June 12, 2008

Religion and Development Revisited

In a post entitled, Why the Base of the Pyramid Needs God, Moses Lee over at the NextBillion blog has returned to a topic that has been on my back burner for a while now as well. Here is his opening paragraph:
In my previous post, I suggested that BoP enterprises should consider partnering with faith based organizations (FBOs) on the ground, particularly in countries where religion plays a large role. In this post, I’d like to put forth another distinct, but similar idea: FBOs in the West can play a large part in the overall BoP Movement. Crazy, right? Maybe not.
No, not crazy at all. In fact, its probably much closer to crazy to think that they can not, or are not already doing so. Whether or not that involvement looks like something that the World Resources Institute would want to endorse as either positive or sustainable is another question. A couple of quick thoughts which I can hopefully return to later:

Moses presents FBOs as bringing two things to the development table - money and heart. Unlike Moses, I wouldn't go so far as to say that "churches are well off" - Joel Osteen and Rick Warren are not the norm, the average congregation size in the US has long been below 200 people - but it is a fact that churches are still the most common charitable organization to which people give (2/3 of households in 2003 which I'm sure has continued to decline since then). So there is some money in play out there that could possibly be channeled in the direction of development. For Moses that is where the heart comes in:
. . . . I think many FBOs are perfect candidates to jump on board not only because of funding, but also because of their mandate to “love thy neighbor.” Imagine what could happen if churches and other FBOs from the West started channeling their resources and energies to affect the billions of poor in a sustainable way? As an active volunteer at my church in Ann Arbor, I have shared with many of the leaders/pastors the idea of using market based approaches to addressing poverty in areas of the world we are involved with.
And here too I think he is largely correct. There is inherent in the Christian faith a call to care for the other, the alien, the stranger, the orphan and the widow (I won't wade into trying to explain why that call has often been marginalized, distorted or ignored within various strands of the Christian tradition) and thus there should be a natural motivational fit for working with FBOs.

A couple other points:
1. One of, if not the, most convincing cases for working with FBOs is that they are already there. Money and motivation are already being used to put boots on the ground, as they say. Whether they are stand alone non-profits or church based volunteers there are countless groups going to the developing world every year. Now, what are they doing once they get there? Moses mentions proselytization and that certainly takes place - they are faith-based organizations. But the age of the rice-Christian is largely over and secular NGOs are naive to think that proselytization is the only form of expression that the "faith" in FBOs can take (Moses doesn't say that in this piece). Many FBOs that do have both a relief and development and "preaching" mission have separated them logistically and those that have not generally operate with greater sensitivity and awareness when engaged in relief and development work - if for no other reason than that they have realized that it just doesn't "work" very well otherwise. What they could benefit greatly from is the expertise that secular NGOs possess which could be used to bolster their good-intentioned efforts into something more like long-term sustainable development.
2. Second verse, same as the first . . . . except in reverse (too much?). They are already there. Name a place in the developing world where religion is not an integral part of the cultural structure. You can come up with a few bastions of communist-infused atheism but even there if you dig beneath the state-sanctioned surface you'll find something. There are "churches" everywhere. Groups of people who organize themselves around a set of beliefs and a way of living, who gather together on a regular basis, who often have some form of leadership structure already in place, who have a voice in the lives of families and their communities, who are already networked and distributed. They are there and they are not American and they are not European. Religion matters. You can certainly argue the pros and cons of its overall influence but it's not going away and we ignore it to our own detriment. FBOs understand the language and worldview of religion and they can be of significant strategic value in connecting existing religious communities and their structures with the programmatic efforts of NGOs.
3. FBOs are not afraid of doing the micro-level "dirty work," of digging in and getting to know people. They do it to a fault sometimes. They often need help seeing the macro-level possibilities.
4. When talking about FBOs you have to use "usually" and "generally" a whole lot, because just like there are screwy good-for-nothing NGO's there are screwy good-for-nothing FBOs.
5. Some FBOs may not want to work with secular NGOs.

These are some initial sloppy, quick thoughts on the way out the door to lose money at a poker game so I'll return to clean up my mistakes later.

3 comments:

Jennifer said...

It seems such a partnership could also work back across the divide too, helping average churchgoing Americans to perhaps think more critically about how to live out that "call to care for the other, the alien, the stranger, the orphan and the widow," in the developing world by supporting FBOs, but also at home too, especially if the NGO-FBO work is successful and well-publicized in local congregations.

j said...

you would hope so, but traditionally that sort or reciprocity has been slow to take hold on a congregational level in places who aren't already involved locally. i think it can and should but its hard to make happen.

Moses Lee said...

j,

i really appreciate your thoughts and think you bring up a lot of good points. i think it would be worthwhile to highlight a few case studies on FBOs on the ground which are successfully helping poor communities and bringing forth positive development.

one other thing that i'd like to to do is compare the motives between secular NGOs and FBOs for doing "good work." i think within this comparison you will also see an inherent competitive advantage of FBOs.

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