Ethical issue #2: Faith-based organizations

Cambodia is 95% Theravada Buddhist—the other 5% of the population is primarily a mixture of Muslim and Christian. It is also a country that is extremely poor and where people will take aid where they can get it. For me, this raises a very important question: How do I feel about faith-based organizations in the development field?

Now, I realize that this is probably going to be a controversial (and rambling) post—even if nobody decides to respond. I also realize that people from a wide variety of faiths and no faiths are reading this. In fact, I believe the church bulletin at my parents’ Catholic church is publishing my web address (Hello All Saints congregants!). But for me, this is not a question of faith—it is a question of ethics.

Coming from the US, I have heard a lot of debate in the last couple years about Bush’s plans to fund more faith-based charity organizations. I know and have volunteered at many such organizations. Faith-based organizations around the world are doing amazing work—they are reaching people who have been forgotten, they are using their faith as the motivational factor for doing good, they are saving lives daily, they are impacting thousands of communities. I also understand that faith is a major motivator for many people to fight poverty and live self-sacrificing lives; which I see as a good thing. Yet, overall I am unsettled, and this feeling is growing.

I have a good friend here who is both a social worker and a Muslim. We have actually talked at length about this several times and she has a hard time understanding why many Americans in the development field are adamantly against faith-based organizations being involved in development. In ways, the conversations are comical because stereotypically you would think the conversation would be reversed.

I think my problem in the end boils down to two points: first, I think that missionary work and development aid should be separate, and second, I fundamentally disagree with the way funds are being dispersed. (Granted a lot of this has to do with use of government funds to aid faith-based organizations. I have other problems with self-funded faith-based organizations—but I also realize that I can have no impact on these.)

Missionaries have a long history or going to desolate places and doing good deeds; they have impressive ability to find, recruit, and use volunteers. They often hand down the teachings of their religion with their charity and aid. They have been, historically, extremely successful in some places.

Government aid should be directed at all people; it should not come with strings attached. Technically, faith-based organizations cannot and do not force conversion for their aid. However, they do preach; they do hang religious artifacts in their offices; they do offer services and conversion along with aid. Not all faith-based organizations—but enough.

I find this particularly upsetting when we are talking about children. There are many faith-based shelters that take in trafficked and vulnerable children. Most of these organizations talk about re-integrating the child into the family as their first priority. At the same time, they oblige the children to attend Sunday mass and study the bible. Some of these children live at the center for months or years. They are offered no space to learn about their own culture, their own religion, and their family’s values. How does this help the children re-integrate? How does it do anything except increase the gap between the child and the family? What purpose does it really serve in the interest of the child? (and no, I refuse to believe that it is to save their souls).

Children are perhaps the most vulnerable to conversion by aid organizations as they have the least understanding and stake in their own religion—but nonetheless this religion is part of their identity. Historically, taking children from their families and teaching them Christianity has been used—think of the boarding schools that American Indian children were sent to or the foster care system set up in the Nazi era. Year later, as adults, many of these American Indian and Jewish children have written about the void they feel at having lost their faith; at having never really learned it; at having the choice of conversion taken from them.

Furthermore, I wonder how I would feel if it were reversed; I wonder how America would react if it were reversed. How would American’s see it if primarily Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or Baha’i groups that were being funded? And why should this change the picture? Maybe it wouldn’t. But my gut tells me that “Americans” would see it differently.

I also have to ask myself if I blame people for choosing no aid over aid given by a faith not their own. In Pakistan, US tax payer money supports a Christian hospital which is under-utilized; while the local hospital nearby is over-crowded and lacking in modern technology and meds. That said, I can understand a non-Christian not wanting to pass away in a place that hangs crosses in each room. I can understand an individual’s choice to choose their religion over quality of care. What I can’t really understand is why non-Christian groups can’t be funded too. And, if they are not, then perhaps those who wrote the constitution and declared separation of church and state were on to something!

When Bush talks about “faith-based” organizations, we all know who the defacto faith is: Christians. In a country that was based on religious freedom, I believe we are too centered on Christianity. Yes, the credo says “One nation under God”, but I do believe that “God” should be allowed to be interpreted by each person. I also believe it is the right of each person to find personal motivation in their religion, even a calling to do aid work—but not to the detriment of another persons autonomy to choose. Perhaps this is naïve, but I find it heartbreaking. Here are some facts that sadden me:

  • During the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia not a single Muslim organization received USAID funding to support victims. In an 88% Muslim country, with many Muslim groups wanting to help rebuild—not one was deemed worthy;
  • Of the 160 faith-based organizations that have been funded by USAID in the past 5 years, only 2 have been Muslim;
  • Between 2001 and 2005 only two Jewish organizations overseas got US funding;
  • Christian groups received 98.3% of all faith-based funding.

It’s not that I am against Christian organizations per say, but I do feel that tax funded money should not go primarily to one religious group. I find this particularly detrimental when these organizations are operating in non-Christian countries.

All this leads me back to yet another predicament: in a country which is so poor and in need of so much help—should any aid be turned away? And, what, if anything, is too much to ask of a person in the name of development?

8 comments

  1. i agree with you. im christian and am thinking about doing volunteer work southeast asia, but i wouldn’t think of doing mission work. it seems foolish and a losing battle in a country that is so predominently one religion (buddhist); their faith is so ingrained in their culture it would seem like you’re trying to westernize them. not to mention hypocritical when the history of those who practice buddhist is much more peaceful than that of christians or muslims.

    the example of indonesia in 2004 is a good one.

  2. Clare,
    Not knowing much about the “field” I have questions rather than any comments.
    1. Are you just addressing the issue of faith based organizations that are getting money from our government, or are you addressing the work of groups like Catholic Relief Services and the Maryknolls as such?
    2. Is the Bush faith-based money a significant factor in the international aid of such groups representing the mainline churches Catholics, Lutherans, etc.? Is the Bush faith-based money a significant factor at all in international aid? I have no idea, but had imagined that it would be a very small portion of the international aid that comes from major church groups.
    3. Do you have any first hand information about religious NGO work there in Cambodia. Toward the middle of your entry you seemed to be speaking about specifics there but I wasn’t sure about that?
    4. Wouldn’t some sort of cooperative work between for example Christian relief services and Muslim relief groups in Indonesia after the Tsunami have been a fantastic ecumenical gesture? I wonder if anything like that has ever been done?
    Love,

  3. Hi Dad (and others reading this comment thread!)

    1. Are you just addressing the issue of faith based organizations that are getting money from our government, or are you addressing the work of groups like Catholic Relief Services and the Maryknolls as such?

    I am talking about both, although I would not refer to Maryknolls or CRS specifically. They both have good programs here and are well respected. I don’t take issue with religious people doing aid work or religious organizations doing aid work as long as they are not using the aid to convert others. I think it is an ethically slippery slope to say our faiths pushes us to care for the poor, but in that caring the end goal is conversion. If people chose to come on their own to a new faith or even with missionaries– fine. But not in return for development aid. That should come without strings attached.

    2. Is the Bush faith-based money a significant factor in the international aid of such groups representing the mainline churches Catholics, Lutherans, etc.? Is the Bush faith-based money a significant factor at all in international aid? I have no idea, but had imagined that it would be a very small portion of the international aid that comes from major church groups.

    US foreign aid, while still pitifully small, is a serious boost to the development field. Since Bush’s faith-based initiative 10-20% of the money has been transfered to faith-based organizations. Also, there were other changes, like allowing organizations to hang crosses or other religious symbols in the offices where the money is being used.

    Granted, not all the organizations that I object to are Bush funded. Many are funded by churches and good Christians back home. These organizations do little to hide that they their main goal is conversion.

    I also have other problems with Bush funding especially around the funding of organizations that deal with HIV/ AIDS, prostitution, street children since they are no longer allowed to give out condoms. Teaching abstince to women who have no choice but work the streets is not going to curb HIV rates!

    3. Do you have any first hand information about religious NGO work there in Cambodia. Toward the middle of your entry you seemed to be speaking about specifics there but I wasn’t sure about that?

    There are many Christian organizations in Cambodia. Some doing good work, many doing missionary work. The paragraph were I was talking about shelters that force children to go to Church– I actually visited that place. Every bed had the crucifix, every Sunday girls went to church. Although they were supposed to be going home soon– they were not allowed to leave the compound, except for school. This meant that they couldn’t go to the pagodas and keep up with the birth given faith. I don’t think it is right to compel children in this manner.

    4. Wouldn’t some sort of cooperative work between for example Christian relief services and Muslim relief groups in Indonesia after the Tsunami have been a fantastic ecumenical gesture? I wonder if anything like that has ever been done?

    I think that type of cooperative work would be huge! I also think it would be a good gesture for the American government to fund organizations of the local religion– especially Muslim.

  4. This post was really well-written. And you are right, it is a slippery slope, ethically speaking, to try and convert people who are in the precarious and desparate situations that many of these people are. I also apprecaited the numbers you gave concerning the amount of funding toward non-Christian groups. Obviously, this is part of a bigger issue that hopefully the United States will one day face. It is connected to the policies of the US that do not give money to organizations abroad trying to curtail HIV by passing out free sanitary needles, or supporting the right to abortion. These narrowly selected criteria for aid really do harm those in need, and underfund the organizations that might really understand and be in a position to help those who really need assistance. Thank you, again, for your post.

  5. Clare,

    You raise a number of interesting points. I remember reading your original post and thinking I should reply, but never got back around to replying.

    I do agree that it is a slippery slope and one must proceed with caution as to how we integrate religious faith/conviction and development. Speaking from what I know about my own religious community for example. We fund a number of impressive works of development in Bangladesh, India, about five different countries in Africa, Mexico, various countries in Latin America, etc. While we are Catholic and I guess one could consider us missionaries we never close the door on a person who is not Catholic or does not practice our faith.

    The works in India for example are centered around street children. Our primary goal is to provide them with a basic education and help get them off the street. Specific religious teaching is only offered for those children who wish to attend.

    In other works that we have, our institutions are specified as being in the Catholic tradition, while they are not exclusively for Catholics, non-Catholics that participate are aware that it is Catholic and may or may not at their choosing participate in religious events of the institution.

    We do receive government money for some of our projects, for example our projects in Bangladesh have received the support of the EU over the past several years. While this development program has Catholic roots and has some connections to our religious order, it does not evangelize the faith. It simply is putting our faith into action.

    For me, I think serving as a witness to the Christian gospel is more important than actually sharing the words of the gospel or teaching specific religious doctrines. By providing aid to people in need, in whatever way, Christians are doing the work they are called to do.

    Now in terms of funding, I think funding should be competitive and offered to those that are offering quality programs that are not excluding any one, especially on the grounds of religious tradition or any other discriminatory practices.

    I could go on, but this are some of my inital thoughts. Mas adalante!

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