In response to Eva Witesman's Dec. 17 op-ed titled "Why 'giving homeless people dignity' is wrongheaded (and what we should do instead)," I wasn't sure if she was entirely knocking our efforts, along with other organizations helping people who, by any socioeconomic measure, are underserved, or if she was criticizing just segments of it. But I feel it is important to clarify Islamic Relief USA's view.
First off, Islamic Relief USA never assumes the people we assist at our very successful annual "Day of Dignity" events are undignified, or any of the other synonyms Witesman mentioned. Neither is it a self-serving, pat-on-the-back lovefest. The very goals behind Day of Dignity events are to celebrate the participants’ dignity and to give them the respect and tools that are, unfortunately, sorely lacking.
There are various reasons for the shortage of resources that leave people in a sclerotic state. You could blame government. You could blame the plethora of low-cost jobs. You could blame inadequate job-training programs. You could blame the high cost of education or career-training schools. You could blame the high cost of child care. And, yes, you could blame corporate greed.
The list of targets is long, if not infinite, but Islamic Relief USA isn't interested in placing blame. It is interested in finding and implementing solutions for human advancement and potential, both short-term and long-term. Part of that strategy is to give people what I describe as a hand up, as opposed to a handout.
The Day of Dignity events merely serve as conduits to helping people get the tools and services they need. Having done humanitarian work for nearly 25 years, which we'll mark next year, Islamic Relief USA recognizes and knows that many people suffering from poverty, homelessness or some type of addiction are doing so because of insufficient opportunities or resources. It's not because they are lazy or lack initiative. How else could one explain why many people who go to soup kitchens/food pantries are not homeless, but the working poor? This is more a problem of the national economy and how it gets more uneven with each succeeding year. It's a megatrend that no nongovernmental organization can buck. The best it can do is adapt to changing circumstances.
Second, Islamic Relief USA never assumes we are the one-trick pony that can solve all of a person's problems or hurdles. But, certainly, we're a willing and passionate assistant, as demonstrated by our frequent partnerships with other NGOs. At a time when government services are slated to see some financial cuts for a variety of reasons, it's up to NGOs to help fill some of the void. There are no illusions, though, that NGOs can fill all the massive gaps created by scaling back government services.
We agree with the author that NGOs like ours should empower people, and we do. We literally provide the seeds, but we don't do the planting. We leave it to the individuals to shape their destiny. Our financial literacy program is one example, in which incentives are provided for the participants to save more of their own money to help buy a home. We have always encouraged decision-making and proactivity, not passivity and complacency.
As a faith-based organization, Islamic Relief assumes people of all walks of life are special and dignified. We help bring those characteristics out even if society sometimes sends signals or messages that say otherwise. Regardless of whether one thinks they're dignified, Islamic Relief USA assumes everyone does and will continually help people live productive lives.
Minhaj Hassan is the public affairs/media relations specialist for Islamic Relief USA, a humanitarian and advocacy organization based in Alexandria, Virginia.