American faith-based organizations and the politics of belief
In February, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) awarded some $50 million in funds for disaster relief and long-term rebuilding efforts following the earthquake in Haiti. Although the grants themselves were uncontroversial, their recipients were less so. Eschewing the private sector, USAID chose to distribute its funds through several large faith-based organizations (FBOs), notably World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and Samaritan’s Purse. These FBOs are some of the oldest relief and development organizations in the United States, and they are growing fast. World Vision’s budget has nearly tripled since 2000, and Catholic Relief Services has expanded a $250 million annual budget in 1992 to a $850 million budget this year. Increasing ties between the government and these FBOs account for a significant proportion of their expansion, as FBOs have assumed more responsibilities for distributing government aid.
The growth of faith-based organizations has been controversial. These organizations base their missions on Christian convictions: the scriptural imperative to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and the desire for solidarity with the world’s poor. Skeptics are concerned about the separation of church and state, and worry about religiously-inspired aid programs, such as abstinence-only HIV/AIDS prevention. Even so, such culture-war debates obscure the valuable contribution that FBOs can make towards development goals. While controversy rages in Washington, American FBOs are providing valuable foreign aid in Haiti and around the world.
The past decade was a good one for faith-based aid organizations. In 2006, the Boston Globe calculated that the percentage of federal foreign aid awarded to FBOs had nearly doubled since George W. Bush took office in 2001. Bush signed executive orders relaxing restrictions on FBOs receiving federal funds, allowing grantees to display religious symbols, to use the same buildings for dispensing aid and conducting religious services, and to favor employees of their faith in the hiring process. Despite last year’s presidential transition, the trend of funneling aid through FBOs has shown little sign of slowing down. Within a month of entering office, President Obama established the Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. And, as shown by the recent Haiti relief grants, FBOs have been very successful in USAID’s competitive grant application process.
Besides government funding, increased interest among their constituents has been a major catalyst for the expanded abilities of faith-based organizations. Private donors are the largest source of income for most FBOs, and they have been increasingly generous. As George Ward, World Vision’s senior vice president for international programs, told the HPR, “Individual contributions have increased at least as fast as government contributions.” Ward attributed this to a “greater engagement of our donors in learning about the problems of development and health worldwide.” This increased engagement marks a shift in evangelical Protestantism, which Ward described as “moving the focus of American Christians away from issues of personal salvation” and towards more communal issues.
God’s First Responders
FBO leaders also attribute their success to an improved ability to deliver services, and they de-emphasize the role that the Bush administration’s friendliness played. “It has taken our organization 16 years of building our capacity, honing our skills, and becoming more professional to develop the relationships we have with USAID and other grant-giving entities,” Ken Isaacs, vice president of Samaritan’s Purse, told the HPR in an interview immediately after his return from Haiti. Samaritan’s Purse had activated its disaster-response mechanism by 2 a.m. on the day after the earthquake, and proceeded with a large-scale response: chartering airplanes to carry trained personnel to Haiti, and later hiring a barge to ferry heavy equipment, trucks, and lumber to the island. “We’re building latrines and providing clean water,” Isaacs said. “We’re not out there with bullhorns trying to win converts.”
Nor was the quick response of Samaritan’s Purse an unusual phenomenon. Indeed, experts believe that FBOs may enjoy certain advantages over secular firms. FBOs are values-driven, financially transparent, and not-for-profit, and usually have minimal overhead costs. Most of all, FBOs enjoy crucial motivational advantages. “If we say we’re doing something in the name of Jesus Christ, we have an obligation to do the best-quality work possible,” Isaacs emphasized. Isaacs believes that FBOs are often more willing to do manual labor, like clearing rubble and digging latrines, than many secular organizations. In many ways, then, FBOs are well-suited to be agents of foreign aid, and the large amount of federal money they are receiving should not surprise or frustrate anyone.
Despite these advantages, skeptics raise concerns about longer-term proselytizing by FBOs. In disaster situations such as Haiti, where aid recipients are both physically and emotionally vulnerable, faith-based organizations walk a particularly fine line. Superficially, most organizations attempt to maintain a strict separation of their faith-related and their aid-related activities. For example, Ward explained, “We don’t ever use federal funds for any activities that are related to faith. In fact, we reimburse the government for any time that a World Vision employee might spend in personal devotions or attendance at a chapel.”
Still, FBOs often see their mission as broader than just meeting the immediate material needs of disaster victims. Isaacs reflected on his time in Haiti: “Would we talk about Jesus in a food line? Never. But would I pray with a patient who is suffering in a hospital bed? There is a high likelihood of that.” Other leaders were quick to point to connections between the material and the spiritual. “Beyond meeting basic needs, we view the human person as a holistic being, with social and spiritual needs and assets,” Annemarie Reilly, vice president of overseas operations for Catholic Relief Services, told the HPR.
“Good Greater than Government”
In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, USAID did good in giving its money to the organizations most capable of providing aid to the Haitian people, regardless of their religious foundations. While some may fear proselytizing, such concerns pale in comparison to the positive goods that FBOs can deliver. With President Obama’s continued commitment to FBOs, leaders of faith-based aid organizations feel that they are competing for grants on a level playing field with secular organizations. Recognizing that “there is a force for good greater than government,” Obama has emphasized the values that are behind his progressive agenda, which are shared by many Christian aid organizations.
Ultimately, the work on the ground is far removed from the controversies in Washington. Reilly observed, “There is a gap between the politics of aid in D.C. and the way that it plays out in a disaster setting. Things are just much more collaborative on the ground.”
Amy Beeson ’10 is a Contributing Writer.
Photo Credit: USAID