of Leyte and Samar, who I studied.[xiv] They were appreciated by the communities in which they worked because of their closeness and knowledge of the communities, rather than their ability to provide large-scale assistance. This large-scale assistance was characterized by long-lines, bureaucracy, and what one research participant termed the “give and goodbye” approach. In a society in which micro-personal interactions are particularly highly valued, this approach was distant and impersonal, meaning that the assistance was not connected to how people felt and, ultimately in some cases, what they needed. Research participants therefore constructed an analysis of humanitarian response in which distant organisations were perceived as secular and organisations that were close to them and knew the community were perceived as faith-based. Interestingly, research participants in Tacloban picked out one larger organization that particularly preferred, Tzu Chi, a Buddhist organization from Taiwan. Although this organization also did large scale distributions, they started the distributions with a time for meditation. This overtly religious practice is frowned upon as proselytisation by others, but for the research participants they highlighted that it helped them feel calm and connected, without fear or pressure of conversion. Again, this disrupts our standard way of thinking in humanitarian research, in which this kind of activity would be presumed to be harmful to people receiving assistance but was instead appreciated in this circumstance and context.  

Finally, there were a few research participants who highlighted that time is also a layer of analysis in their understanding of faith-based and secular approaches. At first, in the few days after the typhoon, they said that religious or non-religious affiliation did not matter at all as it really was about immediate material assistance. However, as time progressed and they quickly started to recover, nuances emerged. One example was related by a woman who had tried to have her child participate in the psychosocial assistance provided by some INGOs. She explained that the assistance given by the different INGOs was all from a standard program that included a few games and had not been sufficiently adapted to the context, meaning that they felt like they were going in circles. Others said they would prefer psychosocial assistance that incorporated their religious beliefs and coping mechanisms, such as prayer.

Overall, the picture painted of humanitarianism from people participating in this research related to the ways in their religious beliefs and practices mattered to them and how that was not known or appreciated by the humanitarian system. While there are many interrelating factors connected to other power dynamics at play, such as Global North-South inequalities, one of the elements at play are secular-religious dynamics. This draws attention to an area in which humanitarians can and should reconsider their current ways of working to better incorporate contextual expressions of religious beliefs and practices following disasters.

[i] Greg Bankoff et al., “Introduction: Exploring the Links between Cultures and Disasters,” in Cultures and Disasters: Understanding Cultural Framings in Disaster Risk Reduction, ed. Greg Bankoff et al. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2015).

[ii] Joey Ager, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, and Alastair Ager, “Local Faith Communities and the Promotion of Resilience in Contexts of Humanitarian Crisis,” Journal of Refugee Studies 28, no. 2 (June 1, 2015): 202–21,

[iii] Alastair Ager and Joey Ager, “Faith and the Discourse of Secular Humanitarianism,” Journal of Refugee Studies, Volume 24, Issue 3, 2011, 456–72.

[iv] Olivia Wilkinson, Secular and Religious Dynamics in Humanitarian Response, Routledge Research in Religion and Development (Abingdon; New York: Routledge, 2019),

[v] Alastair Ager and Joey Ager, Faith, Secularism, and Humanitarian Engagement: Finding the Place of Religion in the Support of Displaced Communities (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[vi] Erin K. Wilson, After Secularism: Rethinking Religion in Global Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

[vii] David K. Chester, “Theology and Disaster Studies: The Need for Dialogue,” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, 146, 2005, 319– 328; Erin P. O’Connell, Roger P. Abbott, and Robert S. White, “Religious Struggles after Typhoon Haiyan: A Case Study from Bantayan Island,” Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal 26, no. 3 (April 7, 2017): 330–47,; Erin P. Joakim and Robert S. White, “Exploring the Impact of Religious Beliefs, Leadership, and Networks on Response and Recovery of Disaster-Affected Populations: A Case Study from Indonesia,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 30, no. 2 (2015): 193–212,

[viii] Greg Bankoff, Cultures of Disaster: Society and Natural Hazard in the Philippines (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

[ix] Emmanuel M. Luna, “Endogenous System of Response to River Flooding as a Disaster Subculture: A Case Study of Bula, Camarines Sur,” Philippine Sociological Review 51 (2003).

[x] His Eminence Luis Antonio G. Cardinal Tagle, “FULL TEXT: Cardinal Tagle’s Speech after Pope Mass at Cathedral,” accessed January 20, 2015,

[xi] O’Connell, Abbott, and White, “Religious Struggles after Typhoon Haiyan.”

[xii] Ong Jonathan Corpus, Jaime Manuel Flores, and Pamela Combinido, “Obliged to Be Grateful: How Local Communities Experienced Humanitarian Actors in the Haiyan Response” (Woking: Plan International, 2015).

[xiii] Marie Juul Petersen, “International Religious NGOs at The United Nations: A Study of a Group of Religious Organizations,” The Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, November 17, 2010,; Laura C. Thaut, “The Role of Faith in Christian Faith-Based Humanitarian Agencies: Constructing the Taxonomy,” Voluntas, 20:4, 2009, 319–50.

[xiv] Olivia Wilkinson, “Faith and Resilience after Disaster: The Case of Typhoon Haiyan” (Dublin: Misean Cara, 2015),