U.N. Humanitarian Chief Highlights Need for Int'l Church Networks

Churches that want to go out and respond to natural disasters elsewhere in the world would probably be better off supporting church networks that are already engaged in such work, advised U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland.

And the people they wish to help would probably be better off as well, Egeland suggested after witnessing many responses to "utter chaos."

"[I]f you're not a professional in this game, you have no right to descend on someone in their moment of crisis and do on-the-job training," Egeland stated in an interview featured in the recently released book "With Courage, In Hope: Five Years After the Tsunami."

"Saving human lives is no place for amateurs. Why is that? Because the poor, dispossessed and disaster-prone should have at least one basic right left to them: to be protected from incompetence," he added.

In looking back at the response to the South Asia Tsunami of 2004, Egeland recalled instances where the response was "untested, chaotic, amateurish, doubled up, overlapping, done by 'Mom and Pop' operations."

To him, such instances provided a special lesson for churches wanting to help and do good in the world. They also highlight why it is important to have a "large, professional church network" such as Action by Churches Together (ACT) International that has the same self-discipline as the United Nations and the Red Cross.

Egeland complimented ACT for its professional standard and said churches and church networks such as ACT have a number of strategic qualities, including being grass-roots based and oriented, as well as already being on the ground, close to local parties and players.

Though the Red Cross and the United Nations have the resources, given their access to resources and ties with governments, to respond immediately to disasters such as the 2004 South Asian tsunami, church-based and other religious groups were said to be "most important" in the post-tsunami rebuilding phase.

"ACT and members like Norwegian Church Aid were all very good in focusing on local needs, and assisting local implementing partners," Egeland noted.

"[G]enerally, the faith groups did well; they did effective work," he continued. "In fact, the response showed the importance and necessity of networks like ACT, which understood the need for coordination and the fact that not all agencies can be operational in such a situation. In recent years, ACT and its member churches have understood this need for global coordination."

Released last month, "With Courage, In Hope: Five Years After the Tsunami" describes the 2004 catastrophe through the eyes of those who survived and helped others survive, and also by ACT staff members who responded to the disaster.

It has been over five years since the tsunami hit the beaches of the Indian Ocean and killed more than 227,000 people. Within weeks of the disaster, close to 70 members of ACT were involved in planning the response, providing relief resources, running logistics, and implementing the programs. In total, about 300 or more NGOs were involved in the the U.N.-coordinated response.

"The tsunami response was the greatest challenge the alliance had ever faced," recalled ACT International director John Nduna.

"The people involved included ACT staff and volunteers and members of the communities themselves," he added.

As a global alliance of churches and related agencies, ACT works to save lives and support communities in emergencies worldwide. ACT members are Protestant and Orthodox churches and their related agencies, drawn from the membership of the World Council of Churches and Lutheran World Federation.