What do an Imam, a Christian theologian, a former World Vision staff member and an interfaith expert have in common? An inclination for development and a seemingly united motivation to improve the lot of mankind for now and in preparation for the hereafter! But are they always in concert in their purposes, rationale, motivations and ways of delivering development? And most of all, are they always welcomed and supported by people and their governments? Do the institutions they represent—the Faith-Based Organizations (FBOs)—always support and welcome governments in their work? In fact, do they sometimes do what governments should do and do they always provide the right services and advice in development? Should FBOs even do that? Yes, there are a lot of questions just to start a discussion about the role of Faith-Based Organizations in development—and that is why this topic will be tackled in parts. So let’s get started with Part One.
I think these questions are necessary especially if we consider the huge role that faith plays in influencing individuals, community leadership, societies and nations at large. One sermon or message from the pulpit can send a good portion of the population in one direction or the other. Faith, and consequently the institutions it works through (FBOs), occupies an undeniable niche in many aspects of life including development. Given the significant level of problems facing us, Faith-Based Organizations no doubt have a role to play, but should they do more? If so, how? More questions to consider! So let’s get to some answers now.
On a recent evening, I had the opportunity to attend a lively panel discussion on the Role of Faith-Based Organizations in Development. An Imam, a former World Vision staff member, a Professor of Theology and a student with vast interfaith dialogue experience were brought together by the Duke Center for International Development as part of the ‘Rethinking Development Policy’ series. The panel members described the rationale, motivation, and ways in which Faith-Based Organizations intervene in development. Having had my first job in a vibrant FBO about six years ago in my home country, I identified with most of the issues brought forward. I left that evening with a lot of reflections that I want to share with you, and I am keen to hear your take on what FBOs should be doing in development and how they should be doing it.
The pastoral role of Faith-Based Organizations seems to be non-debatable in so far as doing works of charity are concerned. They take care of orphans, widows, strangers and generally those who are suffering. This role seems to be a critical foundational obligation in every faith. In fact the Imam at the discussion shared how, in Islam, this type of work is mandatory and not a choice. In Islamic Ethos, one of the five Pillars of Faith is Zakat, or alms giving, and is obligatory for those who are able to do so. A Muslim is required to give 2.5% of their accumulated wealth (personal income of every kind) and this is as defining for a Muslim as praying five times a day or even fasting. This is equally a defining characteristic in Christianity. The story of the sheep and the goats in Mathew 25: 31-45 ends with serious ramifications for those who saw the needy, the hungry, and the thirsty but did not give them cloth, food or water. Don’t get me wrong, there is more to salvation than just that, of course, and much of it is based on loving your neighbor as yourself and loving your God with your mind, heart and soul.
Societies and communities are fully aware that institutions of faith serve to lessen suffering, and that is why it is often common to find street kids, or a struggling single mother, and destitute elderly men and women at the entrance to churches, mosques, synagogues or other centers of worship. It is where members of society who are in need expect to find some support, and in a way these FBOs have evolved into an essential social safety net. I saw a lot of this at the Mosque that was directly across from our office back in Senegal. I also saw the needy and suffering gather at the entrance of the FBO where I worked in Zambia. Society’s consciousness is attuned to the fact that when in distress, religious centers can be someone’s first point of call for immediate relief.
To a great extent, then, we might see religious institutions therefore acting to redistribute wealth. I am not saying that this is an efficient way of countering inequality, but I am merely saying that both society and Faith-Based Organizations expect and accept this role, and that it is a matter of fact—a reality that is with us. One thing to establish here is that both religious institutions and society at large have defined and accepted this role of faith institutions to plug a key gap in the overall effort to lessen suffering. Do governments like to do this work of charity and do they tolerate men and women asking for alms? I am not very sure they do.
One thing I remember vividly from my almost two years in Senegal was passing the mosque as I walked the eight minutes to my office. On most days, as early as 8:30 in the morning, there would be not less than 5-10 middle-aged and elderly men and women by the Mosque hoping to receive alms. Others had small merchandise spread out along the roadside. Mothers with little children would have gotten up very early to get to the mosque for a chance of alms. I can recall that at least three times a week I would find these women and men scampering in all directions, running away from the police who made it their task to stop these men and women from asking for alms. And this is not only common to Senegal. So for some reason—perhaps to preserve the aesthetic beauty of a city—there are governments that are preoccupied with dispersing these unfortunate people in need, sometimes imposing punitive measures. In my view, aesthetic beauty is important, but so is the task of dealing with the root cause of poverty and need.
More about the role of Faith-Based Organizations in Development later—this is all for ‘Part 1’ which has focused on the pastoral and charitable aspects of faith and FBOs in dealing with suffering and thus redistributing wealth…happy to hear your thoughts!