Bold voices. Courageous conversation. Made by Standup.

Article: Faith, Development and Freedom

Published: October 1, 2013. Author: Dr Joel Negin. Theme:  International Development.

About The Author

Joel Negin is Senior Lecturer in International Health and Director of Research at the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.  Before coming to Australia, Joel worked for the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Joel has worked in a number of countries including Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Liberia, South Africa and Zimbabwe on various health and development projects for UN agencies, government departments and academic institutions. He served as technical adviser to the National AIDS Control Council of Kenya and worked with Botswana’s National AIDS Coordinating Agency. Joel is also a Board member of Jewish Aid Australia.

Faith, Development and Freedom

Nurses of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga, April 1918


‘The Civilising Mission’

Religion has played a role in international development since the era of exploration, starting in the 15th century.  The rationale for colonisation was often presented as ‘the civilising mission’ which included bringing religion, as well as commerce and healthcare, to indigenous people around the world.  Fast forward to the early 21st century and religion continues to play a role in much of international development fundraising and practice.


Faith brings in the dollars

Faith remains central to Australia’s overseas development arena.  Using the inevitable acronym of the field, FBOs (faith-based organisations) account for more than half of all funds raised in Australia for international development.  World Vision, a self-described Christian organisation, raises 42% of the funds alone, with other religious organisations such as the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Christian Blind Mission and Caritas also raising substantial funds from the Australian population.  In addition to the Australian public, religious NGOs (non-governmental organisations) also receive funds from AusAID, the Australian government agency responsible for international aid. Four of the top eight NGO recipients of AusAID funds are faith-based.

For many of these organisations, religious values drive constituents’ desire to help people in poverty. TEAR Australia states that their motivation comes from ‘our belief that God loves all people, and in Christ offers them the opportunity of a new life’ while World Vision states simply: ‘World Vision is committed to the poor because we are Christian.’

The push to help those in need is also found in Judaism where core values of tzedakah (charity), chessed (loving-kindness) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) frame a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of not just the community but the wider world. While there is some debate about the overuse and misinterpretation of those terms, Jewish faith undoubtedly encourages robust social engagement. Indeed, Jewish Aid Australia’s website states that ‘Jewish values urge us to question injustice, act, and take collective responsibility.’


But what is the appropriate role for religion in international development? It is one thing for faith to encourage the involvement of individuals, but should religion play a more direct role in service-delivery and community engagement?  This has long been a controversial discussion point, tied delicately to questions of proselytising, power and imposition of values.


‘Development as freedom’

When thinking of international development, I use Nobel laureate Amartya Sen’s definition of ‘development as freedom.’  He defines development as supporting individuals’ ability to express their choices, take advantage of opportunities and be free to express themselves as they choose.  This is predicated on access to decent healthcare, educational opportunities, and freedom from hunger so that people have a suitable foundation on which to make choices about the direction of their lives.

With this definition in mind it is clear that, in the history of development, religious values have been imposed that have at times limited the choices of individuals. An example of this is contraception and gender equality. In the original conception of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), a set of global anti-poverty objectives agreed to by 189 nations in 2000, an extra MDG, focusing on reproductive health, was removed due to pressure from three countries: the United States, Iran and the Vatican, mainly on religious grounds. Those three UN representatives do not agree on a single thing (nuclear weapons, Israel and religion to name a few), but they were able to come together to limit the choices of women in developing countries.

Recipients collect rice from the “Cambodia Rice Project”, organised by the ministry of Cambodia Baptist Union.

A second example is the practice of linking services with the receipt or acceptance of religious messages.  A paper from a World Vision staff member in the US states that ‘a spiritual message, combined with practical help can be more effective in improving the lives of the poor than purely technical help.’  This situates development assistance as ineffective unless partnered with religious proselytising. This carries substantial risk of making beneficiaries link potentially life-saving gain to acceptance of religious doctrine, thus limiting the intellectual and spiritual choices of those individuals. This situation is not only ethically unsound but is widely seen as ineffective. In Cambodia this has led to the phenomenon of ‘rice Christians’,  those who change religions because of a material incentive.


Faith communities filling gaps

However, standing in stark contrast to these examples are my years of development practice in sub-Saharan Africa. I have seen religious organisations provide health services in communities where there was no government presence. In Kenya and Uganda, a large percentage of health services are provided by religious-based groups and many of these groups are driven by outstanding people with strong values to help the poorest.

In North-eastern Kenya I met Saudi imams working with Muslim communities, arguing that female genital mutilation has no basis in the Koran and should be prohibited.  And while the Vatican might be against condom use, I have met and worked with church leaders in rural Ghana who see their constituents dying of AIDS and have prioritised the poorest and most vulnerable in their community over religious dogma imposed from Europe, by giving out condoms and encouraging people to practice safe sex. The reality of faith organisations on the ground is not what we always expect.

Much of the development community frowns upon religion and marginalises its role. But in practice, working with existing faith communities in developing countries is a powerful vehicle for effective service delivery. In many poor communities it is religious organisations and individuals, engaged with their own local communities, that have the community’s confidence; often more so than government. Rather than shunning religious organisations, engaging with them can often lead to greater trust and impact.


Religious values: At the water’s edge

Judaism’s place in international development stands in contrast to some of the worst practices seen in the field. Fundamentally, Judaism is not a proselytising religion, so the lingering smell of 19th century missionaries providing aid in exchange for conversion has not stained it. Regrettably, there are still Christian NGOs working in the field who place conversion hand-in-hand with service delivery and poverty reduction, a practice that the Australian Council for International Development, the industry’s peak body, explicitly prohibits in some detail.

An AJWS educational word cloud, highlighting the web of associations between tzedakah and responsible development

As with Islam and Christianity, a number of the orthodox tenets of Judaism with regard to women’s rights and empowerment clash with the fundamentals of good development practice. But ultra-orthodox Judaism is rarely if ever involved in development practice in a structured manner. That being said, for individual Jews engaging in the field of international development, they should remember that, at its core, development has to be about listening to communities, supporting their needs and is emphatically not about imposing values. The many Jewish organisations involved in development practice around the world largely understand this reality and balance their impulse to act with respect for the freedom and dignity of those with whom they seek to work. The American Jewish World Service, for example, uses its comprehensive curriculum ‘Expanding the Universe of Obligation: Judaism, Justice and Global Responsibility in developing its programs and educating its volunteers about power imbalance, privilege and responsible development practice.

Religious motivations must stop at the water’s edge.  While religious values might drive our action, imposing those beliefs and, more importantly, tying them to our engagement with vulnerable communities, contradicts why we act in the first place.