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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of FCDO Human Rights UK in Holy See

26th February 2016

Humanitarian aid: the faith dimension

UK aid for Ethiopia food crisis DFID
UK aid for Ethiopia food crisis DFID
UK aid for Ethiopia’s food crisis. Photo: WFP/Melese Awoke

In May this year, the first World Humanitarian Summit will be held in Istanbul. The United Kingdom sees this as a real opportunity to take stock of how humanitarian aid around the world is distributed, and to improve the effectiveness of delivery to ensure that aid reaches those most in need. Humanitarian aid needs to be long term, predictable, preventative and delivered more efficiently. Statistics show that the world has never been so generous in response to the humanitarian needs of others, and yet never has the need been so great. About $25bn a year are provided by states and international organisations (the UK being one of the world’s leading donors), and yet the number and severity current of crises means that there remains a $15bn shortfall. Conflict – including that driven by violent extremism – or climate change and natural disasters are the dominant causes of crises.

The World Humanitarian Summit is also a priority for the Holy See. I was at an event in the Vatican this week – at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences – attended by the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Stephen O’Brien. The Holy See Foreign Minister, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, told the gathering that  Summit should place people, not process, at the heart of humanitarian response to crises. Caritas Internationalis President, Cardinal Tagle, argued that recipients must become agents rather than simply beneficiaries of aid and development. Reflecting the Pope’s insistence that we should not be indifferent to the suffering of others, Gallagher argued that we had a “common responsibility” to step in, in the event of a crisis where the affected state was unable or unwilling itself to provide aid, “with the consent of that state”. He added that religious networks and faith-based organisations were a vital but underused resource in this respect.

He is right. Faith based networks are often the best trusted and most efficient deliverers of long term grass roots aid, connected to local structures, wisdom and cultures. Faith-based organisations hit crises early, are less bureaucratic (with risks around accountability, but allowing for faster disbursement and action), remain long after a crisis disappears from the headlines, and can tap into vast networks of believers. The Catholic church alone runs the world’s largest non-governmental school system at a time when education is seen as one of the priorities for long term humanitarian aid worldwide. Islamic Relief is one of the world’s largest aid networks. In the words of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, humanitarian organisations “simply cannot ignore the role of faith”.

The United Nations is waking up to this reality, and it is interesting that the Summit will see a Special Event devoted to the role of religions and faith-based organisations in aid delivery. Istanbul could well see a change in the paradigm of how humanitarian aid is delivered. The role of religious actors will be at the heart of that change.

About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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