According to the UNHCR (the United Nations Refugee Agency), 68.5 million people around the world are currently in a situation where they have been forced from their homes. Some are internally displaced, living in their home country; others have had to flee conflict or violence by crossing a border, becoming refugees. Last year alone, almost half of those displacements were related to disasters in 143 countries. UNHCR says “nearly one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.” As climate change worsens, experts predict that the numbers of wildfires, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, and famines will only increase, putting more pressures on strained and vulnerable communities.
Relief and development work aims to reduce those factors that push or pull people out of their homes: Poverty, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking; food insecurity, which makes them vulnerable to hunger and poor health; and gender inequality, which makes it harder for women and girls to succeed. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals list 17 of these challenges to be met by 2030.
The Anglican response in Canada to relief and development needs is The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund. Having originated as a response to a disaster in Nova Scotia in 1958, supporting people at their most vulnerable is in its DNA.
In the days and weeks after a bump [an underground earthquake] in a coalmine in Springhill, Nova Scotia, Anglicans were moved to give to the families and survivors. One year later, The Primate’s World Relief Fund was established at General Synod, eventually expanding to include development work. There was a clear recognition that Anglicans wanted a means to think and live beyond the end of our pews.
While it’s true that there are hundreds of relief and development organizations doing good work around the world, PWRDF has some distinct features:
- it works with local partners only, rather than employing Canadian professionals in offices overseas;
- it does not engage in “voluntourism” where volunteers come to do the work that the community can do themselves;
- it designs programs based on what the local partner needs, not what it thinks donors want to fund;
- it does not proselytize or only work with Christian populations;
- it is committed to supporting the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, almost all of which are linked directly or indirectly to better global health.
But perhaps most importantly, according to surveys, many PWRDF donors are looking for a way to live out their Baptismal covenant. In the Book of Alternative Services, the celebrant asks “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The congregation is asked to respond “I will, with God’s help.” The Baptism service in the Book of Common Prayer, from which many Anglicans over a certain age would have been baptized, asks that we are received into Christ’s holy church “steadfast in faith, joyful through hope and rooted in charity.” These promises to God – acting in charity, loving others, and striving for justice and peace – are strong motivators for many people.
Some people prefer to give money to charities that support Canadians, especially in Indigenous communities where lack of access to housing, clean water, and education is a national disaster. PWRDF has been working with Indigenous partners for more than 20 years in the areas of language recovery, clean water, maternal health, and microfinance. In its 2019–2024 strategic plan, PWRDF named Supporting Indigenous Communities as one of its five key goals.
As the world becomes increasingly smaller, the relief and development sector has changed how it communicates to donors. Thirty years ago, the people depicted in development organization brochures were usually anonymous. Today, communicators often have direct access to families in the global south where much of work is still being done. We are sensitive to issues of consent in using a photo of someone, and even taking a photo in the first place. Not only do we know their names, but they can see how their photos were used on social media or the internet. Communicators now ask themselves “would I want to be shown or have my child shown looking sick or vulnerable?”
Even using the word “help” reinforces the post-colonial White Saviour Complex – that notion that we, as the collective West, can swoop in and solve every problem by scattering our largesse like so much fairy dust. PWRDF tries to avoid this by using language that emphasizes accompaniment rather than rescue. It provides funds to support communities in emergency situations and training to support communities, so that they will eventually be able to sustain the work themselves.
This is the ultimate goal for PWRDF and all good development organizations: to become sustainable. To paraphrase the ancient Chinese saying, “Give a community food and you feed them for a day. Teach a community how to grow their own food and you feed them for a lifetime.” For 68.5 million people, that day can’t come too soon.
Janice Biehn has been the Communications Coordinator for The Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund since 2017 and loves telling the stories of communities in transformation. She is a parishioner at St. Olave’s Anglican Church in Toronto.