Are Missionaries naturally suited to ‘Doing Development Differently’ and Advocacy?

Missionaries get a bad press in development circles, often caricatured as the cultural and spiritual shock troops of colonialism and imperialism. I’m sure there has sometimes been truth in that, but talking to a roomful of them in Dublin earlier this week, at the annual meeting of Misean Cara (a membership network for missionary organizations) I got a much more positive impression, and it got me thinking about the link between missionaries and ‘doing development differently’.

Misean Cara’s strategy sets out what it calls the ’missionary approach’, based on a set of five values:

Respect: Due regard for the feelings, needs and rights of others and the environment

Justice: Solidarity with those who are marginalised and advocacy for what is right, fair and appropriate

Commitment: Long-term dedication to and accompaniment of people amongst whom we live.

Compassion: Empathy with and understanding of the reality others live

Integrity: Transparency and accountability in all our activities.

That approach strikes me as both refreshingly human and highly compatible with DDD or the ‘power and systems approach’ I set out in How Change Happens.

Missionaries exemplify long termism and a deep knowledge of context – the room was full of priests, religious sisters and lay people who had spent decades in the same community, learning the language and becoming deeply immersed in local culture – the kind of embeddedness that Rory Stewart laments has been lost from the aid and diplomatic sector. They value people and relationships, not blueprints and policy documents.

It’s really not like this any more

Missionaries also model another idea I’ve been talking about in recent years – they are living proof that one alternative to the dead hand of the project is to directly support leaders instead. Find charismatic individuals who are likely to make change happen and support them to do so without having to concoct endless project proposals to justify the grant. Oh wait, isn’t that what missionaries are?

Their deep and permanent roots in communities should make them ideally placed to do advocacy, something that Misean Cara is encouraging its 90 member organizations to explore. But some of the missionaries I met, many of whom are elderly, though insanely energetic, confess to feeling disempowered by the impenetrable technocracy of the aid business, and its paraphernalia of methods, compliance requirements, indicators and plans. If anything, they are too impressed by the technocrats, too humble about their own achievements, knowledge and ability to work with communities to bring about change.

But there are also some downsides and challenges that are particularly acute for missionaries contemplated a leap into advocacy:

They are traditionally linked to direct service provision, running schools and clinics across Africa and beyond. Getting into advocacy is likely to create tensions between that way of working, and the need to improve the quality and quantity of services provided by the state

How Change Happens, and the way INGOs and others talk about advocacy, assumes a high level of intentionality – outside organizations, hopefully working closely with local CSOs, decide what they want to achieve, and build a theory of action to get there. But there is an alternative approach – solidarity, whereby an outside organization backs its local partner through thick and thin, takes its lead from then, and doesn’t try to impose its own agenda. That feels in some ways a more natural fit for missionary organizations, but is a nightmare to raise money for – basically asking for core funding for local organizations with no strings attached.

The other asset that missionary organizations often fail to capitalize on is that priests and nuns are sitting on a vast range of stories about the lives and struggles of the communities in which they live and work. They may not fit easily into project reports, but they are real and moving. And occasionally, some of them are hilarious. The Columban Fathers once regaled me with stories about the christenings they had performed across Latin America, and the tendency of their parishioners to invent new names based on the English words they had read on their shanty town walls, or on passing cars. There are people around the continent glorying in names such as Rangerover, Thissideup and Iloveny (the last from a number plate – got it                  ?).

I imagine some readers will find this post naïve or offensive. After all, don’t missionaries exemplify the ‘white saviour complex’ that we dislike so much and want to get away from? But a) an increasing proportion of missionaries are local – the room was pretty diverse – and b) ask yourself which is more illegitimate – a consultant (or INGO strategic adviser, for that matter) who flies into a developing country thinking they have all the answers on their laptop, or a priest or sister who lives in the same community for decades, is trusted, and can accompany and support them in their struggles?


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24 Responses to “Are Missionaries naturally suited to ‘Doing Development Differently’ and Advocacy?”
  1. George

    Thanks Duncan, this is very thought provoking.

    One question that springs to mind (and probably belies my antiquated views on missionaries) is where does ‘evangelism’ fit in?

    The five key principles of Respect, Justice, Commitment, Compassion, Integrity, sound excellent – just what we need in the aid sector. But is a desire to convert people to a specific religious cause also implicit in there, and perhaps at times in tension with these lofty sounding principles?

    It reminds me a bit of the buzzwords we get in corporate sustainability statements – it all sounds wonderful, but how is the tension between doing all this good-sounding stuff balanced with the corporate priority of
    generating profit for shareholders…. or the religious priority of getting more people believing in the same religious cause?

      • Seamus Collins

        I’m not a missionary, but I’ve had the privilege of visiting and/or becoming acquainted with the work of many missionaries over the past 30 years and I can say in all honesty that I have never witnessed any proselytising in that time.

        Nowadays, missionaries are based in established locations for the most part, and the “scramble for souls” is long past. The Catholic missionaries I’ve met have worked with people of all faiths and none.

        It should also be borne in mind, by those of us living in an increasingly secularised West/North, that in many societies in the Global South, faith is an integral part of life, and the social and religious aspects of belonging to a faith provide a structure for daily living.

      • Michael Hanly

        George’s question is valid. Missionaries are motivated by Christian values of social justice but don’t seek to convert the people they work with. That has been my experience as a lay person working in mission contexts for over 20 years. Including as a volunteer lay missionary working as an English teacher, and researcher at a skills training centre. This is also true for all the religious (Priests and Sisters) I worked with. They worked as teachers, nurses, project managers, etc. thanks.

    • Michael Osei Nkrumah

      George, fair point and a very good question.
      My answer is simple: the days of getting more people believing in the same religious cause are long gone. Missionaries run schools that admit vulnerable children from all walks of life including from different religious belief in Bolga (North of Ghana), Tamale (North of Ghana), Enugu (Nigeria), Yaoundé (Cameroon) and more. The children are treated equally : no fees for all in some cases and in other cases minimum fees for all, feeding is provided for all, etc… Same applies to a primary healthcare facility in Abuja AMACC Estates (Nigeria) where patients from different religious backgrounds receive quality healthcare without discrimination.

      My personal experience: I attended the Catholic University College of Ghana which is run by the Bishops conference for my first degree and my observation was that, traditional catholic events such Mass, were not mandatory. so those of us who are Catholics obviously would attend Mass while students from other faiths would either visit the library, the computer lab or do something which is entirely their choosing.

      To the missionaries, it is about the vulnerability, the marginalisation and the wellbeing of the beneficiaries rather than religious affiliation!

  2. Thanks Duncan for shining a torch on this. Many points here that should be taken under consideration by the humanitarian community as well. Our heavily bureaucratized INGO and UN interventions seem to view missionaries as local points of curiosity, good for a few stories; rarely do we build relationships that might profit from their contacts, knowledge of the context, etc. We’re too important or too busy!

    From a humanitarian perspective, I disagree with the idea that missionaries embody the same ‘white saviorism’ as us. I get your point. Missionaries embody it quite literally. But the aid sector’s saviorism is not the spiritual saviorism of a religion, but one based almost exclusively on superiority, paternalism and the self-centered need to act as a savior of ‘helpless, innocent victims’. Missionary saviorism — and I see this in much of social work of the faith-based community — is certainly problematic, but it also seems old-school, rooted in a sense of civic duty, as opposed to being rooted in individual achievement and fulfilment. Apologizies for those generalizations, but you get the point.

    A last point. How can humanitarians build the public case for aid to skeptical Western publics, where our constituency seems increasingly narrow/isolated (the educated, progressive, urban elite)? The staff working in our organizations seem to be less politically and socially diverse than two decades ago, and people like me just don’t have either the credentials or sensitivity to be persuasive outside of the aid choir. One solution, as I’ve written elsewhere, is to build links to the faith-based humanitarians, who can articulate the case for foreign aid to the people beyond our supporters, people in the ‘other’ Britain or America who do not listen to our form of preaching.

    • Duncan Green

      Great point on humanitarianism Marc, I remember meeting the nuns in San Francisco Gotera, who had been there throughout the Salvadorean civil war. They were founts of both kindness and intel (journalists soon discovered that gifting a bottle of Irish whiskey greatly helped wiht the latter!)

  3. It was a Marianist order missionary in Kenya who trained the first people who went on to maintain computers in the 1980s. Frank Damm, working at Kenyatta University, started the microelectronic project, training students in electronics and microcomputers. At the time, if a computer broke down it had to be sent to Saudi Arabia for repair.

    It is his students who ended up repairing all the computers in the country and started the small computer industry at a time when President Moi announced that the only purpose of a computer was to put secretaries out of work and slapped 160% duty and sales tax on any computer. So a lot of businesses relied on smuggled Sinclair QLs. It was the first step on an educational process that led to the leading software developers of Kenya that produced mobile phone money transfers and conflict maps.

    Now a lot of people assume technology development needs to be led by private companies and individuals looking to make a fortune. Frank Damm had no salary. As a Marianist monk everything was shared in his order. He just got an allowances for living costs and for setting up the project. I knew him while working at the Kenyatta University Appropriate Technology Centre.

    So there is another difference from the aid INDUSTRY. Missionaries and monks have no profit motive. They have chosen to renounce worldly goods to serve the poor. (Unlike many evangelists who are only concerned with conversion and getting rich, as shown in the film of Ian Paisley’s visit to Ghana.)

  4. Seamus O'Gorman

    Thanks Duncan for really striking blog. One other – and sometimes missed – feature from visiting missionaries working in development is the way they often really live ‘beyond borders’. Members from different countries live together in community and shape responses not limited by national identities, horizons. I see missionaries live a deep commitment to refuse to let man made borders set limits to their human concern for people. One good example was a Kenyan sister I met who had lived with Irish sisters in Kenya, on a new mission in DRC encouraging officials to protect children working in mines. When asked ‘had they no problems to sort in Kenya’ she replied that she was only asking him to implement what was in the DRC constitution. What I see in such cases points towards a contemporary global missionary movement which has evolved way beyond a ‘white saviour complex’.

  5. Helen

    It entirely depends on the missionaries in question. I grew up in a conservative church in Texas that prided itself on supporting many overseas missionaries. Occasionally the missionaries would return from their postings to take a break, see family and raise funds to continue their work. My family also received regular newsletters from some of them. It was obvious that many of the missionaries we knew really loved the countries they lived in, and wanted the people they worked with in those countries to flourish. However, their overriding motivation was ‘winning souls for Christ’. Respect for people, integrity, empathy – all of these worthwhile instincts were nearly always, in my experience, a means to accomplish their aim of ‘winning’ as many souls as possible, because they fervently believed they had the objective truth and that anyone who died with the ‘wrong’ beliefs would spend eternity in hell. And it is certainly the case that some missionaries get involved in the culture wars in their host countries, or import culture wars of their own – witness American missionaries in Latin America and elsewhere (e.g. Uganda) preaching against the ‘homosexual agenda’ and ‘sexual brokenness’, and in some cases having a lot of what they would call success. I know that many, many missionaries are nothing like this at all and do an astonishing amount of good in the communities where they live – those nuns in San Francisco Gotera sound phenomenal, as do the people you met from Misean Cara. However, I do have an inside view of a certain mindset that’s very different from the one described in your post, and I wanted to put it across.

      • Olivia

        Yes, just as “faith-based organization” is a nebulous term, we must also be aware that the term “missionaries” covers a vast array of approaches. Misean Cara’s approach is world’s away from the short-term “mission” trips seen from others.

        Misean Cara have put effort into documenting and sharing learning on their approaches ( My own research on Misean Cara in the Philippines in 2015 (see report in the link above) very much affirmed that the missionaries are seen as among the local organizations in comparison to the swathe of external organizations that landed in the Visayan region following Haiyan.

  6. Thank you Duncan for this interesting outside view of the Missionary role in development. As someone who has spent over 10 years as a lay missionary in Africa and now working from the more privileged position of a so called developed country in Ireland, I do think that donors do really battle to understand what it means to work at grassroots. It doesn’t take me long to forget the hardships I had to endure so how much more is it a challenge for donors who fly in and out of countries with their latest development tool as a mandatory requirement for their programmes and projects!
    Missionaries, and I make the distinction between missionaries and indigenous faith-based development practitioners, as the indigenous African Church, and some missionaries, in my experience, has tended to be more self-serving than looking after those in their care. Like all empires, Churches, donor funding agencies, large NGOs, they all tend to lose sight of those at the bottom of the food chain. For Missionaries to do good work, they must always stay true to their fundamentals, the Christian core message of treating and respecting others as they too would like to be treated. ‘Development’ when you peel all the jargon away is about that at the end of the day, and if we all managed this check list on our daily tasks we would achieve amazing outcomes!

  7. Masood Ul Mulk

    I was lucky to go to a Convent school run by missionaries in parts of the tribal belt. Without them i would have had very poor education. I saw some of the most dedicated humanbeings devoted to their mission. Sadly when missinaries and the dinor version of development get mixed up a new cocktail emerges which is not very admirable

  8. Vera

    a) it is possible to be ‘local’ and espouse ‘white saviour complex’ views, so being a ‘local’ missionary doesn’t solve for the historical baggage that missionaries carry, not least its relationship to colonization and denigration of peoples – the consequences of which we are still experiencing today; and b) the more interesting question to me is not which of these two actors (the ‘non-local’ missionary or the ‘non-local’ consultant) is worse, but why this seems to be the only choice.

    • Duncan Green

      Good point Vera, and raises a lot of questions: is there any value at all in communities working with outsiders, either to channel funs, or to broker links and conversations with distant decision makers, whether in provincial towns, national capitals or beyond? If so (and I think there is, based on lots of conversations with community leaders over the years), what matters is the quality of the relationships and the baggage of that intermediary – do they empower or disempower, do they work with, or supplant? Both nationals and foreigners can do both, in my experience – I think we should avoid any kind of ‘national good, foreigner bad’ over-simplification. My impression from the conversations last week is that some (progressive) missionaries can be pretty good in this role.

  9. Michael Osei Nkrumah

    Thanks Duncan for this brilliant piece!
    Indeed missionaries are naturally suited to doing development, better still, sustainable development differently. The reality is that missionaries go where no one else goes. I work with missionaries in West Africa and you will always find them in the hinterlands where electricity is non existent, no potable water (in some cases no water at all), deplorable state of healthcare and education. In these places, you will not find the traditional INGOs/NGOs. Without a clue as to how funding will come through, the missionaries go to these places and through faith, dedication, commitment, hard work and selflessness, they put smiles on the faces of the vulnerable groups. They run schools where children do not pay fees or minimum fees, provide primary healthcare almost at 0 euro and provide livelihood opportunities for women, parents in order for them to earn some income (albeit subsistence). To the missionaries, sustainable development simply means holistic and integrated development

  10. Oscar Gómez

    Excellent, Duncan, very thought provoking. I wonder if there is relevant academic literature about the topic.

    From my research on non-western humanitarianism, two observations:

    + Difficulties to allocate resources after emergencies: after 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, I interviewed different religious communities and it was common to find controversy about how to allocate relief resources: should church members have priority or those in the direst need? Particularly difficult since these are usually small organizations.

    + South-South cooperation: Last year I have been researching on Latin American humanitarian cooperation. It has been fascinating to find how, although churches keep playing a major role supporting domestically, they are not seen as a possible partner to work abroad. Neither is there a habit of giving them money to do so. You are right that members are mainly local, but the flow of resources (and ideas?) remains very colonial.

    Always enjoy reading you. Best,

  11. Fascinating post – as always…Now that you’ve braved the missionaries, how about a session with the proselytisers of development in the European Commission….?? They were my taskmasters (and mistresses) for a couple of decades and never took a blind bit of interest in what those of us on the ground in “transition countries” were doing…..
    Here’s a piece I wrote in 2005 to try to attract some interest “Missionaries, mercenaries or witchdoctors – is admin reform in transition countries a religion, business or a medicine?”

  12. Jayakumar Christian

    Interesting conversation; thanks for provoking the conversation, Duncan.
    In my limited experience with development workers in India it is critical to remind ourselves that for faith workers/ missionaries these ‘missionary values’ as your refer to them (Respect, Justice: Commitment, Compassion, Integrity and possibly others) are rooted in their faith: hence more sustainable. It is not a tactic or a development approach for a particular context. It takes a life of its own. Because of this ‘claim to credibility’ we tend to be harsh on our missionaries/ faith workers. On the other hand the projectized approach of development workers, allows them to walk out of these value frames, rather easily.
    The tendency of missionaries/ faith workers to be ‘long term-ists’ and ‘knowledgeable of their context’ is also rooted in these ‘life principles’ rather than on a development tactic.

    Not sure if your comment about the ‘direct service’ vs ‘advocacy’ holds true always. I understand the possible challenges that may be there. In our experience with what you call as ‘direct service’ these faith workers/ missionaries for that matter all front line staff take the side of those on the margins – a credible expression of advocacy. For this advocacy position they often pay with their life.
    You are probably referring to policy level advocacy. Even in that case the ‘promising practices’ that shape our policy prescriptions at the state & international levels, are often rooted in these credible ‘direct services.’ Wonder if this dichotomy between ‘direct services and advocacy’ is a false dichotomy.
    The solidarity that our faith workers/ missionaries demonstrate also comes from a belief about the persons. Solidarity is not merely a method to enhance ‘people’s participation’ as it is in the case of many sound development practices. It is rooted in their faith as well as in the trust that communities have on religion and religious leaders. Living in solidarity with those on the margins is an expression of the belief of missionaries/ faith workers that poverty is about broken relationships and development must therefore ‘heal these fractured relationships.’

  13. Brings back memories! Having worked with or among missionaries, including moderates, fundamentalists, Jesuits and others in Nepal since 1976, I have come to definitely admire their productiveness, durability, longevity and dedication. In many respects, however, these traits are not different from many devoting their careers and lives to altruistic development: I do not refer here to companies, many started by retired or early-leaving government donor agency personnel who have capitalized their networks in order to monopolize government contracts.
    But back to missionaries: I interviewed two famous Jesuits, Fathers Locke and Stiller, about the success of some of their projects begun in the mid-fifties. They said by and large the projects collapsed after the departure of their group 12-15 and even 20 years later. There had never been any dispute about the good work and the improvement of lives within the communities wherein they worked. The issue was something other; and this issue resonates with the non-religious development world as well: none of the good intentions, personal sacrifices and practical ideas last without a contextually understandable and adaptable process for the implementation.
    On the religion side, missionaries have been interacting with Nepal in multifarious ways since the 1700s. While moderates had predominated for about 40 years since the mid-50s, the rise of fundamentalist missionaries in Nepal has increased since the 1990s. As late as last year I sat by a group of visiting short-term missionaries gathered in a hall praying to drive the devil out of non-believing Nepalis and praising the Lord for any and all converts they can make (within their few days’ visit!). In my mind, it again is the role of process that is essential: converting people who thereafter denounce friends who still do not believe in the Lord and condemn non-believers to hell, as at least some missionary groups do, is a process that destroys trust, splits families and eviscerates friendships.
    So it is not as simple as saying “missionaries are like this” and “common development workers are like that”; there are people in both groups that are good, well-meaning, open hearted and open-minded, skillful and patient. But both groups could benefit with considerable introspection as to what process they consciously use to advance their respective intentions.

  14. Respect,Justice,Commitment,Compassion and Integrity these five points are the key to achievement. Good, I was guided. Could you narrate more about it please? In my view, On top of all, people are the true, there is no one on them. Religious values after social services.

    • Of course, Missionaries are suited to doing developing differently and advocacy. But really, the missionaries are dominated by different theology and just doing sharing gospel not doing social activities mostly.