Some myths about faith-based humanitarian aid
by Wilfred Mlay, World Vision International July 2004

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, many commentators have devoted attention to an apparent clash between the values of the West and those of Islam. The humanitarian sector has not escaped this debate. Unfortunately, the discussion is impoverished by persistent myths and an inappropriate focus on the values of the humanitarians, rather than on the value of those being assisted.

A familiar story is being repeated along the following lines: humanitarianism is a Western-driven, neo-colonial enterprise. In particular, the story goes, the threats to international aid workers and the assets of Western aid organisations in Afghanistan and Iraq are simply the manifestation of a growing clash between Islam and the West. Samuel Huntington’s well-known work, The Clash of Civilizations, supposedly exposes the causes of this confrontation, while David Rieff’s book A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis pronounces the near-death of a humanitarianism allegedly beholden to Western governments and their interests. Even the UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, has mused privately that aid organisations in Afghanistan are ‘too Western’.

This search to find cultural underpinnings for the travails of humanitarianism is remarkable in its neglect of any serious exploration of its religious aspects. Thin attempts to do this often create caricatures of religious humanitarianism, and thus perpetuate misunderstanding. Humanitarianism is best served not by a navel-gazing examination of the many values of its large cast, but by a dedication to greater accountability and transparency to those for whom faith-based humanitarian agencies claim to act. However, caricatures and generalisations lead to commonly-held assumptions about the role of faith in humanitarian assistance that are false and inhibit the effectiveness of the ensemble. Three prevalent myths about Christian humanitarian organisations are worth our attention.

Myth no. 1: Christian humanitarian organisations embody the West’s clash with Islam

Adherents of the ‘culture clash’ theory often make the uncharitable claim that today’s Western aid organisations are simply last century’s white European missionaries in new clothing. Furthermore, they contend that Christian humanitarians are particularly pernicious in carrying out a ‘civilising mission’ that unwittingly or deliberately promotes the values of the world’s major Western powers. According to this theory, a web-page image of a Christian aid worker kneeling next to a burqa-clad Afghan woman is just a modern version of the lithograph of the pith-helmeted missionary standing next to a Masai warrior in battle dress. While such caricatures distort both past and present, they are hurled broadly at Western-based aid agencies, but particularly at Christian organisations.

Such conflation falsely presents Christianity as a ‘Western’ religion and Islam as an ‘Eastern’ religion. In fact, both faiths are global religions whose adherents live predominantly in developing countries of the South. Christianity, like Islam, began in the Middle East, and now has 1.1 billion followers in Latin America, Africa and Asia, compared with 800 million in North America and Europe. In demographic terms, the average Anglican is African, female, under the age of 30, a mother of three, walks four kilometres a day to fetch water, lives on less than $1.50 a day, and is related to someone with HIV/AIDS.

To conflate Christianity with the West is delusion. As Philip Jenkins notes in his book The Next Christendom, Christianity has been in China about as long as it has been in England, and the Ethiopian church prospered for centuries before the first Anglo-Saxon was converted.

It is equally misleading to treat Islam as if it were synonymous with the Middle East or with speaking Arabic. More Muslims speak non-Arabic languages than Arabic. Indonesia accounts for more Muslims than any other single country. Throughout the West – in North America and Europe in particular – mosques are almost as easy to find as churches.

Just as Christianity and Islam are global, so are most of the large, international humanitarian organisations. Far from being Western enterprises, the composition of the staff and governance structures of many aid organisations reflects a true global diversity. This is a global diversity usually lacking from the boardrooms of the largest multinational corporations, and even the senior management level of UN agencies.

World Vision International is one example of this diversity. Its 24-strong board includes members from 19 different countries, with an equal balance from the North and South. Of the organisation’s 49 member offices, 27 are full-fledged indigenous entities with staff and governing boards composed almost entirely of nationals. Another 22 are guided by indigenous advisory councils that are expected to become self-governing. Most of the agency’s staff embrace one of three Christian expressions: Catholicism, Protestantism or Eastern Orthodoxy. However, despite the organisation’s Christian character, many non-Christians seek employment and are employed by World Vision in countries where Christians are a minority. In the Middle East and Asia, many staff members are Muslim. In South-east Asia, many are Buddhist.

What is true for its staff and organisation is also true for World Vision’s private donors. In the West, Christians provide the majority of private contributions to World Vision’s relief and development work. But World Vision also raises substantial funds in developing countries, some of which have very modest Christian populations. For example, in Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of contributors to World Vision are non-Christians. World Vision’s appeal to assist those afflicted by poverty, HIV/AIDS or disaster presumably touches their compassion and common humanity, not their religious affiliation.

World Vision is not unique among Christian NGOs. Other Christian humanitarian organisations are equally diverse in staffing, governance and funding sources. Such global diversity suggests that the blanket charge against them of Western cultural imperialism is mislaid.

Myth no. 2: Religious approaches create conflicts, rather than solve them

The argument here is three-fold:

a) Religions define themselves by competing truth-claims.

b) This competition inevitably provokes violent conflicts for which religion is inescapably culpable (the Balkans, the Horn of Africa, South Asia and so on).

c) Therefore, religious organisations or persons have nothing to offer societies wracked by religious conflicts, even when those societies are in need of humanitarian assistance.

R. Scott Appleby’s Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation explodes this myth. Appleby does not shy away from examining ‘religion’s violent accomplices’, namely religious zealots who invoke faith to justify violent acts. But he distinguishes between militants for violence and ‘militants for peace’, namely religious zealots who sacrifice their lives for reconciliation, for the poor, or for the common good. Positive examples of ‘zealots for peace’ include the Buddhist Dhammayietra in Cambodia, the Catholic Community of Sant’Egidio in Mozambique and the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone. Appleby notes two things about such groups: 1) explicitly religious approaches to humanitarianism succeeded in the midst of religiously ‘loaded’ conflicts; and 2) religious approaches succeeded where non-religious ones had failed.

The character of religious organisation often opens up conversations that are not available to secular humanitarian organisations. An NGO case study by the Conflict Transformation Working Group in 2002 demonstrated that religious leaders are often viewed within a conflict as non-partisan actors. Thus, they are able to mobilise large constituencies in peace-building efforts. All major conflicts have a complex, multifaceted political economy that goes far beyond any single issue, such as faith; but, in conflicts that are openly defined by religious differences, having an ear for religion is preferable to being religiously tone deaf.

For example, in Indonesia, World Vision has been able to work effectively with Muslim communities, including in areas suffering ongoing Muslim–Christian violence. In the North Maluku region of Indonesia, World Vision recruited Muslim and Christian staff members, then paired them together to work in communities divided along religious lines. The strategy helped to build bridges between Muslims and Christians.

In 1999, in Mitrovica, the Kosovo city bitterly divided ethnically (between Albanians and Serbs) and religiously (between Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic), World Vision facilitated the formation of a multi-ethnic and multi-religious Community Council on Peace and Tolerance. The Council, which drew together representatives of five ethnic groups and three faiths, established a dialogue that reduced violence, eased tensions and created community-building initiatives. Council participants said that the faith-based nature of World Vision was important in establishing trust and mutual respect.

Myth no. 3: Faith-based organisations cannot carry out neutral or impartial humanitarian assistance because their real intent, whether overt or covert, is religious conversion

Several codes of conduct govern the humanitarian sector. These normative principles, which cover the provision of humanitarian assistance, are the result of wide inter-agency consultation, predominantly, though not exclusively, among Western humanitarian organisations.

Almost all of these codes of conduct explicitly eliminate religious ‘transactions’ from the humanitarian equation. Most importantly, they establish that human need alone should determine humanitarian assistance. Moreover, they stipulate that recipients should evaluate the effectiveness of that assistance.

Two principles in the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organisations in Disaster Relief speak clearly to the question of religious humanitarianism:

Principle 2: Aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind.

Principle 3: Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.

While Principle 3 explicitly prohibits ‘the promise, delivery or distribution of assistance to the embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed’, it adds an important nuance. It emphasises that humanitarian NGOs can espouse ‘particular political or religious opinions’ and still adhere to the letter and spirit of the Code.

It is important to distinguish between the erroneous belief that being motivated by faith to assist people fundamentally undermines principles of impartiality and neutrality, and the real examples of the partial delivery of assistance that have led to the development of these codified principles. Any organisation, whether overtly faith-based or firmly rooted in secular humanism, is capable of taking advantage of its position of power to promote an organisational agenda. Similarly, individuals within organisations may do the same to promote an individual agenda. Examples abound of secular and faith-based agencies, or members of agencies, that have used aid to advance their cause, have directed aid to those of their own creed, or have delivered aid only to the side of the conflict that adheres to the same political ideology as they do, at the expense of others. This is precisely what gave rise to initiatives such as the Code of Conduct, the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership International and the Sphere standards. These self-regulation efforts add to the legitimacy of humanitarian action and provide a gauge by which to measure specific actions, and avoid generalised stereotypes. Not only do World Vision and many other faith-based organisations adhere to these codes, but they belong to the organisations that safeguard them; World Vision helps to fund the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, and is represented on its board of directors.

Jesus articulated the humanitarian imperative codified in the ICRC/NGO Code. He taught that the most important task in doing God’s will is to respond to people’s needs as if every person is God:

for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:35–36)

Far from being at odds with humanitarianism, this spiritual vision common to many faiths establishes the principle that ‘aid priorities are calculated on the basis of need alone’. Faith-based organisations marry their spiritual vision to the neutral and impartial humanitarian imperative when they heed their own religious texts. Loving one’s neighbour is a Jewish and Christian commandment. Assisting the poor is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a sacred task for Buddhism and a holy injunction for other religions. Humanitarianism is a task that unites religions, rather than divides them.


Wilfred Mlayis Africa regional vice-president of World Vision International. His email address is africa_vp@wvi.org.

This article is written in response to Abdel-Rahman Ghandour’s article entitled ‘Humanitarianism, Islam and the West: Contest or Cooperation?’, Humanitarian Exchange, no. 25, December 2003.


References and further reading

Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).

David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

Conflict Transformation Working Group, Building Peace from the Ground Up: A Call to the UN for Stronger Collaboration with Civil Society, New York, 2002, www.wcrp.org. Anneke Galama and Paul van Tongeren (eds), Towards Better Peacebuilding Practice: On Lessons Learned, Evaluation Practices and Aid and Conflict (Utrecht: European Centre for Conflict Prevention, 2002).

Bill Lowrey and Rudy Scholaert, United and Committed to Building Peace: Mitrovica’s Community Council for Peace and Tolerance, World Vision Occasional Paper, 2002, www.justice-and-peace.org.

Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson (eds), Religion: The Missing Dimension of Statecraft (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L. Peterson, Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Religion, Public Policy and Conflict Transformation (Radnor: Temple Foundation Press, 2001).

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