The organizations that have traditionally dominated international development have promoted a secular vision, focusing on people’s material rather than spiritual needs.
Some practitioners argue, however, that you cannot fight poverty without paying attention to both, and that a more deliberate partnership with faith-based organizations (FBOs) is the answer.
FBOs, which might be local church groups, national organizations or international organizations such as World Vision or Islamic Relief Worldwide, currently provide an estimated 30-60 percent of health care and education services. These contributions to development are in parallel with the efforts of secular agencies.
“FBOs cover all the activities that NGOs are doing, but the motivation is different,” said MIDP Fellow Jianduan Zhang. “They believe they are doing good things for God.”
Zhang was one of four master’s students from Dr. Frank Webb’s NGO Roles in Development class who explored FBOs and their potential to advance international development during a presentation on Thursday, April 23.
Pervasive, Natural and Expansive
A majority of people, especially in developing countries, say that religion is an important part of their lives, Zhang said. Because of their religious motivation and their deep and long-standing roots in the community, she added, FBOs often have greater credibility than secular organizations.
They also have access to rural and low-income areas where government services may not be available.
“They have the ability to touch the poorest of the poor, so often the public trust level is higher,” she said.
Since religious institutions are so pervasive, said Master of Public Policy candidate Matthew Bunyi, they provide a compelling alternative to political structures and exert a great deal of influence within communities. He used anti-smoking campaigns in Cambodia as an example.
“The Khmer Rouge crippled the country’s human capital, but there was an alternative that still existed – Buddhist monasteries,” he said. “They were seen as legitimate, since they were the ones providing services despite terrible famine and persecution. So when they said ‘Don’t smoke,’ people listened.”
As a result, FBOs are valuable partners for secular organizations that are trying to extend their reach and gain credibility. Many multilateral organizations already partner with FBOs on issues such as global health and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“If you’re not partnering with them or at least asking the question, you’re shooting yourself in the foot,” he said. “You’re hampering your ability to achieve the goal you’re trying to achieve.”
However, the religious motivation of FBOs may also have a negative effect, leading them to inadvertently, or even deliberately exclude people whose beliefs do not align with their own, said MIDP Fellow Zohara Qudsia.
“FBOs are said to be divisive, a rallying point for division and conflict in a society,” she said. “They may also try to convert people to their own religion when they offer services.”
Further, the low-paid and often voluntary staff employed in local FBOs may lack adequate qualifications, resulting in low levels of professionalism.
Give and It Will Be Given to You
Compared to conventional NGOs, FBOs draw a much higher percentage of their funding from private contributions, said MIDP Fellow Mercy Njolomole. World Vision, for example, gets more than half of its funding from private contributions.
“All religions encourage adherents to give,” Njolomole said. “Giving to faith-based organizations is an important part of many people’s lives.”
While this type of funding is easier to mobilize and appears relatively immune to economic trends, there are fewer accountability measures in place when compared to public grants.
This lack of accountability, combined with the “halo effect” people often apply to religious institutions, opens the door to the possibility of corruption and abuse.
Despite the risks, the students agreed that FBOs have a valuable role to play as development partners and agents of change. They resonate with local communities, boast highly motivated volunteers, and provide much more than the basic necessities.
“Modern institutions often reduce the world to what can be seen, perceived and controlled,” Qudsia said, while FBOs “offer hope and meaning to a lot of people.”