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Are British Muslim charities failing on domestic causes?

Fadi Itani, chief executive of the Muslim Charities Forum, takes a look at the debate of whether Muslim charities should be focusing their attention on domestic causes.

Following the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a time when Muslims become more generous than the rest of the year, it will be useful to shed some light on the Muslim charity sector, a sector has grown rapidly over the last 10 years with over 1000 registered charities currently within the UK.

From small mosques gathering funds for the local community to large, international NGOs, there are now plenty of credible organisations aimed at providing service to the Muslim donor. With charitable giving considered a hugely important and spiritually rewarding act of worship in Islam, Muslims are often one of the most generous community groups in the UK.

The donor dilemma
Most of the charities aimed at the Muslim market or operating according to Islamic principles are INGOs, operating overseas and sending UK aid to countries as far afield as Syria, Yemen, or Indonesia.

The rising global population combined with continuing political conflict and poor socio-economic conditions mean that millions of people are currently displaced and in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Too many people are still dying across the world from largely preventable causes including malaria, cholera and chronic diarrhoea and dehydration. Poverty and famine continue to ravage populations who have suffered through war and natural disasters.

For some Muslim donors living in the West, the philanthropic and religious choice of where to donate their funds is pondered time and time again. A recent push to promote local UK spending to British Muslims has reignited this debate and cast a spotlight on whether Muslim charities are doing enough to honour domestic needs.

Home or abroad?
Adjacent to the global need lies a very real and credible case for spending of aid within the UK. The number of families within Britain who struggle in poverty is still on the rise. Foodbanks and homelessness are realities for many whose income is below the living wage, are stuck on zero hours contracts or whose benefits have been cut under new measures. Springing up in response to this growing need are organisations aimed at funnelling charitable donations into those parts of the British community who are disadvantaged and in need of support.

Islamic principles make a case for donating to the poor and needy within a local community as much as they do for saving and changing the lives of those in need around the world. Because of the growing domestic need, a question has arisen as to whether Muslim INGOs should be doing more to address the needs of the UK community? But is it fair to criticise international charitable giving as ignoring the needs of those living in poverty in the UK?

INGOs by their very definition are established to deliver foreign aid to address global humanitarian needs. With long-term and sustainable development programmes such as education and child sponsorship as well as responding to emergency aid crises, many INGOs save millions of lives in their continued fight for a better world for all. Plenty of the large name Muslim charities also work within the UK to deliver food, clothing and shelter to the homeless, elderly or struggling families and children – and yet continue to come under fire for supposedly failing local needs.

Local expertise for local need
The expertise of international charities lies in their strengths to deliver aid through legitimate channels to those in need in remote parts of the world. From a value-for-donation point of view, it can also be said that donating to an international need will reap more reward and have more impact: from as little as a few pounds for vaccination syringes or rehydration tablets, the lives of hundreds of children can be saved from wholly preventable causes. A small sum from a British donor can translate into buying a food pack to feed a family of 5 for over a month and from as little as £1 a day, a child in a developing country can be sponsored to receive food, clothing and access to education.

However, to serve the needs at home, it can be argued that local charities are a better fit and INGOs should not feel pressured to respond to domestic causes: instead leaving this to those organisations whose expertise lies in this area. Community groups founded on voluntary involvement, local business and government links can do more to address the needs of those living below the poverty line in the UK.

UK Social care legislation also dictates that those in need are supported through correct local channels for monitoring and safeguarding reasons – therefore strengthening the need for local organisations to focus and address domestic causes.

Equal needs in an equal market
Unfortunately for these local charities, the larger named INGOs will usually garner more coverage and attention when vying for the affections of the Muslim donor. Media coverage of international affairs, affiliations with countries of origin and heritage and powerful media and marketing campaigns can often be no match for a smaller NGO. This seemingly unfair advantage can result in unfair pressure to pull back from foreign aid to ‘readdress the balance.’

The recent campaign on the government proposing to reduce the commitment to 0.7 per cent GDP for foreign aid has also cast spotlight on INGOs – and coincides with a call to the British Muslim market to up their commitment to domestic causes. Whatever the next move of the government to meet SDGs targets, the need for foreign aid does not detract from a local cause. Safeguarding and analysis of how the 0.7 per cent (approx. £13bn) is spent abroad should be the focus of target.

The donor therefore continues to find themselves in a dilemma of local versus international need that doesn’t need to exist. Local organisations should be able to focus their expertise and unique positions on raising funds and awareness without detracting from the needs of international causes. Charities operating globally should be able to continue to focus their efforts on foreign aid without a pressure to manage domestic causes that local organisations would be a better fit to address.

For the Muslim donor, from an Islamic point of view, there is no reason why both causes are not equally valid and therefore both charitable efforts are considered important and equally rewardable. Competition between charities within an increasingly crowded Muslim consumer market does not need to exist, should ethics and intentions be clear. The Muslim donor can continue to be encouraged to give to both causes in accordance with their personal preference, rather than face pressure to choose a need over any other. For surely the life of one in need is equally valid, wherever they may be in the world.

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