Faith-based foreign aid
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Faith-based foreign aid refers to the international development and relief-related spending and activities of religious or religiously motivated organizations, and the government financial and political support of those organizations.
For centuries, Western religious groups, who often accompanied and financed early explorers, colonists and conquerors, also contributed money and services to help people in need around the world. Today, many so-called faith-based nongovernment organizations, or NGOs, exist to provide development or disaster-relief services in developing countries, often with significant backing from the taxpayer dollars of Western donor governments.
Critics question the mingling of economic, health, or other types of aid with the motivation of religious development groups, nearly all of which are Christian, often seeking conversions and threatening indigenous beliefs and cultural practices. Defenders credit Christian development and missionary groups for reaching people like no other groups can, due to historical networks, such as Africa's churches, and providing top quality services, often in health and education. Some, however, consider faith-based foreign aid to be a modern-day extension of religious colonialism, with morality often dangerously mixed with critical development concerns, especially global health education, prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, economic security and other issues.
While "faith-based" political issues have been covered extensively by US news agencies, especially related to domestic issues, the crossroads of religious international development and US foreign aid has received little media attention.
Notably, a four-day Boston Globe special report, published in October 2006, called "Exporting Faith", that examined the expansion of US foreign aid funding going to religious organizations under President Bush's faith-based initiative. The result of an 18-month investigation conducted by the Globe's Washington bureau, the report analyzed more than 50,000 government funding awards by the US Agency for International Development, or USAID, over 5 years of the Bush administration. The Globe discovered that the share of US foreign aid dollars for aid organizations that was going religious groups had doubled, from 10 percent to nearly 20 percent, totaling more than $1.7 billion. Of those funds for so-called "faith-based" organizations, 98% went to Christian groups. Globe journalists reported from Kenya, Angola, Pakistan, Washington and the American heartland on the politics and practices of American Christian development workers spreading across the developing world with the help of US taxpayer funds, often leading the way to remote locations where there is little to no monitoring or evaluating by the federal government.
For a long time running, most religious organizations have had a tendency to support like-minded or related groups in need. A central tenet to many religions is offering a portion of one’s money to the social institution. For example, members of Christian churches offer part of their income, called a tithe. Likewise, one of the five pillars of Islam, called the Zakat, is the offering of a percentage of one’s income. America has been fairly generous in giving to faith-based organizations; in 2004, gifts to religious causes made by Americans totaled $88.3 billion. A mission of many of these religions is to spread their message to countries all over the world in hopes of converting or deliberately changing religious beliefs of as many people as possible. This mission to the world combined with other types of emigration has placed members of many religions all over the planet. Because the social institutions want to support their outreaching branches, many of them contribute time and money to these branches.
This is often the motivation behind much of today’s faith-based foreign aid. Alternatively, many countries all over the world are in need of money or the assistance of an external pool of labor. In response, many religious institutions in middle to high-income nations are willing to allocate resources to similar religious social institutions in poor or developing nations. Aside from supporting the spread of their own beliefs and philosophies across the world, many motivations exist for wealthy countries to contribute to poor countries. These motivations will be explained in detail in the positive effects section of this article.
While popularly held beliefs—and characterizations by US government officials—purport that many churches/temples/synagogues/mosques/etc. and faith-based organizations give money internationally, studies and news reports found that the overwhelming majority of religious-based international aid is Christian. There are many religious, historical and political reasons that explain why Christians more than Jews, Muslims and other groups, are more active in international development, charitable giving and participation. While Christian giving to places like Africa grew during the 20th century, Jews in donor countries focused their charitable giving and attention to the development of Israel and Soviet Jewry. Muslim organizations have long supported aid to other Muslim countries, but only recently are both religious ramping up efforts into the non-Muslim, developing world.
Some religions themselves are known to contribute more money to international efforts than others. Seven out of the top ten nations contributing dollars per $100.00 of Gross Domestic Product are predominantly Roman Catholic. Some examples of these top-givers are Austria ($0.20), France ($0.31), Luxembourg ($0.54) and the Netherlands ($0.69).
Because those giving to faith-based foreign aid often wish to contribute money to religious institutions based on beliefs similar to their own, it is not surprising that the countries that receive the most aid have the same religious makeup as those that contribute money. The small nation of East Timor has a history of civil unrest and economic upheaval. Its economy is entirely dependent on foreign aid, receiving $594.60 for every $100.00 of its own GDP. East Timor is also 90% Roman Catholic, the same religion contributing the most money worldwide today.
Roman Catholicism is not the only religion that gives financial support to its poorer sister organizations. International charity is common among many Islamic mosques and organizations. The Gaza Strip is also an aid-dependent nation, receiving $114.17 of foreign aid for every $100.00 of GDP. Muslims give a significant amount to mosques and groups in need these lower income societies. Muslim charity does not only come from predominantly Muslim nations; American Muslim Charities also contribute all over the Islamic world, but their giving declined by 40% after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The decline in giving came as a result of the government advising donors to heavily scrutinize their charities as part of the U.S.’s suggested “anti-terrorist financing procedures.”
Many nations contribute money or service work to low-income countries on the basis of that country’s dominant religion. As a result, several positive effects have taken place, such as prospering economies, increases in standard of living and greater global security.
When industrialized countries like the United States give foreign aid to developing nations they often expect that the economies of those nations will improve. Many poor countries drive up national dept by borrowing from industrialized countries for the purposes of development. Countries may even go bankrupt and default on the loans given to them by richer nations. This has disastrous effects on the people in those places, keeping them in poverty with a government that has no hope of economically recovering.
The role of faith-based foreign aid is often to alleviate widespread poverty, leaving the government with money and ability to focus on economic prosperity. Faith-based aid often goes directly to religious endeavors as well, such as the construction or the expansion of religious facilities. To a small extent, these facilities have the potential to create jobs in a market or to increase the domestic contribution to poverty relief.
One major argument against federally funded foreign aid is that the money is often lost to governmental corruption in the nations it was supposed to help. In 2003, a top university in Bangladesh claimed that at least 75% of all foreign aid given to the government was lost because of corruption. Because faith-based foreign aid focuses on churches or organizations operating independently of the government, funding has a better chance of being used effectively.
Missionaries are those who travel to foreign countries to further their own religion. Missionaries have often been able to provide poor communities with tools and information on how to increase agricultural output, thereby developing economies. Missionaries have also been known to foster community development and organization; those coming from western nations have been able to lead poor countries to live in a more western manner, giving them aspirations for economic prosperity.
Increased standard of living
Aside from promoting economic progress, missionaries of all religions have been known to contribute to a higher standard of living. Mission work often involves medical care, educational facility planting, orphanage building, and increased opportunity for the people of individual towns to enjoy social capital based on religious ties. Missionaries try to promote unity within a community, and they have been known to move around with a persecuted group of villagers in attempts to keep the community intact.
One way in which faith-based aid increases the standard of living is through the increased rate of literacy as a result of religiously funded programs, like child sponsoring programs, and mission work. Making a people literate is a core goal of many missionaries across religions worldwide. Because most major religions are based on sacred scriptures, missionaries focus to enable poor, illiterate citizens to read their respective holy texts. A country’s ability to read correlates to its success in the world; while literacy does not guarantee economic security, it does allow for an increased flow of communication and a better chance for the financial and technological advancement of the entire nation.
Many faith-based initiatives go beyond providing basic health care and education in order to improve living. Money to faith-based charities has gone to providing recreation programs, preschool, housing construction, and centralized well construction. The presence of missionaries, religious child sponsoring programs and direct monetary assistance from industrialized countries has gone to increase the standard of living in many impoverished nations.
Greater global security
In a post Cold War America, one of the potentially biggest threats to U.S. national security is the spread of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons in nations plagued by civil and economic unrest. Not only are weapons of mass destruction, and the extremists that may use them, a threat to the United States, but they are also a threat to many industrialized nations across the world.
An internal conflict in an impoverished nation plagued by political instability can develop regionally or even nationally, and this conflict may have disastrous effects on the U.S. or other industrialized nations if it involved the use of weapons capable of large-scale devastation. Because there is such a strong correlation between economic disquiet and political instability, it becomes apparent that intervention by financial contributors could ease domestic unrest. Even though political stability is a tall order for any one contributor to fill, the joint effort between the U.S. and private, faith-based charities has been effective many times in neutralizing international malicious intent.
The contribution of funding to economically unstable nations has helped to create more economic opportunities. The governments of industrialized nations have the capacity to donate huge amounts of funding to countries interested in developing industry, and faith-based charities have been able to assist with government expenditures such as health care or education. This freedom in a politically unstable nation’s budget allows room for improvement and economic expansion, thus reducing the threat of domestic unrest or acts of violent extremism.
In addition, a county’s increased religiosity resulting from faith-based foreign aid may foster ties and decrease tension with the richer nations that assisted them. Many terrorists involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. or the summer 2005 attacks on Great Britain’s transit system are believed by many to be Islamic extremists. A reciprocally negative view occurs between many Americans and Saudi Arabians, heavily based on religion. The small nation of East Timor, however, has been plagued by civil unrest and economic uncertainty, yet its people are not largely regarded by American citizens to be terrorists. One plausible explanation is that because East Timor is 90% Roman Catholic and almost entirely dependent on aid coming from the U.S. and its charities, its people do not harbor any extreme resentment towards the United States and its allies.
Many wealthy nations have been able to contribute money to poorer countries on the basis of religion, but there are several reasons why faith-based aid may be harmful, including counterproductivity and cultural deterioration.
While some aid has been proven to help nations develop in the past, such as North Korea, aid has also had some negative side effects in the cases where it failed. When a country is given money because they cannot financially sustain themselves, several negative effects have the potential to develop.
One argument against foreign aid assisting in the development of a poor nation is that it simply does not work. The United Nations Development Programme cites that in 1996, the economies of 70 developing countries receiving assistance had worsened since 1980. In the case of federally funded aid, contributions have, in effect, crowded out any investment in the private sectors of many nations. Collectively, countries in Africa have received over $400 billion in aid over the past 30 years, but reports show that as aid increased, domestic growth fell. In a 2002 speech on compassionate conservatism, President Bush critiqued the way that nations gave foreign aid, claiming that “pouring vast amounts of money into development aid without any concern for results has failed, often leaving behind misery and poverty and corruption.”
This counterproductive effect of foreign aid is evident for federally funded programs and applicable to faith-based foreign aid efforts. Even though corruption with authority is not as prevalent among churches and relief effort groups in poor nations, it is possible for it to occur; even the American Red Cross has engaged in questionable accounting practices after receiving large amounts of funding to assist in the aftermath of hurricanes and terrorist attacks in recent years.
The actuality of a positive impact made by missionaries is a subject of debate. Historically, missionaries have come to a culture to spread their religious faith and improve the communities in which they visit. While some missionaries have positively affected communities by fostering social networks and improving agricultural or educational output, others have hindered social interaction. Christian and Islamic missionaries preach the message of salvation, and their focus tends to be on “outerworldly” affairs concerning God. When missionaries come to a culture, they see social ills as problems resulting from “innerworldly” and unimportant struggles. Thus, many missionaries have been a hindrance to solving social problems by creating disputes in communities that would not have otherwise come into play.
A huge problem with granting poor nations money based on their religions is that nations are given incentives to change their cultural traditions in order to receive funding. The conversion of many poor cultures becomes a shallow victory for rich nations and their outgoing missionaries.
In October 1975, just days after becoming an independent nation, East Timor was invaded by Indonesia; at this time, the population was about 72% Animist. The Catholic Church played a huge role in the development of East Timor over the next 30 years. Under the oppression of the Indonesian occupation, the Catholic Church saw huge conversion rates as it became the protection for the East Timorese. The church was a mechanism for non-violent protest against the occupation and a critical voice of the brutal attacks taking place in the country. It can be argued that because of the presence of the Roman Catholic Church and its resources, many Animists converted as a means of survival.
Many countries are highly resistant to a religious change in their population. After the war in Iraq, evangelical Christians flooded the Iraq-Jordan border in attempts to convert citizens in the midst of relief efforts. In response, the resistance to many aid groups, religious or not, became violent and detrimental to the country’s well being. Violence against the established Christian minority living in Iraq erupted as well, so the attempts of religious conversion in administering foreign aid effectively led to the rejection of what religious pluralism may have existed in the strictly Islamic culture.
- Development Cooperation Stories
- Development Cooperation Testimonials
- External debt
- Foreign aid
- Political corruption
- Religious conversion
- White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives
- Maclachlan, A. 2005. “Feeling the Cause: Mission in Mozambique.” Religious Missions. 129, (5): 43-45.
- Goody, J. 2003. "Religion and Development: Some
Comparative Considerations." Development. 46, (4): 64-67.
- Curry, E., Koch, J., Chalfant, H. 2004. “Concern for God and Concern for Society: Religiosity and Social Justice.” Sociological Spectrum. 24 (6): 651-666
- Griffin, K., Horan, M. 1986. “Protestant Missionaries as Change Agents in East Africa: The Impact of Religious Orthodoxy.” Journal of Asian and African Studies. 21, (3-4): 147-158
Other journalistic articles
- Boston Globe Special Report: Exporting Faith, a four-Part series, October 8–11, 2006.
- Fordham, M. “Missions week brings students and missionaries together in purpose.” The Skyliner. October 6, 2005.
- Nabie, S. "The Challenge of the Poor to
Christians." Transformation. Apr 15, 2005.
- Unknown Author. “Mackay, Uganda’s First School.” Africa News. July 18, 2005.