Mr. Bill Canny

Bill Canny, Catholic Relief Services. UN Photo Paulo Filgueiras.

An Interfaith Code of Conduct for Disaster Relief

I work with Catholic Relief Services, which is affiliated with 165 Catholic organizations around the world. But I also represent here an important group of organizations and people that represent you, the various and multiple faiths that we have in the room. These are organizations that go out on your behalf and assist the poor, who provide charity in times of disaster, and who try to right the wrongs and injustices that exist. So I speak on their behalf.

Whether providing food, shelter, water, or medicine, we, the non-governmental organization community, ensure rapid response, professionalism, and coordination in emergency program and disaster preparedness. We work together.

We work with governments; we work under the umbrella of the United Nations; we work with organizations of many faiths and with local communities.

Whether it’s tackling the HIV pandemic or the consequence of climate change, we share knowledge amongst each other to help the most marginalized become protagonists of their own development.

Whether it’s training communities in peacebuilding – and many of us are involved in that – or bringing divided peoples together, we seek to end conflict nonviolently, promoting one humanity through interfaith dialogue.

Whether it’s speaking out on economic justice or migration, we empower poor people in communities to challenge unjust international policies, practices, and attitudes. I come from a group of organizations and people who believe that poverty and social injustice are the real weapons of mass destruction.

As an emergency responder, I have had the pleasure to work with Hindu-inspired organizations in Haiti, Islamic organizations in Somalia, other Christian organizations serving Muslim populations during the tsunami, and Jewish organizations here in this country trying to help settle refugees seeking asylum.

Our group of organizations came together in the 1990s around a code of conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and non-governmental organizations in disaster relief.

Organizations such as Catholic Relief Services, Caritas Internationalis, Lutheran World Federation, and the World Council of Churches came together to discuss the critical principles for a code of conduct.

One of them is that aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious viewpoint. Humanitarian aid will be given according to the needs of individuals, families, and communities.

Notwithstanding the right of NGOs to espouse particular religious opinions, we affirm that assistance will not be dependent on the adherence of those recipients to those opinions. We will not tie the promise of, deliver, or distribute assistance to the embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed. We adhere to that principle.

And if you go out and see your organizations working in the disaster world, you’ll see them adhering scrupulously to that principle. However, we must recognize that spirituality is one of the great motivators for communities to respond to the bad things that happen to them.

In Haiti the first week after the earthquake, small groups of religious adherents came together and began to pray. That was the first reaction of the Haitian community the first days after the earthquake.

As we respond, the spiritual dimension must also be paid attention to, and while we must be careful to deliver based on need, not creed, organizations must become better at providing for spiritual needs. We look to the UN and the organizations of the UN to help us pay more attention as we respond and give us the space to respond to spiritual needs.

Finally, I would say to the many new organizations that are coming in to work, take a look at the code of conduct that I mentioned. Be sure to adhere to its principles. Join us in seeking solidarity with the poor and the promotion of the common good.

Bill Canny is the director of emergency operations at Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Based in Baltimore and overseas, he supervises a team that responds to disasters and helps communities to prepare for potential catastrophes. Prior to this, he was CRS' country representative in Haiti, regional director for South Asia, deputy director of the Eurasia region and the Africa region, and country representative for Burkina Faso. Mr. Canny began his career with CRS in 1983 coordinating emergency food and shelter for Ethiopian refugees. Mr. Canny holds a B.S. degree in human services from the University of Scranton and a master's degree in public health from the University of Pittsburgh.

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