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?