Islamic NGOs

The Globalisation of Islamic Relief

The experience of one Islamic charity with modest English origins is symbol and portent of changes in the landscape of NGOs worldwide, says Ehsan Masood

Young mother and child in Pakistan in front of a tent provided by Islamic Relief (photo: website Islamic Relief)
Islamic Relief was there in Kashmir after the earthquake, next to Oxfam, the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) and other international organisations

​​In August 2002, a young executive dressed in a suit and tie approached me with his business card. I was in the press-conference hall of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, a gathering of the great and the good to mark the tenth anniversary of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. A planned briefing from yet another honourable minister for the environment had been delayed, so I had loitered towards an exhibition of NGOs in search of more stimulating company.

The business card said "Islamic Relief Worldwide". Somewhat nervously, I asked if this was the same "worldwide" organisation that once had its headquarters in a small office in Birmingham, England. He replied that it did, that the United Kingdom head office now had more than 100 staff, and that there were field offices in other countries. Islamic Relief, he told me, was at the Johannesburg summit to observe the negotiations, lobby policymakers, and network with other NGOs.

This story came back to me as images from the Kashmir earthquake cascaded through the television screen in October 2005. There was Islamic Relief once more, this time next to Oxfam, the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) and other international organisations responding to calls for aid in the aftermath of a tragedy that has taken more than 79,000 lives.

The charity had announced an immediate donation of £1 million. This has since been more than doubled. It all seemed a world away from 1984 when Islamic Relief opened for business with a donation of…20 pence.

Why should this be surprising?

At one level it shouldn't. Islamic Relief today operates as would any large international charity based in Britain: it sources its income from a mix of individual donations, business, and government. It has a network of worldwide field offices. Its senior officials – not just its founder, Hany El Banna – have access to heads of state, ministers, top-level civil servants and the media in the countries it works in. And it has its teeth sunk firmly in the international aid policy agenda.

Yet, while none of this is innovative for an international non-profit in the modern age, it does represent a milestone of sorts. What we are witnessing is possibly the world's first international NGO with origins in Islam. Add to this the fact that this particular NGO is headquartered not in Riyadh or Cairo but in London, and its story becomes even more interesting.

Islamic Relief may be the largest of its kind, but it is not alone: other British Muslim aspirants for international NGO-dom are the charities Muslim Aid and Muslim Hands. The message is clear: watch this space.

A new horizon

It has been a long journey that reveals a mix of continuity and change. Like other, older British charities, Islamic Relief, Muslim Aid (1985) and Muslim Hands (1993) began life as small organisations, deeply serious about the practice of religion and focused on helping people of the same faith. Today, they are big, still serious about the practice of faith, but no longer consumed by a desire to help people of their own faith alone.

What has happened is that they have grown up and they have modernised. The "Islamic" in Islamic Relief today refers to the act of giving. The "Muslim" in Muslim Aid is the same as the "Christian" in Christian Aid: the charity's recipients do not have to be Muslim, or religious at all, to be eligible for assistance. True, the majority of the staff of Britain's Muslim charities are still Muslim, but it is only a matter of time before this next milestone is crossed.

Modernisation and international expansion have inevitably brought new tensions. But these trends also offer something different and potentially very exciting: the prospect of real change within the world of international NGOs, still dominated by wealthy and powerful organisations based in the rich countries of the global north.

The principal tension for charities such as Islamic Relief is to maintain the support of their traditional donor base as they expand, while at the same time knowing how to handle the many overtures from governments that inevitably come their way – especially when a charity based in the United Kingdom becomes large and influential in parts of the world where the British government is not very popular.

Islamic Relief's close links to the British government will not be lost on those of its donors who are angry with Tony Blair's support for and participation in the invasion of Iraq.

A secondary tension is that most ordinary Muslims in Britain are not at all used to the modern, professional charity run by people who carry laptop computers and write their emails on a Blackberry. The idea that hard-earned donations from the people on low incomes in Britain could be used to recruit lobbyists, campaigners, researchers and press officers (as opposed to directly helping the poor in other countries) will for many not be altogether welcome.

Partly because of this, there will always be room for the equivalent of the traditional charity – funded as so many are by the proceeds of cake-sales, coffee-mornings, charity auctions, as well as the staple collection-tin passed round the rows of worshippers at mosques on Fridays. Such charities take pride in their smallness and thus their ability to act quickly.

Indeed, many were involved in the Kashmir earthquake. They included teams of junior doctors who clubbed together to provide direct emergency medical relief, as well as others who pooled their money to buy food, clothing and tents. Many then took it upon themselves to hire container trucks which they themselves drove to make sure that the aid reached its intended destination.

From north to south

Earlier, I wrote that what has happened to Islamic Relief presents the prospect that something bigger and potentially exciting could happen in the broader world of international NGOs. The question is whether some of the larger charities inside the global south will watch Islamic Relief and decide that they, too, have the potential to take the plunge and organise, raise money, lobby, network and relate to the world's press on a much larger and more strategic scale than they do at present. In effect, do they have what it takes to become international NGOs?

This is not likely to happen anytime soon for NGOs in predominantly Muslim countries where civil society has been historically weak and where the ever-present hand of government means that groups which are legal are often those that are least likely to challenge state authority. But it is more likely to happen to NGOs in Latin America, south and southeast Asia and southern Africa.

Many of the large NGOs in these countries are just as influential as international NGOs such as Greenpeace – but their influence is mostly best achieved in the national context.

One of the well-known anomalies of the international civil-society sector is that it is mostly dominated by NGOs from the north, such as groups like Action Aid and the International Council for Science (Icsu). Stung by the "northern" label and in a genuine attempt to reflect southern concerns better, these groups are busy setting up offices in developing countries and recruiting more local staff.

Other, more research-based NGOs such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) in London and Leadership for Environment and Development (my former employers) have established close networks with development NGOs in the south. This arrangement gives the southern NGO access to finance and top policymakers in the north; while it gives the northern NGO access to more authentic knowledge of the problems of development in the south.

What has yet to happen, however, is the development of a truly global NGO (of the calibre of Greenpeace or IIED) from within a southern country: one that possesses equally an international vision, and the confidence and the capacity to implement that vision. The voice of the south is represented at international meetings by many outstanding national NGOs, such as the Third World Network (based in Penang) and the Centre for Science and Environment (in New Delhi). But these organisations are not helping to shape policy in the capital cities of those northern NGOs that are today active in Islamabad and New Delhi.

Perhaps that should read "not yet". For if a relatively small twenty-year-old British community charity called Islamic Relief has the ability to go global in a relatively short space of time, the potential for much larger organisations elsewhere to think bigger than they do at present is there for the taking.

Ehsan Masood

© Ehsan Masood/openDemocracy 2006

This article was originally published on

Ehsan Masood is a writer and journalist based in London and Project Director of The Gateway Trust. He is the editor of two books to be published in 2006: Life Without Water (Harvard University Press) and How Do You Know: Reading Ziauddin Sardar on Islam, Science and Cultural Relations (Pluto Press). He also writes for New Scientist and Prospect magazines and is a consultant to the Science and Development Network.

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