ACT Alliance general secretary reflects on “an opportunity to build a new spirit for humanity”

Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC, 2019.

The World Council of Churches is publishing a series of interviews that portray insights and reflections from the leaders of faith-based global and regional humanitarian and development organizations. Rudelmar Bueno de Faria is general secretary of ACT Alliance, which has secretariats in Switzerland, Jordan, Thailand, El Salvador, Kenya, Canada and New York. In addition, the ACT Alliance Advocacy office to the EU is based in Brussels, Belgium.

What are the major ways in which you and your staff have had to adapt and/or restructure your work because of COVID-19?

De Faria: The imposition of lockdowns and quarantines during the pandemic has obliged us to immediately find new ways to organize our work. As ACT Alliance has a decentralized secretariat in eight different locations, the communication between offices continued as usual: videoconferencing. However, many of the planned activities implemented with members, such as workshops, training sessions and big events were all made virtually.  All unnecessary travels were banned and investment to upgrade our digital platform was deployed.

After five months of the pandemic we started a more structured presence in the various offices, always respecting local restrictions and procedures. Each secretariat office determines which days are office days and which days offer the possibility to work from home. As far as possible, the days in the office are the days where face-to-face interaction with the team and individual colleagues happens, always respecting social distancing and security procedures. This situation is monitored and changes as the pandemic evolves.

What are the “best practices” that led to you retaining your institutional vision and mission while restructuring your work?

De Faria: From the beginning, it was hard to believe that the world would be the same after the COVID-19 pandemic, and we knew that addressing the consequences of the crisis as “business as usual” would be a failure. ACT has defined its institutional vision and mission in its Global Strategy approved in 2018, which remains relevant. However, the pandemic required us to review priorities and consider additional insights for our work, as the impact of the pandemic not only changes the context of the world we live in, but also has implications on organizational, structural and financial realities.

The entire situation also offered an opportunity to change policies, behaviors, practices, approaches and programming for the better. We have engaged with all our members to contribute to the definition of sub-strategies and provide practical suggestions and ideas on how best to address the issues/challenges identified. A discussion paper on the impact of the pandemic on ACT strategies was produced and discussions with members are taking place virtually. The idea is to base our actions on principles of solidarity, inclusion, equality, human rights and justice, and ensure they are holistic and locally led.

What are some signs of hope you have observed along the way?

De Faria: The solidarity waves during the pandemic offer an opportunity to build a new spirit for humanity. A vision for the future is not enough; we need consistent and actionable hope that encompasses our humanitarian, development and advocacy work. Because of that, ACT has been invited to take part in multilateral, governmental and corporate forums and initiatives to join initiatives to address the pandemic. In addition to the specific platforms related to the ACT programmatic work, we have gained seats in major multilateral advisory councils and political spaces due to the unique structure of ACT Alliance—national, sub-regional, and regional forums—which allows for the delivery of effective, accountable and consistent responses, from humanitarian assistance to advocacy action at all levels.

As a faith-based organization, ACT understands the way forward as prophetic and liberating. This implies that our programs and actions need to be in line with our vision for humanity. If we have hope that this world is possible, then we must define together how to achieve that vision.  Realizing hope offers a vision of how some areas of ACT Alliance’s work might be changed in a post-pandemic society, one where people and communities rather than profits and politics are placed firmly at the center.

What have been some of your biggest challenges?

De Faria: One of the challenges is that the COVID-19 pandemic became a threat to many humanitarian organizations depending on funding from the public, back donors and institutions. The economic forecasts indicate a deep recession and collapse in per capita income in most countries. This affects especially ACT members that have been receiving back donor funds to support humanitarian response.

A second one, is the barrier to the localization agenda, as described in the Grand Bargain of the World Humanitarian Summit. If humanitarian organizations lose their current response capacity, it will be difficult to scale it up again.  There is a big risk of going backwards if financial resources are not available urgently. Many ACT members will probably not be able to keep staff in the field soon without shared services. Services will close if we do not adapt more quickly and become more agile and faster to respond to the reduced funding for non-governmental organizations.

How do you see the added value of ecumenical relations in the current situation? Does the “ecumenical family” become more important to your organization than ever?

De Faria: Faith-based organizations (FBOs) have grown in importance and recognition among the population, governments and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. FBOs are becoming even more inspiring channels for humanitarian assistance, sustainable development and advocacy work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ACT Alliance is in a unique position to respond to these challenges. Partially due to its faith-based identity, but also for being part of the global ecumenical family. This is by itself a potential advantage to address many of the consequences of the pandemic, mobilize ACT members within their own constituencies, and work collaboratively with churches, national councils of churches, regional ecumenical organizations and the World Council of Churches.

Working together with the ecumenical movement can make us more influential on humanitarian, climate justice, gender justice, migration and displacement issues. The engagement in ecumenical and multi-faith spaces will foster our joint work and will help us to engage in partnerships that mobilize the moral and ethical imperative for global solidarity with people and communities affected by injustices. As part of the ecumenical movement, ACT is in a key position to act on injustices, as religious leaders and organizations play a central role in the lives of ordinary people as norm setters, moral compasses, legislators and advocates at national and international levels.