Is faith based aid a failed experiment?

I’ve loved responses to yesterday’s faith-based aid post. Sadly this is not a week where I have time to think, reflect, and write. I hope you’ll forgive me if I just write.

From one reader,

Any organization with an agenda for converting people into causes in return for helping people in need should not be indulged with.

I think this is correct. Indeed, who would quarrel? So we should be clear what we’re talking about: whether the US government should be supporting faith-based organizations who wear their faith on their sleeve, but don’t actively recruit using tax dollars.

But where does quiet faith end and proselytizing begin? From another reader,

Working in southern Uganda later in my career, I had the opposite experience with World Vision than that described here; there were definitely Christian strings attached to aid. There was proselytism at every turn, including signs posted about Jesus and WV’s mandate over every classroom door in 2007 when I last visited.

I too worry that individuals, and some state-funded organizations, will slip into conversion mode. But are posters proselytizing? Are they what we’re concerned about?

If only the values for other organizations’ aid were so explicit. What if USAID replaced “brought to you by the American people” with “fighting Communism and Islamo-fascism since 1945″?

The line between expressing faith and proselytizing will always be hard to draw, especially where the people served are the poorest and most vulnerable. But that is not necessarily an argument for drawing the line at zero support for faith-based organizations. That seems (dare I say it?) too puritan.

Perhaps it’s not what they say but what they do? Noting the World Vision emphasis on abstinence and faithfulness, a reader comments:

Don’t be fooled into thinking that World Vision aid does not come with strings attached. Their aid decisions are based entirely on their “Christian” beliefs.

All NGOs have values. Some push a human rights agenda. Some market fundamentalism. Some a conservative Christian one. All are guilty of making program decisions based on their principles. If anything, the human rights agenda has less in common with local cultures than the Christian one. Should funding one be banned and the other encouraged?

Here I think we have to be careful. Donors should avoid organizations that spread misinformation about working measures they dislike (like condom use), or actively discourage its use. Donors filter good actions from bad all the time (okay, some of the time) and this is little different than any other area. Is a ban required?

Alanna Shaikh jumps in, suggesting it’s not so easy:

I think faith-based aid given in a non-religious way is easier said than done. If you expertise is in religious aid, then it’s what you know how to give.

…I am honestly confused as to why Kristof decided to bring this up now, when it was pretty clearly a failed experiment.

From Kate, upset with World Vision’s policy of hiring Christians only:

when you require what is essentially a profession of faith from all employees (international or domestic), you’re bound to attract a certain type of aid worker.

If, in practice, if organizations just can’t untie aid from religion, then both Alanna and Kate are right. But is it true? Is faith based aid a failed experiment?

I don’t see it. This comment probably captures my experience so far:

as someone who has a built-in aversion to formalised religion, my experience of christian missionary orgs in Africa has been generally positive. I have found that they are typically there for the long haul; drive fewer white, air-conditioned Toyota Landcruisers; and are generally very committed to the people they work with. Judging by the above comments, mileage varies substantially.

This one too comes close to my view:

For every story about a religious NGO abusing their power or engaging in distasteful practices, there is a story about a secular NGO abusing power or engaging in distasteful practices.

..we’re not talking about funding proselytizing aid workers vs. non-proselytizing aid workers. We’re talking about funding flawed organizations or other flawed organizations.

I would love nothing better than to study the relative effectiveness of NGOs: faith based and not. I have a hunch who wins out, but alas no proof.

Okay, conclusion time. In spite of my own spiritual atheo-agnosticism, here’s my leap of faith:

1. If the constitution forbids US support, so be it. Whaddaya gonna do?

2. Otherwise, set the rules and let the faith based compete. They are here to stay; work with them rather than against them.

3. If there are unsavory practices, let the funding spigots be closed. Incentives matter.