Government Support for NGOs and Churches in Developing Nations: Covid-19 — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 3:16 pm on 25th March 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 3:16 pm, 25th March 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Government support for non-governmental organisations and churches in developing nations during the covid-19 pandemic.

I sincerely thank you, Mr Efford, and the Chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee for allowing me the opportunity to raise this vital issue today. I have been asking for this debate for some time. It is one of the ones that I was very keen to bring through. Covid-19, of course, has exacerbated the issues for non-governmental organisations in particular. I will be giving a number of examples, and I know that others will too.

I have long been a supporter of the 0.7% of GDP international aid commitment, as I have witnessed the need in developing countries. Although I understand that our first priority is always the needs of our own communities—that is correct—I believe that we have a moral obligation that can be carried out in tandem. It should not be impossible to do both. The motivation for this debate is that I have been made aware of the dire circumstances that individuals find themselves in. Although we have been able to provide furlough for our workers at home, those in developing nations have no such help and lockdown has meant devastation. The figures that I will mention later show that up to 50% of those employed by NGOs, who are doing marvellous work, have either lost their jobs or may lose them.

Every church in my constituency of Strangford has been involved in missionary and charity work in countries across the world, whether it be through WaterAid or education or health projects—all paid for voluntarily. All Churches—Church of Ireland, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Reformed Presbyterian, Congregational, small assemblies and my own Baptist Church—are involved in aid projects and missions across the world in many continents.

In particular, I remember one gentleman from my church, John Robinson, who is no longer in this world—he died a few years ago—who was actively engaged in some of those projects. He was not a builder—indeed, he was a salesman and did other things—but he went out to those projects in central Africa, along with others who were perhaps not experts, as they had not done their apprenticeships and so on, but were able to help manually. Those who were experts—builders, carpenters, plasterers, electricians and plumbers—were able to do the work when it came to building schools and hospitals, and project work. That was incredibly important.

To start with, I want to mention two projects in Eswatini and Malawi, which are supported through a local church in Newtownards—the Ards Elim church. It has done some incredible work with education and health, but it is not just about that; it is also about jobs and farming. It is about helping people to be self-sufficient and able to provide for themselves, with food and clothing. There are many things that those church projects are able to do. I have heard from them of entire families going for days at a time without a mouthful of food. Mr Chairman, it would make your heart ache to hear that; my heart aches for them.

In normal circumstances, churches will rally the troops—so to speak—and organise fêtes, cinema nights or meals to raise funds; I have personally attended such events. However, all of that activity is out of the question now due to the covid-19 pandemic.

I will mention one group that does incredible work, which is Samaritan’s Purse UK. I am not sure whether any other Members are aware of it—I hope that they are—but it makes a shoebox appeal every year. It did so before lockdown and it has done so during lockdown. During lockdown in particular, they have been able to provide computers and other IT equipment for vulnerable and poor families both at home and across the world. There are many such groups in my constituency and I know that there are many others in other hon. Members’ constituencies that have also done incredible work. We appreciate that work very much; they are really making things happen and we thank them for it.

As has become abundantly clear in our country during this pandemic, churches are bodies of people, not simply structures of stone, concrete, brick, wood and plaster, and as such, they have continued to persevere in the face of covid-19, continuing to serve the communities in which they are based, not only at home but overseas, through the NGOs and the work that they do.

To give one example among many, Challenge Ministries is responsible for feeding 400 orphans in Swaziland. I mentioned earlier the work that is done in education and health. However, it also feeds 400 orphaned children in Swaziland who nobody else has looked out for. Although its normal fundraising practices have stopped, it still has to provide for those children, who are reliant on Challenge Ministries, which also supports a women’s refuge centre. So Challenge Ministries has organised an online concert tomorrow—Friday 26 March—at 6.30 pm, and the links to it are on my Facebook page. It has had to raise funds in a different way, doing all it can to remind people that there is still great need and that every £5 or £10 will make a difference. It is thinking outside the box, staying within covid rules but using the wonders of technology to bring together local people, who are performing, and the people who we have pledged to support.

When I think of Challenge Ministries, in particular I think of all those orphans. As we know, Swaziland has been ravaged by HIV and AIDS. Many of the young people there, as well as many of the adults there, have AIDS and many people have died; indeed, that is why lots of those 400 children were orphaned. Every year—at least every year pre-covid—Challenge Ministries sent a choir to my constituency to raise funds, and to introduce its mission and the work that it does. I well recall the contributions of those children at different events that I attended; it really did my heart good to hear what Challenge Ministries was doing and what it was committed to. I believe that we must look at the programmes of help for adults and children, including those children who came to Northern Ireland as a children’s choir, so that we can then tell people about what happens to them afterwards.

When I see local people doing what they can to be safe but still helping other people who are dying of starvation, my concern is this: are we in this place—the House of Commons, including the Government and indeed the Minister who is here today—doing the same? I believe that we should all be doing the same. I am pleased to see the Minister in his place and I look forward to hearing what he has to say in response to the debate. I look upon him not just as a Minister but as an hon. Friend.

The fact is that NGOs with commitments are struggling and we in this place—especially the Government and the Minister—have the ability to step in and step up. I admire Oxfam, Trócaire, Compassion and so many other organisations for staying the course, but they simply cannot do enough; they cannot fill the gap that has developed with religious resources. That is why the charities and the NGOs are under pressure, and why the Churches back home, which are already giving heavily, find themselves under intense pressure as well.

In developing countries, local churches have provided a lifeline to families in need—both those who were already living in poverty and those newly thrust into poverty by sickness or unemployment, or because of any number of opportunities that have been lost to this pandemic.

To give just one example, I recently met representatives of Compassion, a Christian international development charity that is a wonderful body that does incredible work. Compassion’s operating model is to partner with churches based in poor communities in the global south. In practice, that is 7,912 churches across 25 developing countries. That is almost 8,000 churches with all the congregations and friends. During the pandemic, Compassion has supported churches in delivering 10,614,700 food parcels and 7,128,700 hygiene kits to those most in need. Wow—that is some figure.

That support has been directed and delivered by church staff and volunteers who know their communities because they are an active part of them. They know local people by name, understand local issues and can speak to highly specific needs. The NGOs cover some highly specific and important needs, such as education, health projects and the provision of jobs, food and clothing.

At a time when the world has been ravaged by a pandemic, vulnerable communities have continued to receive support from the storm-proof structure of the local and global Church. We are reminded of the call on Christians to be His body—I say this as a Christian who reads his Bible—to give, to serve, to sacrifice, to show love as Christ, as outlined in Matthew 25:35-40: “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me water, naked and you clothed me, in as much as you have done to the least of one of these you have done to me.” It is in times like this that the call has never been so clear, to be His hands and feet. The Church, made up of everyday individuals who are struggling in their own way, in their own lives, in this pandemic, are juggling things around being faithful and giving, and that has to be acknowledged and commended. I thank all the churches everywhere, which give so much of their time and moneys. I know that Christians tithe their money across all the Church structures in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As the Government prepare their proposals for international development policy moving forward, I very much look forward to seeing them. I hope they will give due consideration to supporting NGOs who work with churches. I have asked that on a number of occasions, and I ask again. If we see a group of churches and people and individuals working hard and doing good work, that is motivated by a wish to help others. They do so by partnering with existing church networks that stand alongside communities to deliver aid, empowering local people to determine the shape and direction of that support for themselves. How can the Government best help those churches who are supporting NGOs across many continents?

The UK has been committed to spending 0.7% of gross national income on overseas development assistance. Due to the economic impact of covid-19 on GNI, the UK’s 0.7% contribution to ODA was already reduced by £2.9 billion. It is now expected to drop to 0.5% of GNI. The double crisis of a drastic drop in income and severe Government cuts means that charities working internationally face significant challenges in funding their programmes and keeping their organisations afloat. It would be a tragedy for these NGOs to not be able to continue the excellent work that they do on a voluntary basis.

There is a real need for this support. Some 39% of those who receive Government grants said that their funding has been seriously or very seriously affected by the 2020 cuts. Similarly, 42% of those who received Government contracts had their funding seriously or very seriously impacted. NGOs are worried that the cuts will impact those most in need. It is clear to me what the impact will be on those groups—those thousands of people. Just as an example, Challenge Ministries in Newtownards in my constituency is involved with 400 orphans. If we do not or cannot help them, or reach out and run a project that will take them on board, we have a real issue.

Despite the cuts in funding for UK NGOs, organisations have seen increased need for their services—their programmes of healthcare, water, sanitation, food and humanitarian relief. A few years ago I obtained a Westminster Hall debate on WaterAid, because I recognised at that time that the Government were doing some fantastic work with it. Some of the churches, such as Challenge Ministries, do incredible work with WaterAid too, in providing water—which is something we take for granted in the Province where I come from, where it is there most days of the week. Many people across the world do not have that. Sixty-three per cent. of organisations expect demand for their services to increase in 2021-22. NGOs must do more with less, while worrying about their own sustainability and the staff they employ, and their ability to support the communities they work in. So NGO money is down, but the demand for their work has increased.

I have four requests, which I believe are well thought out, and I would appreciate the Minister’s response to them. The international charity Bond has made four calls that I fully support. They give us another option for somewhere to focus our attention, or the direction in which the FCDO could go. First, there should be focus on support for vulnerable populations, areas and countries that may have the least capacity to access support. New funds should be allocated on a “no regrets” basis, and the FCDO should ensure that new funding does not divert aid away from other necessary work, such as conflict prevention and peacebuilding.

My second request is to ensure the transparency of covid-19 funding. The UK Government need to be transparent in their covid-19 funding that goes through multilaterals and FCDO country offices, so that civil society organisations working with communities have quick and easy access to sufficient levels of funding.

Thirdly, we should set up an access fund for small NGOs. Smaller ones do incredible work. I believe that there is a possibility to do something in that way, and I look forward to the Minister’s response. Small NGOs provide niche development expertise but are struggling to find funding for their much-needed work. Voluntary work, after all, provides incredible opportunities for the future. Will the Minister seriously consider a fund for small NGOs, which do great work, so that they can continue to support their local partners and the communities that they operate in? That small investment can bring great dividends. Fourthly, funding that reaches the most marginalised should be prioritised.

I will offer one more thought about those four requests. I visited Pakistan in September 2018, with Lord Alton, Ms Rimmer, Amro Hussain, Javaid Rehman and Morris Johns. I saw at first hand some of the issues that people must deal with. From the imposition of lockdown on 21 March onwards, many private entities and NGOs started distributing rations and sanitation items among the needy. However, reports of religious discrimination by some organisations emerged on social media.

I have mentioned Bond, the group that put forward the four thoughts I outlined, and the UK charities working on the frontline delivering lifesaving care to people in the UK and the poorest parts of the world—but current programmes are being eroded because of income being reduced. It is worrying for the future, and the most worrying thing is that even worse cuts may happen in 2021 and 2022.

To refer back to Pakistan, a report by a local YouTube news channel in Karachi, JD News, went viral on social media when the representatives of Saylani Welfare, a well-reputed welfare organisation, were reported to be refusing to distribute rations among minorities. So we are very concerned about those things. To back that up, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that this is

“a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”

Covid-19 has aggravated the existing disparities. There is a need for radical reform and response.

Refugees and the disabled are especially affected. One video that I am aware of involved a Hindu who was refused food simply because they were a Hindu. In the second video, three Christian ladies were refused rations and food because they were Christians, but were told that if they converted to Islam they would get the food. How much does that hurt someone? As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I have spoken up on many occasions for all ethnic and religious groups across the whole world. To be told that they cannot get food unless they are a certain religion and that they have to convert to Islam is wrong. It is totally outrageous and not acceptable.

Covid-19 has exacerbated this for the lower levels of society. Christians, Hindus and other ethnic groups are already disadvantaged in health and education, but are now disadvantaged because of covid-19. I will use some strong terminology, but there is a religious-blind policy in some of UK Aid. Those are strong words to use, but that is patently obvious on the ground when we see what is happening. I am not aware of any steps that have been taken by UK Aid to safeguard religious minorities and I believe that that must change. I ask the Minister for his direct involvement to prevent the abomination of people not getting food simply because they are Christians or Hindus.

Further examples are street sweepers and those involved in sanitation work, who are usually Christians or Hindus, having to work without personal protective equipment, which is putting real pressure on persecuted Christians, Hindus and other ethnic groups. Again, I believe there must be action to introduce laws against institutional discrimination on the basis of religious belief, and the positive inclusion of religious minorities as beneficiaries and part of the reforming system.

The all-party parliamentary group for Pakistani minorities, of which I am chairman, took notice and wrote to Ministers and to the Charities Trust, as it is based in the UK, to protest. The Charities Trust replied to say that its policies would be reviewed. If the Minister has any knowledge or information about that I would be keen to hear his thoughts. It said it would ensure that it would not happen again, but proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is in the actions. We will see if it happens again. I look to the Minister for his support.

We need to engage to ensure that funding is allocated fairly, reasonably and equally. I ask that consideration is given to the introduction of measures to eliminate the chances of institutional discrimination on the basis of religion or belief within a system. We have to ensure positive inclusion of religious minorities among the beneficiaries, and make inclusion of religious minorities and other marginalised and vulnerable groups a central part of the delivery system. That is why this debate is so vital. Many people across the world are affected. The projects are in Africa, the middle east, Asia, India, Pakistan, and they are in South America—there are projects everywhere.

As I come to the end of my contribution, I want to refer to Iraq, where 1 million Christians have left their homeland since 2003. This is probably the highest proportion of one Christian group having to leave the country that they were born in and brought up in. The Nineveh plain is mentioned in our own Holy Bible and is next to Mosul, which I had the opportunity to visit with Aid to the Church in Need some years ago. That was before Mosul fell to and was then freed of terrorism and Daesh. I saw at first hand the persecution of Christians and the disparities in the way they were treated.

In this area, Christians have been blamed for covid-19. I mention this to bring the issue up to date. It is so untrue and so dishonest that they have been blamed, because they have been affected the very same as other religious groups. Covid-19 does not and did not start with them. We know that, but sometimes others take advantage of the circumstances. Iraq claims to be a pluralistic society, but it has failed miserably to protect and give equal treatment to other minorities already suffering from the Daesh abuses of the past. We also think of the Yazidis in Iraq, who have faced abysmal treatment—violence, murders and abuse. It has been absolutely horrendous.

Access to medical care is already inadequate. Their only source of covid-19 assistance has been through the NGOs and church groups. They have had no Government supplies, showing very obvious, direct discrimination, I wholly believe, against Christians and other ethnic and small minority groups. Many of the qualified medical staff were Christians. Many of them fled to Jordan, Egypt and surrounding countries because of what was happening in Iraq. So there is now a substantial loss and dearth of qualified doctors and nurses in Iraq. Many wish to return but feel that they cannot while danger still exists on the ground.

The role for the Government in Iraq and, I believe, for our Government has to be to work together to deliver security. The needs are great and we cannot meet them alone. But, Minister, look at the tremendous work of the NGOs and the churches and the thousands of their congregations that deliver across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Look at the gifts, the moneys that are set aside and the practical work and developments, be it in education, health, farming, food or clothing. All those things are done by the NGOs and churches, many of them on a voluntary basis. The value per pound is greater for those projects.

I ask the Minister, can we take their lead and do good to all men, to all women, and especially to all children? Can we get aid out now to those who are starving? This is not about education alone or long-term change. It is just about helping people, Minister. It is about making sure that we can reach out and help those who we see are in trouble— those who have problems, families that are under health pressures and even the pressure to put food in their stomachs. I believe that we can play a greater part and that our Government—my Government, my Minister—and the FCDO and, indeed, hon. Members across all political parties in the Chamber have the wish to help those who need help. I believe that society is marked and measured by its help for those who are less well off. Today I am asking for that commitment from the Minister and from my Government for all those people in all those continents—in Asia, in India, in Pakistan, in the middle east, in Africa and in South America. I believe that we have a moral duty to help them as much as we can.