Faith-based NGOs are helping Ukraine’s children. Now we have to prove it.

Faith-based aid groups need to prove the effectiveness of their holistic approach to caring for refugees.

Marta Fedorova holds her baby boy as her son Volodymir 6, and her daughter Violetta 5, right, sit inside a school that is being used as a shelter for people who fled the war, in Dnipro city, Ukraine, on Tuesday, April 12, 2022. Marta Fedorova with her husband and five children fled from the city of Bahmud. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(RNS) — Only six weeks into Ukraine’s invasion by Russian forces, it was reported that nearly two-thirds of the country’s 7.5 million children had been displaced. These numbers are worsening as the conflict ensues and more and more families have to leave behind their homes, schools, belongings and livelihoods.

At a time in their lives when routine and familiarity are critical to their development, millions of children in Ukraine have been forced to navigate a situation in which not only their physical safety, but their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing are in jeopardy.

We know from research on children in similar situations — it’s estimated that 1 in 4 of the world’s children live in countries affected by armed conflict or disaster — that the effects of trauma from living through conflict are long-lasting and may be transmitted inter-generationally.

To that end, it’s critical that support of the world’s most vulnerable children go beyond traditional aid or monetary donations. Holistic care — physical, mental, social and spiritual — is required. While it can come from a wide variety of organizations, faith-based organizations are natural partners in providing holistic care.

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Large secular institutions understand this. The United States Agency for International Development, the United Nations and the World Bank each partner with faith-based organizations to deliver compassionate care and services to those most in need because faith communities’ infrastructure can be found almost anywhere around the world.

Besides being in many cases the largest, most stable and most widely dispersed nongovernmental organization in any country, religious organizations offer kinds of it that their secular counterparts don’t. In Ukraine, the Christian nongovernmental organization World Vision has set up child friendly spaces where children can play, engage in informal learning and most importantly, re-establish some kind of routine to look forward to.

Children from Ukraine sleep at a railway station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

Women and children from Ukraine sleep at a railway station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on March 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

This is precisely why faith-based organizations are moving from “nice to have around” to “essential for impact.” Research shows that a spiritual component has a significant impact on mental wellbeing, a necessary part of poverty reduction.

Some in the international arena have expressed worry that faith-based organizations practice forced conversion or attach conditions to their aid, but there is no evidence of this being a widespread problem. Reputable faith-based organizations focus on the values that are desperately needed and often shared across many faiths: generosity, love of neighbor, compassion and empathy, peacemaking and forgiveness.

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Part of the challenge is the lack of data to dispel the notion that these groups have an agenda other than providing help or that highlights their impact. Faith-based organizations need to respond to tough questions about their reach and long-term results and better communicate their impact and provide proof-points to the global community. Partnerships with secular organizations can be a resource to help quantify results. 

In a crisis environment, reporting and metrics often fall to the wayside as faith-based organizations focus on delivering urgently needed services. But for faith-based organizations to be welcomed and integrated into situations such as Ukraine, they must show that they are effective so they can help heal those most in need.

(Brian Peterson is the founder of Greater Life Communications, assisting global faith-based organizations with strategic communications for the past 20 years. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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