Resilience—the ability to anticipate, withstand and bounce back from external pressures and shocks—is an increasingly important construct in shaping humanitarian strategy by the international community (DFID 2011; UNICEF 2011; USAID 2012). Local faith communities (LFCs)—groupings of religious actors bonded through shared allegiance to institutions, beliefs, history or identity (Samuels et al. 2010)—are often central to local processes of identity and connection that comprise the social fabric of communities disrupted by disaster or conflict. Although their role in individual and community resilience is thus potentially of major significance, until recently there has been little attention paid to appropriate means of engaging with LFCs in the context of responses to humanitarian situations, including processes of displacement. However, there are some indications of the international humanitarian community acknowledging the case for more effective engagement with faith-based institutions, especially with regard to their potential reach into local communities (e.g. DFID 2012). Notable in this regard is the convening of the recent United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Faith and Protection (UNHCR 2012).
UNICEF defines religious communities as ‘both female and male religious actors and …systems and structures that institutionalize belief systems within religious traditions at all levels from local to global’ (2012: 7). In turn, UNAIDS identifies three levels of faith-based communities: ‘formal religious communities with an organized hierarchy and leadership’, ‘independent faith influenced non-governmental organisations… and … networks’ and ‘informal social groups or local faith communities’ (Samuels et al. 2010). Religious and faith-based communities therefore comprise diverse actors and networks situated across diverse sites. As defined for the purposes of this study, local faith communities—such as congregations, mosques and temples—are those whose members reside in relatively close proximity, such that they can regularly meet together for religious purposes, often in a dedicated physical venue. Within more secularized societies, a wide range of local, civil society structures will not be religious in nature. In such contexts, LFCs may be meaningfully distinguished from other local groups, allowing for some conceptual distinction between the capacities brought by locality and those brought by faith-engagement. However, in the majority of humanitarian settings, with high levels of religiosity and with faith-related structures comprising the significant majority of civil society, such a distinction may not be particularly meaningful (El Nakib and Ager 2014).