Olivia Quinn is finishing an MSc in international development and humanitarian emergencies at the London School of Economics.
We live in a world with an estimated 22.5 million refugees, a global crisis that is only becoming more protracted and complex. This World Refugee Day, humanitarian funding deficits have reached a staggering $16.7 billion. It is essential that we find alternative funding solutions wherever we can. The practice of zakat, the Muslim duty to give alms, provides one such alternative.
Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam. It requires Muslims of a certain level of wealth to pay 2.5 percent of their assets to people and communities in need. Recipients of zakat are categorized into groups which include the poor, the needy, the indebted, those in bondage and the wayfarer — or in current times, the refugee. In addition, it can be used in support of Islam, including for the funding of mosques, religious centers and community spaces.
An estimated $200 billion to $1 trillion is generated in zakat globally. This alone indicates it has the potential to surpass the global humanitarian deficit. Just a small percentage would cover the European Union’s 2016 refugee budgetary spending of $4.5 billion.
Donating zakat to refugees is by no means a revolutionary concept. Aid organizations, religious institutions and individuals have been participating in the practice for centuries. But as it stands, zakat as a tool is underutilized. If we effectively channel these funds to the right international players, and take advantage of innovative technology, financial governance and humanitarian advocacy, we could completely change the face of refugee funding.
While there are rules for zakat’s use and distribution, we lack internationally binding practices that govern its overall collection and distribution, meaning we cannot accurately track donations or their distribution and impact. Additionally, zakat is often donated informally, meaning there is no official record.
To this end, creating a unified zakat collection and tracking system across countries, religious institutions and nongovernmental organizations could help solve the growing refugee crisis. A transparent, globally accessible system would allow clear estimation and distribution of zakat funds.
To truly create a global funding pool that directs zakat to the world’s most pressing issues — whether the current refugee crisis, civil conflicts or environmental degradation — zakat bodies (governmental ministries, Islamic banks, religious organizations and select charities and aid agencies) would need to be more transparent and collaborative, if not uniform. This would require a huge amount of financial expertise and resources for a regulatory overhaul.
A more effective use of even a portion of zakat would require us to address these important factors:
1. Ensure zakat funding goes to results-based projects and initiatives.
We must require that collection institutions take on more due diligence and produce a return on investments, making zakat about intention but also about impact by holding aid organizations and charities to a global standard.
2. Create a toolkit for local, regional and international advocacy campaigns for targeted humanitarian response.
That would include financial and regulatory guidelines for all zakat institutions, along with advocacy and communications material, fostering a better understanding of the potential impact of these funds.
3. Create a parallel funding mechanism for causes that include non-Muslim beneficiaries.
Creating funding pools for non-Muslim beneficiaries or refugees is a step toward ensuring fair and inclusive aid and refugee support, regardless of religious belief or affiliation. A somewhat contentious barrier — zakat is only for Muslims and should only be managed by Muslims — means only Islamic-sanctioned institutions can collect and donate funds. Zakat cannot fund overhead costs, such as salaries or rent. Importantly for the current refugee context, since zakat is only sanctioned for Muslim beneficiaries, this potentially discounts the large percentage of non-Muslim religious minorities seeking refugee status in the Middle East, Europe and beyond. A parallel funding mechanism would prevent an exclusionary aid tactic that contradicts the founding humanitarian principle of neutrality.
4. Implement widespread educational campaigns on the international level, both on the nature and impact of zakat and the financial transparency measures.
For non-Muslim populations, there is a clear lack of knowledge around this practice. Transparency will allow important data to quell fears of terrorism funding, especially given the widespread misunderstanding and fear around Islamic fundamentalism today. Educational campaigns for zakat donors around responsible giving practices and results-based zakat are an important step to more effective global use of these funds.
The use of zakat to meet refugee funding deficits is by no means the only solution to the refugee crisis. But thinking differently, especially in a field as beleaguered as this, and improving on the existing zakat donation process provides an important example of how we can use existing tools and channels to answer some of the most pressing humanitarian questions of our time.
Despite its challenges, we should not discount a solution with a potentially huge positive impact — even if it forces humanitarians and governments to operate differently around both ethics and financial practices. Given its potential, further investment into more uniform and transparent zakat collection, coupled with evidence of what zakat can achieve, makes this a funding tool we cannot afford to ignore.