Separation of Church and Aid

In his New York Times column “Learning From the Sin of Sodom,” Nick Kristof argues that “liberal snootiness” towards evangelical do-gooders is deleterious and that proscribing the practice of rewarding American aid to faith-based organizations “would be a catastrophe.” Religion is one issue in which compromise rarely succeeds and this column has ignited an accordingly heated debate.

Owen Barder, the director of aidinfo, notes that Kristof’s claim that faith-based organizations (FBOs) are “indispensable” is unsubstantiated and speaks to the utter lack of effective impact evaluation. According to Kristof, FBOs such as World Vision, America’s largest international relief and development agency, do not “offer aid to entice converts,” a popular liberal misconception. In response, Barder points to World Vision’s hiring policy, which states that all applicants are screened for Christian commitment; he claims that it essentially discriminates on the basis of religion and should thus be ineligible to receive taxpayer funding.

On the other hand, Christopher Blattman sides with Kristof and thinks that FBOs generally offer better services. The few that do proselytize can be pressured to change; for example, when World Vision integrated aid delivery with proselytization in Uganda, it was forced to change its policies due to a steep drop in funding.

Blattman’s post generated an impassioned comment thread. Aid workers related both positive and negative experiences with World Vision. Some acknowledged their aversion to FBOs but stated that realistically, they currently play a huge role in international development—one that we cannot ignore or replace.

Resident disaster relief guru and blogger Saundra Schimmelpfinnig stressed the importance of differentiating between aid workers who merely hold personal religious beliefs and those who use resources to leverage conversion.

Alanna Shaikh believes that it is inherently impossible for faith-based aid to be sufficiently secular to qualify for government funding. She cites an earlier blog post of hers that discussed the ACLU suing USAID based on a report that revealed that $325,000 worth of USAID funding was being used for religious activities.

Steve Song remarked on the similarities between faith-based aid and the Washington Consensus—in both cases, aid was/is meted out depending on adherence to particular beliefs, be they God or privatization.

In a response the following day, Blattman builds on Song’s analogy: “what if USAID replaced ‘brought to you by the American people’ with ‘fighting Communism and Islamo-fascism since 1945’?” Furthermore, he explains, every aid organization has values, be they religious, economic or political. “If anything,” he says, “the human rights agenda has less in common with local cultures.” Although an evidenced-based comparison of faith-based aid vs. secular aid does not exist, based on anecdotal inferences, Blattman guesses that FBOs are more effective. He concludes that realistically FBOs are here to stay, so we should demarcate appropriate boundaries that incentivize secular aid, and “if there are unsavory practices, let the funding spigots be closed.”

In an explanatory follow-up post, Kristof concedes that evangelicals’ work in Africa is compromised by their abstinence-only education policies; however, their work does not undo AIDS prevention—far from it. He says that liberals do not appreciate the benefits of FBOs and hopes to bridge the “God Gulf” and encourage cooperation amongst faith-based and secular organizations. This animosity, rather than FBOs, undermines development. Polarization is often an indication that neither side is entirely right.

If anything, this debate speaks to the lack of inter-religious collaboration and evaluative metrics with which we can compare FBOs and secular aid organizations. God help us?

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