Why Faith-Based Organizations are particularly well suited to ‘Doing Development Differently’

Last week, I went in to talk How Change Happens with a bunch of CEOs and other senior staff from major Catholic aid agencies,

Much too linear.....
Much too linear…..

including CAFOD, the first development outfit foolish enough to give me a job back in the 90s.

We covered a lot of the standard ground – the results agenda, private sector approaches to innovation, the future (if any) of traditional northern/international NGOs, what Brexit and the US election mean for our future work. But what most struck me was the realization that faith-based aid organizations are in some ways ideally placed to take advantage of some of the new thinking in aid and development. For example:

Norms: If you buy the argument that activists in general (and development organizations in particular) need to pay more attention to how social norms are formed and shaped, it’s hard to think who is better placed than faith-based organizations. Through worship, education etc they already play a major role in shaping and reshaping norms, so it should be much easier for them than for more technocratic, secular aid agencies (like Oxfam), to move across from a focus on policies and behaviours to something deeper. I was also struck by the level of Catholic collaboration with Islamic agencies, such as Islamic Relief, which could provide an interesting option of working jointly on norms (eg attitudes towards refugees and migrants).

Fragile States: The future of aid may well lie in the fragile and conflict-affected states and sub-states that will increasingly be home to the world’s remaining very poor people. By definition, state mechanisms in those places are useless, absent or predatory. In such situations, the role of non-state actors such as faith organizations becomes relatively more important in running society, managing disputes etc. Plus faith organizations are more likely to be in the really remote bits of those places, where the state barely penetrates (I still remember coming across itinerant evangelical preachers miles from the nearest road while on patrol with the Sandinista army in Nicaragua during the middle of the 1980s civil war). If international faith-based organizations can hook up with those local faith networks then, like Heineken, they really can reach the parts other do gooders cannot reach.

FaithTransition out of aid: I have been banging on for a while now about how northern and international NGOs should invest more in helping southern organizations develop domestic sources of funding. That will reduce their vulnerability to the fashions of the aid business, and increase their local linkages and accountability. Turns out that the Catholics, at least, are already on it. When CAFOD agreed to help Caritas Nigeria start raising more money from Nigerians, they were so overwhelmed by the response they had to scramble more management support to help Caritas cope with the flood of donations. Caritas Peru has also become a highly effective local fund raiser with local affinity cards and all the rest.

Civil Society Space: I haven’t seen any research on it, but I’m pretty confident that secular CSOs are more vulnerable to closing civil society space than faith-based ones with large faith organizations behind them. Much harder to paint them as tools of foreign powers (except perhaps in countries with a Christian minority). So increasing support to faith organizations could be part of a response to the crackdown.

Of course I realize that faith-based organizations have their own problems (especially round all things to do with the body – being at CAFOD when it led the global Catholic response on HIV&AIDS was educational, to put it mildly), but I still think the overall balance could be positive and worth thinking about.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


24 Responses to “Why Faith-Based Organizations are particularly well suited to ‘Doing Development Differently’”
  1. Alice Evans

    Is it really the case that faith-based organisations are well-placed to work on norms?

    Just because FBO members have a certain set of beliefs (an omniscient, beneficent deity), that does not necessarily make an FBO any better at *tackling* norms on a range of other issues. Even if FBOs are playing some role in reinforcing their members’ beliefs in a deity that wouldn’t necessarily help out when trying to tackle social norms in other areas, where people don’t already have confirmation bias in that area.

    By your logic, any organisation with members that have some kind of faith is likely to be good at working on norms. Social scientists are empiricists with a faith that the external world exists. So universities are good at norms? Hmm..

    • Duncan Green

      Not sure you actually read the piece Alice – the point is not so much about religion, but the much more practical one that FBOs have the infrastructure in place, and experience in influencing norms, that more secular, policy-based activists lack. I know all too well from Oxfam that saying or seeing anything positive in FBOs sticks on some people’s throats, but I’m writing this as a convinced atheist, just looking at the institutions and their relative strengths

      • alice Evans

        Sorry, I must have misinterpreted this paragraph: Norms: If you buy the argument that activists in general (and development organizations in particular) need to pay more attention to how social norms are formed and shaped, it’s hard to think who is better placed than faith-based organizations. Through worship, education etc they already play a major role in shaping and reshaping norms, so it should be much easier for them than for more technocratic, secular aid agencies (like Oxfam), to move across from a focus on policies and behaviours to something deeper. I was also struck by the level of Catholic collaboration with Islamic agencies, such as Islamic Relief, which could provide an interesting option of working jointly on norms (eg attitudes towards refugees and migrants).

        • Hi Alice and Duncan I work for World Vision and would like to highlight the opportunities for collaboration across sectors. Viewed from a soft infrastructure perspective faith based organisations do have a set of options that secular organisations may not have. For example, a degree of resonance or direct links to a civil society network of CBOs that have several hundred years of self funded sustainability. (Churches Mosques etc). The exciting thing is when we can bring this together with academia to bring together the best of both worlds. WV is just finalising negotiations on EU Funding for a four country programme that will bring together WV, Islamic Relief, CAFOD/ Caritas, local partners and Oxford University. It will be very interesting to see the results of this one example in what I hope is a growing trend……

  2. Alice Evans

    There’s no proof that the external world exists. Sure. We can see it, feel it, smell it, touch it. But those could just be #FakeNews. Fraudulent stimuli to brains in a vat.
    My point is that we all take some things on faith. We all belong to organisations.
    That does not render those organisations any advantage in tackle norms on development issues.

  3. Monika

    Transition out of aid: It would be very interesting to know how Caritas Nigeria and Peru achieved this. What were the mechanisms behind it? Is it replicable (and if yes, why do not all Caritas office take advantage of the knowledge)? Are there other good examples? Looking forward to reading a blog on the state of the art of local fundraising 🙂

  4. Masood Ul Mulk

    Faith based organisations can be both an instrument of change and strength to communities but at the same time they could become an obstacles to change in fragile contexts. In societies that comprise of communities belonging to different denomination an organisation based in one community could be a source of strength and play a prominent role in spreading positive norms within that group;but in the same society for other communities this organisation could become an obstacle to development because others always saw an agenda in their work. In my work I have found it interesting that some communities prefer to use the electricity which the outside organisation had established but preferred to pray in darkness to God because an outsider organisation would not not be allowed to enter the place of workshop of this community and who preferred to pray in darkness. Similarly in many places the struggle for power gets hidden behind the faith based organisation because all of them are very vulnerable on religious issues. How the issue of interest has been used in fragile Islamic context while ostensibly to attack an un Islamic practice but deep down to write off debt and to attack those delivering micro finance is a good example.

    • Kendyl

      Further to Masood’s point, I’ve seen faith-based aid actively divide communities and portion off benefits to certain people based on their religious preferences. In a small town in Malawi, the Pentecostals and Seventh Day Adventists both built churches. Only one went on to house a preschool — the children of the other church were not permitted into that preschool.
      This is obviously just an anecdote, but I see it as nontrivial — religion is not inherently inclusive, which poses hazards for inclusive development.

  5. Masood, I really appreciate your well thought out comment. Duncan, I think to put a blanket statement out there saying that faith organizations are better at shaping norms in a way that empowers women and men, well, that is a bit of a stretch. World Vision still makes their employees pray before the day starts and re-enforces traditional gender roles even to the expense of the mental and physical health of women and children. When I was doing my doctoral research and my gatekeepers were Caritas in Guatemala, they were deeply embedded in a charity mindset, with no idea about markets and no effort extended to learning about market systems. Essentially they were reinforcing that the poor shall be meek and need to be taken care of. Faith-based organizations do shape norms and from my experience in the field, more times than not, they re-enforce sexist stereotypes in the name of God and tradition.

    What might be safer to say is that if there is prepared leadership who are aware of systems thinking and are innovative in their leadership roles to extend this to creating a learning organizational culture, then you are right, faith-based organizations can influence norms because of the infrastructure that exists through the faith-based networks. We saw this in Latin America when Vatican II shaped liberation theology that inspired Christian based communities in Latin America which in turn inspired revolution. (now the revolutions have run into difficulties due to many factors but the change was inspired through literacy programs that inspired conscientizacion– consciousness raising).

    Love your blog Duncan- Mary

    • Hi Mary, as someone who has worked for WV for over 20 years in a large number of offices and roles, I would suggest that a blanket statement about how the organisation reflects its faith identity is highly contextual. The organisation is highly decentralised with high levels of national empowerment and decision making. In a reflection of global Christianity in general, the organisation is highly diverse, with its great practices and those that we would like to reform. I have never been put in a situation where I have been forced to pray.

  6. Daniel F. Bassill

    Can you point out a few entry points that NGOs in Africa, South and Central America, Asia, etc. might reach out to for advice and support in forming local funding streams?

  7. Alex Jacobs

    How about the role of faith in providing an explicit language & ethical framework for doing good? I think secular agencies tend to lack this and feel the gap. So they’re more comfortable talking about business processes & hard edged results (specially at senior levels) than the human interactions inherent in doing development differently.

    Eg the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation did some of the best & quickest work in response to Taiphoom Haiyan in the Phillipines (See Margie Buchanan Smith’s brilliant study Who’s Listening?) Their staff were trusted to do the right thing – not the written thing. Faith as a management revolution??

    • Duncan Green

      See Matthew Spencer’s recent post – as an environmentalist, he thinks development NGOs are good at framing issues in moral terms. I tend to agree with you that we have drifted into more instrumental/technocratic arguments – interesting that you connect that to secularism.

  8. John Chettleborough

    The role of FBOs in changing norms about HIV must present some interesting learning. Although this is an area where FBOs are often criticised, there are examples where they have been positive forces for changes in attitudes and norms – for instance, the HIV positive priests who stood up at the pulpit and stated their HIV status and what that did for the acceptance and care of people living with HIV, reductions in stigma and encouraging people to get tested. Not atypical necessary but all the same, a demonstration of some of the potential.

    • Duncan Green

      I was always impressed by the level of Jesuitical sophistry at CAFOD, which developed a Vatican-compatible message along the lines of ‘we tell you that if you use condoms you won’t die, but we of course cannot advocate that you use them’…..

  9. Caroline Sweetman

    Hi Duncan, you know that we agreed to disagree about this a few weeks ago – but I am very seriously concerned that the impact of ‘discovering’ faith-based organisations as a Good Thing (and I don’t think the caveat you gave was adequate proof against this happening). I’d point interested parties towards the Harvard Divinity School’s Religious Literacy initiative – https://rlp.hds.harvard.edu/. They aim to promote literacy among the public – ourselves included – and their messages are important – in fact critical – if we want to avoid rolling back the clock decades. The Harvard project distinguishes – as your blog did not – between progressive, conservative and fundamentalist religious faiths. And they make the critical point that progressives are upholding principles of human rights, equality and social justice. In our new issue of Oxfam’s journal Gender & Development – http://www.genderanddevelopment.org/page/current-issue) – we have the Director of Catholics for a Free Choice, Jon O’Brien, going further into the issue of reproductive health to consider the role of faith-based organisations in replacing the state in fragile contexts. The free-access link to Jon’s article is here: http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/can-faith-and-freedom-co-exist-when-faith-based-health-providers-and-womens-nee-620228. Those people unlucky enough to live in one need all the help they can get, which includes us being sensible about our choice of ‘development’ partner. Just because religions inform social norms doesn’t mean they are a) aware of this, or b) keen to change them – since the ones they are keen on reflect their vision of what God wants.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Caroline, which I guess brings me back to Brian Levy’s v polite critique of the book – we have moved from thinking only of the ‘what’ to being entirely preoccupied with the ‘how’ of change. Brian says we need to get back to the what, and I’m guessing you would concur. But I am fascinated by the How – how do FBOs influence norms, what can we unbelievers learn from them in terms of processes, institutions, behaviours? Yes some of the ‘Whats’ of that are indeed evil/wrong/inhuman, which is why whenever I write a ‘hey look at religion’ post, I get lots of comments!

  10. Lucie

    Thanks for this insightful piece.

    I would agree that FBOs, and the faith networks they work with, are well-placed to influence social norms, as people of faith often derive their greatest sense of identity and direction from their faith. One good example of the influence of faith on norms was the ebola outbreak in west Africa. It was found that a turning point in the crisis was getting Christian and Muslim leaders involved in contextualising the messages of aid workers for their faith communities, to start to curb the spread of the disease.

    Additionally, as you point out, in fragile contexts, the fact that faith networks such as local churches are already embedded in and part of communities, means that they can provide assistance in some of the hardest-to-reach areas, where access is very difficult for governments and NGOs. This can be particularly beneficial in the case of fast-onset crises, where an immediate response is required. Having these locally-owned solutions through long-standing faith structures also means that the interventions are sustainable, long after external actors have left.

  11. Duncan, thanks for raising some foundational aspects of our response to poverty and oppression. Have always thought coming from World Vision based in India, poverty by its very nature requires a response that is spiritually founded – addressing a people’s worldview, beliefs, values and spiritual practices. Any claim to sustainability without addressing these deeper root causes of poverty is shallow. Our faith perspective matters and in that sense faith based organisations are uniquely well placed. With a significant section of the poor and the oppressed coming from cultures that are driven by a people’s religious beliefs, faith based actors are uniquely placed to draw from the deep spiritualities of our communities to promote behaviour changes and transformation of relationships. Recognising that roots of poverty are systemic and structural, faith actors bring to the table credible faith based ideological alternatives that call the bluff in these systems and structures that flourish by keeping the poor, powerless, Finally faith based actors are so well placed to mobilise other faith based actors to address these common issues such as violence against children & women, injustice and other such socio-political issues. Commend Duncan for drawing attention not just to the strengths of faith based organisation but shallow-ness of any claim that good development is even remotely possible without addressing these deeper issues. However, I must submit to Mary Morgan that for a people of faith with faith perspectives their roots are often in their spiritual disciplines like beginning the day with prayer; those are laboratories where our perspectives are moulded. Having led a team of over 2000 staff in India and being part of faith driven organisation like World Vision for years, any suggestion that we promote tradional gender roles that are exploitative are far from the truth. We are an operational organisation that seeks to invest our life among the poor – we sincerely seek to live out our message.

  12. Mary

    Ducan your blog focuses on a very interesting issue that is very less spoken and given that faith based organisations are increasingly occupying spaces in the civil society and also part of many rights based discourse in the sector it is important we review how it impacts the sector. However I would be very wary to see them as potential collaborators in the sector especially in terms of transforming social norms especially in India. Many faith based organisations across different religions have often been silent or even oppressive about many imperative social issues like abortion and homosexuality. In India I find many of them violating the principle of Do No Harm for instance when faith based NGOs are advocating against determining of the sex of the foetus but are silent or against abortion. They have for surely played a major role in providing education and access to employment for many marginalized groups in India. However collaborating with them requires an open dialogue over conflicting ideologies and setting non negotiables. In India there are also fundamental groups that are defining themselves as civil society that then calls for defining boundaries of engagement with these groups very specifically and cautiously.