Chris Blattman

Faith based aid

Some Americans assume that religious groups offer aid to entice converts. That’s incorrect. Today, groups like World Vision ban the use of aid to lure anyone into a religious conversation.

Some liberals are pushing to end the longtime practice (it’s a myth that this started with President George W. Bush) of channeling American aid through faith-based organizations. That change would be a catastrophe. In Haiti, more than half of food distributions go through religious groups like World Vision that have indispensable networks on the ground. We mustn’t make Haitians the casualties in our cultural wars.

A root problem is a liberal snobbishness toward faith-based organizations. Those doing the sneering typically give away far less money than evangelicals. They’re also less likely to spend vacations volunteering at, say, a school or a clinic in Rwanda.

That is Nick Kristof in the New York Times. I’m going to have to agree. If a faith-based organization wants to provide secular services, I see no reason the US government shouldn’t fund them. The average quality (I would bet) is better, and few use their position to proselytize. If they do, let there be penalities.

In northern Uganda, World Vision used to hold the bible in one hand and child assistance in the other. The backlash in the aid community was huge, they started to see their funding plummet, and quickly changed course. Incentives matter.

25 Responses

  1. I don’t see how on earth we will get away from the priority of faith in God in human existence. What people do is motivated by their faith, even if it is a negating faith. That’s part of being human, and mortal.

    The question is, how to combine aid with ‘faith’, and not whether to combine aid with ‘faith’.

  2. Two points:

    Firstly, World Vision, as one of the largest (or perhaps THE largest) faith-based development organization gets a lot of attention here. I am in the process of being hired by WV Down Under. I was never asked to profess my religious beliefs during the interview and hiring process (in fact I was explicitly told that I was not expected or required to share my personal beliefs). The only expectation was one of mutual respect. I’ve heard the American office is not so liberal with the religious beliefs of their staff, but the only first-hand experience I’ve had with them has been great.

    I’ve also worked very closely with some faith-based groups in Bangladesh. Originally I was doubtful and hesitant, but I came to view the people I worked with as the most dedicated, hard-working development professionals I have ever met. Many of them had dedicated over 50 years to serving Bangladesh, giving them the time (and language skills) to understand the local situation and needs far better than any other foreign organization in the country.

    But of course, as with all things in life, there are good and bad. Religious or secular, there will always be some who do great work and some who don’t. That’s life. We should be concerned with identifying and supporting organizations that do good work and have a positive impact, regardless of where their values come from, and not painting a whole section of the development field as evangelists out to convert the masses.

  3. “But I don’t think it makes any sense either, nor is it remotely practical, for aid workers to be muzzled about their personal beliefs.”

    What absolute horseshit. Aid workers muzzle our own beliefs, potentially on an enormous range of issues, all the time. Ask ppl at IFRC if they’re completely candid about their views and beliefs in public all the time. Ask (most) westerners working in countries where women are treated as chattels whether they don’t muzzle themselves in order to get the job done, or speak very carefully while working in the many virulently homophobic parts of Africa. Sometimes mouthing off is pure distraction and a threat to achieving something more essential (saving lives) and frankly tradeoffs are made.

  4. Agreeing with a couple of the statements above, you find both FBOs and non-FBOs can carry out practices in line with their beliefs which can be damaging or offensive at the local level. Working in Papua New Guinea, for example, which is a highly religious country in which government ministers routinely pray at the start of meetings, one particular aid agency which is very proud of its non- (anti-?) religious position banned its staff members from praying at the start of the day on office property, in the name of upholding their neutral/impartial organizational values- even though this was a part of the local cultural norms and value sets.

    I’m not particularly interested in defending WV. There are things about its approach to being an FBO which I think are good, and things that are not. Having worked with them in the past, there is a broad differentiation across parts of the organization as to things such as hiring practices or expression/declaration of faith. In the US, for example (including the head office) they will generally hire not just Christians, but people who profess an Evangelical worldview. This is also echoed in some parts of the world (e.g. Uganda, as stated above) where that brand of Christianity is prevelant in the local culture. The process is quite personality/management-driven. This is, in my opinion, a hiring practice that is frequently detrimental to the organization.

    On the flip-side, many WV offices do not follow these practices. The office in Australia, for example, only asks that people hired are comfortable working in an organization with a Christian ethos (the one listed above by Kate), and probably hires as many (if not more) people who would not call themselves Christian as those who would. Many offices, particularly those in Muslim countries, hire majority Muslim staff. The office in one muslim country I have visited promoted expression of religious values very freely. In the mornings they would often have a time of prayer with staff, where one Christian staff member prayed, which would always then be followed by a Muslim staff member praying.

    Enabling people to express and celebrate religious values in the workplace is, when done well, a healthy thing which builds relationships and trusts, and celebrates diversity. Faith can also be a great motivator. By contrast, when those values are used to shape or restrict aid delivery, there is a problem. In the several years during which I worked with WV, I came across only one or two instances where I felt that financial assistance was being inappropriately channelled on religious grounds- at least in the humanitarian/emergency portion of the organization- but then I did not work in the long-term development part of the organization or in Christianized Africa where some of the above examples are being drawn from.

  5. I was the first to reply to this article, and just in case anyone is interested – the World Vision office that I had been assigned to consult, and ultimately didn’t because of the fact that I did not fit their definition of Christian, was their world headquarters. We had a lovely conversation, but the Jesuit priests in charge were very clear about their expectations. I can only speak to my own experience, but it wasn’t until I worked in Uganda that I was really concerned about the ways in which they utilised their belief system to mitigate community development efforts.

  6. Ignoring faith-based groups is a practice that kills people, plain and simple.

    When an emergency happens anywhere in the developing world, the first place people go is to their house of worship. They–not UNICEF, not the Red Cross, not Save the Children–are the de facto first responders, whether or not they want to be. Every emergency results in church parking lots and church pews full of displaced people. And yet, the humanitarian community almost never trains faith-based groups to respond.

  7. You said “The average quality (I would bet) is better”

    I’m genuinely interested to know whether you have any evidence to back that statement up. If proselytizing is forbidden in theory, on what criteria do you compare the quality of secular and faith-based aid services?

  8. Any organization with an agenda for converting people into causes in return for helping people in need should not be indulged with. This includes giving aid in return for their support for veganism, or christianity. Aid is about giving without expecting anything in return, and giving without believing in any higher purpose to justify the act of giving.

  9. Interesting discussion. I have to admit my thoughts immediately strayed to the World Bank and the extent to which “washington consensus” policies also qualified as “faith-based” as well as the extent to which developing countries were obliged to line up according to how much they bought into that particular belief system.

    On another level, 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.

  10. So that’s not to say they don’t do good work, but 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.

  11. From World Vision Canada’s Career page:

    As part of our Christian identity, we offer the opportunity for staff to meet for chapel and devotions to ensure that we stay focused on our mission. Individuals considering employment with World Vision Canada should be able to demonstrate compatibility with our core values.

    Please read the below and indicate in the space provided that you have read and understood the World Vision Core Values.

    WE ARE CHRISTIAN. We acknowledge one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In Jesus Christ the love, mercy and grace of God are made known to us and all people. From this overflowing abundance of God’s love we find our call to ministry. We proclaim together, “Jesus lived, died, and rose again. Jesus is Lord.” We desire him to be central in our individual and corporate life.

    We seek to follow him — in his identification with the poor, the powerless, the afflicted, the oppressed, the marginalized; in his special concern for children; in his respect for the dignity bestowed by God on women equally with men; in his challenge to unjust attitudes and systems; in his call to share resources with each other; in his love for all people without discrimination or conditions; in his offer of new life through faith in him. From him we derive our holistic understanding of the gospel of the Kingdom of God, which forms the basis of our response to human need. We hear his call to servant hood and see the example of his life. We commit ourselves to a servant spirit permeating the organization. We know this means facing honestly our own pride, sin and failure. We bear witness to the redemption offered only through faith in Jesus Christ. The staff we engage are equipped by belief and practice to bear this witness. We will maintain our identity as Christian, while being sensitive to the diverse contexts in which we express that identity.

    WE ARE COMMITTED TO THE POOR. We are called to serve the neediest people of the earth; to relieve their suffering and to promote the transformation of their condition of life. We stand in solidarity in a common search for justice. We seek to understand the situation of the poor and work alongside them towards fullness of life. We share our discovery of eternal hope in Jesus Christ. We seek to facilitate an engagement between the poor and the affluent that opens both to transformation. We respect the poor as active participants, not passive recipients, in this relationship. They are people from whom others may learn and receive, as well as give. The need for transformation is common to all. Together we share a quest for justice, peace, reconciliation and healing in a broken world.

    WE VALUE PEOPLE. We regard all people as created and loved by God. We give priority to people before money, structure, systems and other institutional machinery. We act in ways that respect the dignity, uniqueness and intrinsic worth of every person — the poor, the donors, our staff and their families, boards and volunteers. We celebrate the richness of diversity in human personality, culture and contribution. We practice a participative, open, enabling style in working relationships. We encourage the professional, personal and spiritual development of our staff.

    WE ARE STEWARDS. The resources at our disposal are not our own. They are a sacred trust from God through donors on behalf of the poor. We are faithful to the purpose for which those resources are given and manage them in a manner that brings maximum benefit to the poor. We speak and act honestly. We are open and factual in our dealings with donor constituencies, project communities, governments, the public at large and with each other. We endeavour to convey a public image conforming to reality. We strive for consistency between what we say and what we do. We demand of ourselves high standards of professional competence and accept the need to be accountable through appropriate structures for achieving these standards. We share our experience and knowledge with others where it can assist them. We are stewards of God’s creation. We care for the earth and act in ways that will restore and protect the environment. We ensure that our development activities are ecologically sound.

    WE ARE PARTNERS. We are members of an international World Vision Partnership that transcends legal, structural and cultural boundaries. We accept the obligations of joint participation, shared goals and mutual accountability that true partnership requires. We affirm our inter-dependence and our willingness to yield autonomy as necessary for the common good. We commit ourselves to know, understand and love each other. We are partners with the poor and with donors in a shared ministry. We affirm and promote unity in the Body of Christ. We pursue relationship with all churches and desire mutual participation in ministry. We seek to contribute to the holistic mission of the church. We maintain a co-operative stance and a spirit of openness towards other humanitarian organizations. We are willing to receive and consider honest opinions from others about our work.

    WE ARE RESPONSIVE. We are responsive to life-threatening emergencies where our involvement is needed and appropriate. We are willing to take intelligent risks and act quickly. We do this from a foundation of experience and sensitivity to what the situation requires. We also recognize that even in the midst of crisis, the destitute have a contribution to make from their experience. We are responsive in a different sense where deep-seated and often complex economic and social deprivation calls for sustainable, long-term development. We maintain the commitments necessary for this to occur. We are responsive to new and unusual opportunities. We encourage innovation, creativity and flexibility. We maintain an attitude of learning, reflection and discovery in order to grow in understanding and skill.

  12. I thought Krystof got more wrong than right in this piece.

    His premise seemed to be that faith based organizations are somehow discriminated AGAINST because of a widespread, and incorrect stereotype about how religious they are. (As many commentors have noted: much of this so-called stereotype is true)

    He says, for example, “The American view of evangelicals is still shaped by preening television blowhards and hypocrites who seem obsessed with gays and fetuses.”

    He evidently thinks Americans, in the main, are anti-religious. In point of fact, many people in the US support funneling aid through FBOs precisely because the feel positively towards their religious, even their evangelical, bent. (Probably not Kristof’s friends).
    And the reason WorldVision has grown by so much is because the Bush Administration put in place a policy that prioritized aid funding through faithbased NGOs. Yes, that’s right. Faithbased NGOs were getting their aid dollars “off the top”.
    I have not heard whether those policies have changed. Anyone else know?

    Next time he should do more than read a book by Richard Stearns to get a handle on an important and sensitive aid policy issue.

  13. It’s been awhile, and I think there are different staff recruitment policies for different parts of the World Vision alliance (World Vision International, US, UK, etc.)–but when I worked with World Vision Azerbaijan most of my colleagues were Muslim. Anyone who was religious (of any faith) was discouraged from and penalized for “proselytizing” on company or personal time.

    That said, I also have friends here in Uganda that eventually quit working for World Vision because despite professed Christianity they struggled with the incongruity between their lifestyles and expectations from the organization. There seems to be some variance in policies in different countries, but from my observations, a lot of it comes down to the characters involved in leadership of national and field offices.

  14. woah, world vision won’t hire non-christians? how did I miss that? Well, in a reversal of Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to join a club that wouldn’t have someone like me as a member, so I guess I just won’t look to jump ship to there any time soon.

  15. 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. The last effort major USG effort to fund faith-based organizations seems to have led to actual violations of the constitution: I am honestly confused as to why Kristof decided to bring this up now, when it was pretty clearly a failed experiment.

    And I agree with the other comments on World Vision – they are a billion dollar organization and they won’t hire non-Christians? Ugly.

    1. Regarding the specificity of hiring, I’m surprised no one ever points fingers at the USAID for hiring only U.S. citizens(for practically all intents and purposes)? Why? Because there is some overarching presumption that U.S. citizens hold a deeper loyalty/share motivation to working for the U.S. government, than presumably a non-U.S. citizen–regardless of how competent or capable that non-U.S. citizen is.

      Having interned with a faith-based NGO, it was clear that the religious identity absolutely trumped the national identity. If we really want to be consistent with the above-mentioned argument, why not point fingers at the USAID. which is a MULTI-billion dollar org and they won’t hire non-Americans?

  16. After the tsunami there were all sorts of complaints with aid organizations wielding their religion inappropriately. Stories of aid recipients made to line up according to how often they attended church and then aid handed out starting at the front of the line. Those at the back often didn’t get help. There were other stories of people being essentially paid for conversion. Churches that told people that they had earned the tsunami because they didn’t believe in God.
    It’s one thing for aid workers to be allowed to practice their own religion, it’s quite another for them to make it a large part of receiving aid.
    It also goes against the Red Cross and Red Crescent Code of Conduct
    “Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.”
    As well as against InterAction’s PVO standards
    “In all of its activities, a member shall respect the dignity, values, history, religion, and
    culture of all of its constituents.”
    “4. Establish guidelines for the appropriate usage and balance of religious messages and/or teachings in relief or development programs, to ensure that any message is non­coercive, culturally sensitive and respectful of the dignity, values, history, religion and culture of the people served.”
    Overall there needs to be far more accountability in the aid world.

    1. Most of these comments are missing the point. People are seperating this issue as though it is somehow special, new or unique.

      When a pastor puts his parishioners at the front of the line it is NO different than when a mayor puts his supporters at the front, or a chief puts his clan at the front. Corruption is corruption, whether it exploits religion, politics or class makes no difference.

      Humanitarian organizations solicit for funding based on budgets and narratives. If they misappropriate their awarded funds for religious purposes then there are penalties, just the same as if a secular organization mismanaged grant money.

  17. 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.

    That’s not to absolve either, but to point out that 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. In many cases and in many places, the aid organizations with the footprint have some ties to religion. And therefore, there is often the choice of funding proselytizing aid workers or funding no one at all.

    Of course aid shouldn’t be tied to religious tests. But I don’t think it makes any sense either, nor is it remotely practical, for aid workers to be muzzled about their personal beliefs.

  18. Question: Can it be true that religious organizations based in Europe have a different approach than American-based NGO’s (somehow more liberal)?

    Or is it rather a question about denomination (pentecostal, lutheran, catholic… etc)?

    From a religious dane

  19. I have nothing against faith based organizations being involved in aid. Religion has a long tradition in charity work and it would be unfair to generalize about all of the faith based organizations out there. However, I agree entirely with Lisa (comment above). I was horrified visiting primary schools in SW Uganda a few years ago- I saw the World Vision signs too.

    World Vision doesn’t hide their policy- this quotation is taken directly from their website “World Vision encourages the biblical principles of abstinence before – and faithfulness after – marriage to prevent sexual transmission.”

    Abstinence and faithfulness are NOT a realistic solution in Uganda (or elsewhere for that matter)- a country where many men practice concurrent sexual relationships – going from one wife or partner to another.

    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.

    1. Jane: concurrent relationships are the exact opposite than what you’ve described–they multiple partners at the same time. For this reason abstinence and faithfulness are appropriate messages (ie. don’t cheat on your wife/husband). Whether they are effective is another matter….

  20. In the late 90s, I was a financial strategy management consultant assigned to World Vision. They outright refused to work with anyone who did not profess to Christianity. Their vision for the organisation was strongly tied to their faith at every level, both inside and outside the doors of their offices.

    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. Perhaps the reason for the lack of backlash in that community is the extant prevalence of Christianity, as opposed to the situation in the northern regions.

    1. Responses such as this miss the point: we’re not discussing whether groups like WorldVision proselytize or not. We’re asking whether they do it with US government funding that was budgeted for aid materials and staff. The answer is no, they do not.

      Whether or not you see WorldVision signs on this or that project site is irrelevant. In fact, WorldVision could print Bibles with their name on the cover–who cares? So long as they aren’t doing it with government funding.

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