Humanitarian crises monitoring: coronavirus in developing countries: secondary impacts


Open Doors welcomes the opportunity to make this submission to the Enquiry.


We must express some disappointment, however, that the specific issue of the impact of coronavirus in terms of human rights, particularly in relation to Freedom of Religion or Belief, has been not been included in the three items highlighted for review.


Open Doors is not the only UK NGO that has been stressing the additional level of vulnerability for members of religious minorities that has been created by the pandemic.


We have been particularly concerned to underline the direct challenge this issue creates for UK Aid to what extent does UK Aid unintentionally reinforce this vulnerability, and how effective is any monitoring of aid delivery in establishing whether people belonging to religious minorities are being marginalised or discriminated against in the distribution of humanitarian aid?


It is clear that this global pandemic takes a grim toll on those who are already vulnerable. Across the world, belonging to a religious minority is an additional – and potentially lethal – vulnerability.






A pastor in Nigeria says “The sharing of the aid from the government is not just done wrongly but the Christians have been marginalised. I'm not just saying this just because I feel so. I'm saying this because I’ve seen it. The inhabitants of neighbouring non-Christian communities received much bigger portions of rice and noodles. We've had Christians faint and collapse in the struggles of trying to get food for their family.”


This is particularly relevant given the FCDO’s reluctance to accept the true significance of religious identity in increasing the vulnerability of the poor, including women and girls.


In India, a Christian was expelled from his village and after remaining elsewhere for some time, he tried to return. The village chief tried to force him to leave again. While everyone else in the village received food rations, he was left out.


Simon Chakma, a Christian in Bangladesh, said “The authorities think that we, Christians, get a lot of support from foreign Christian organisations, so they use that as an excuse to not give us our relief aid.”


Another NGO (ADF International) reported from Pakistan that “People have become so desperate that they are forced to trade their religion in exchange for food. They are forced to convert to Islam just for one sack of flour.”




An Open Doors staff member received a phone call from a Christian nurse. The woman said, “We are so tired. This morning we discovered that Christian nurses are being assigned Corona cases, because it is dangerous and the non-Christian nurses don’t want the risk. We are dispensable.”


At the beginning of lockdown AsiaNews reported that Pakistan's sanitation workers, mostly Christian, continued to work despite their lack of masks and other protective gear. The job, which comes with great health risks, involves collecting waste, emptying sewers, cleaning the streets, all by hand.


Activist Sooba Bhatti said, “These people face a serious predicament, and put their lives at risk. Even women sanitation workers perform their tasks without gloves, protective masks and even shoes.”




In many countries religious minorities have been blamed for the spread of the virus. This has been experienced by Muslims in India and Hazara Shia in Pakistan, for example. Open Doors has received reports of Christians being accused of responsibility from Uganda and Niger.




There is evidence that the vulnerability of women and children from religious minorities to rape, abduction and forced marriage has been  increased by being under lockdown.




In our 2020 World Watch List Advocacy report we stated “The Department for International Development (DfID) needs to recognise religion as a potential vulnerability in any needs assessment underpinning its development or humanitarian programming… Vulnerability due to religious identity should be included in any vulnerability criteria.”


In 2017 Lord Alton asked a series of questions around the issue of identifying and recognising the vulnerability of religious minorities. The replies were very clear, that “DFID’s partners do not identify or record beneficiaries by their religious affiliation or ethnicity.”


Open Doors welcomes the progress that has been made since that point: in particular the initiative overseen by The Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID), which aims to provide research evidence and deliver practical programmes which aim to redress the impact of discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief, tackle poverty and exclusion, and promote people’s wellbeing and empowerment.


Gathering data on religious minorities is clearly vital to this task, and a further sign of change was reflected in Parliamentary answers such as “We currently collect data on minority status when there is a specific need for it, such as for our programmes which specifically aim at helping minority groups.” (November 2019)


So change has been in the air, but has it gone far enough? It is clear that in his 2019 Independent Review of the FCO’s work to support persecuted Christians the Bishop of Truro was concerned about progress in this area, stating “In the light of the international observations identified in the course of this Independent Review regarding the negative consequences of the mantra of ‘need not creed’, active and urgent cross-governmental consideration must be given to rejecting this approach. The Foreign Secretary should reject the mantra in FCO foreign policy contexts entirely.”


The report’s recommendations included this: “The FCO to lead a cross-departmental evaluation and discussion of regional policy (for departments with an international focus) to recognise religious affiliation as a key vulnerability marker for members of religious minorities. In the light of the international observations identified in the course of this Independent Review regarding the negative consequences of the mantra of ‘need not creed’, active and urgent cross-governmental consideration must be given to rejecting this approach.”


When the pandemic began to impact vulnerable people across the world, the questions around this issue were largely focused on Pakistan, and most recently, of course, on the response to COVID-19. Lord Ahmad explained that “guidance was circulated across DFID highlighting that inclusion must be central to our response and the specific contexts and needs of all religious minorities should be taken into account when developing practical programmes to tackle COVID-19.”


It would be extremely helpful to know what specific actions have been taken as a result of this guidance. Because when on 5 May another question was met with the answer “We are currently looking at how we can best support vulnerable groups through the crisis” it prompted reservations about whether DfID were yet taking seriously enough the task of identifying the religious and ethnic identity of beneficiaries as part of ensuring that these and other vulnerable groups are both given positive support and protected from discrimination in the delivery of aid.




That’s why Open Doors launched the LAST IN LINE campaign. Supporters contacted their MP, urging them to ask the then Secretary of State for International Development:


  1. Will you ensure that the UK continues to focus on combatting poverty by ensuring that aid reaches the most vulnerable, including those who are even more vulnerable because of their faith?
  2. What steps are being taken to ensure that religious identity is taken into account when allocating aid?
  3. What mechanisms are in place to ensure that Christians – and other religious minorities – on the frontlines of aid distribution do not face additional discrimination because of their faith?


Open Doors welcomes the statement in ine written question response that “UK aid prioritises support for the poorest and most excluded people and communities in Pakistan regardless of race, religion, social background or nationality. Our programmes target the most marginalised, some of whom are likely to be from religious minority groups; and some UK projects in Pakistan specifically aim to tackle the drivers underpinning intolerance and discrimination, through promoting greater understanding between communities. DFID Pakistan uses a range of approaches to monitor and evaluate our programmes. Every programme within the portfolio is required to develop a comprehensive monitoring plan to enable assessment and verification of how our aid is used and see whether the programme is achieving planned results and impact.” (Written answer, 5 May 2020)


But we noted that this was specific to Pakistan; and we note that it is an assumption that ‘Some are likely to be from religious minority groups’; we welcome that in Pakistan there is a requirement to develop a ‘comprehensive monitoring plan’. But what has that monitoring plan discovered? Does it drill down far enough to be sure that at the most local level members of religious minorities are not facing discrimination?


The coronavirus pandemic is having such a major impact on Christians facing persecution that it is vital that their vulnerability is assessed, fully taken into account in all aid programmes, acted on with urgency and carefully monitored to ensure that they do not remain the LAST IN LINE.


It is now predicted that post-COVID-19 extreme poverty in the world will rise this year by about 50 million people (The Brookings Institute). Of the twelve countries where this rise in people who are poor will be over one million, eight appear in the Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian: India (10), Nigeria (12), Indonesia (49), Bangladesh (38), Ethiopia (39), Afghanistan (2), Sudan (7) and Pakistan (5).


There is therefore a vital need to ensure that all strategies for development during COVID-19 have included the specific plight of persecuted Christians. Recommendation 13 of the Bishop of Truro’s report highlights ‘advocacy for religious protection’. How has the FCDO advocated for persecuted Christians when many of them have faced discrimination in the distribution of essential aid by local governments?