Misdirected Zeal

Okay, time for some more thoughts on poverty. Well, tangentially related to poverty really - it’s more focused on how religion can come into play within NGOs.

In case you weren’t aware, some of the biggest NGO charities are built upon religious ideals. World Vision and The Salvation Army are textbook examples. In Australia at least, other well known groups include The Brotherhood of St Lawrence and St Vincent de Paul. And I don’t have a problem with this, by and large. I think most atheists can find common ground with Christians (the faith which all the above organisations represent) and other religious people, and the actions of these groups are generally things I’m happy to support.

What makes me a little angry, however, is when faith gets in the way of helping people - ie. a missionary approach. I know there are NGO organisations here in Cambodia that teach English from the Bible, while others only employ locals if they convert to Christianity. The focus is less about helping others, and more about converting them to your religion.

I’ve no idea if this problem exists in religious-but-not-Christian NGOs

  • but I was raised as a Catholic, and have some understanding of the underlying ideals of the religion, and I’m pretty damn certain that these less than savoury practices are not what Jesus would do.

Anyway, that’s just an observation (well, more of a rant, really) from my time in Cambodia. And no NGO is perfect, really. I promise future posts will be a bit more constructive though (and hey, there’ll be some more code-focused ones too).

Keith Pitty left a comment on 19 Oct, 2008:

That’s one reason I’m much happier to direct my financial support to alleviate poverty via Oxfam. Whilst I’m sure there is much good done by Christian-based NGOs, I feel uneasy about them. You only have to look at the harm done by well-meaning missionaries throughout the history of Australia’s indigenous people to see the danger in allowing religion to mix with “helping others”.

Steve Hopkins left a comment on 19 Oct, 2008:

Not sure I should be commenting here, given my employer,but oh well. :)

What’s most important is not what religion an NGO is, but how they reach the goal of helping to lift a community out of poverty. If a Christian NGO was working in a primarily Christian Community, where a church/prayer model was already established, those funds provided by the NGO would likley go much further towards helping to combat poverty in that area. Likewise though, if the community was predominately buddist, then bible readings would have a negative effect, and potentially destabalise the community.

Balancing this is the hardest thing ALL organisations cope with, because like-it or lump-it, religion is a guiding force the world over, and no matter where you go a peoples faith will have some effect on the way they prefer to recieve help.

And so, whilst giving to Oxfam might make you feel better because it supports your beliefs, their development work often will take place in a religious community where their agnostic approach may not always work best. I don’t have the answer, but just wanted to comment back that (to me) good development practice should suit THE COMMUNITY you’re trying to help…not the organisation doing the work.

Great post Pat. I love an insightful rant.:)

pat left a comment on 20 Oct, 2008:

Steve, you raise a good point - if the faith of the group matches the faith of the area in need, then I don’t have any problems with that (or if the organisation acts without forcing their faith on others).

And also a very good point that dealing with religion isn’t an easy thing.

I didn’t think the rant was that insightful, but glad you’ve both got some value out of it.

Elle left a comment on 14 Apr, 2011:

Good point. On my first trip to Cambodia a terrible ‘NGO’ who shall not be named, but has now closed down, set me up volunteering in a missionary orphanage run by Cambodian nuns who had converted to Christianity. It was December and I was required to help the kids make christmas decorations while american christmas carols played over a loud speaker. Being a Buddhist myself, but with no intention of pushing that on other people, found this to be highly offensive. The children were neglected and clearly needed help with basic hygiene, education and TLC. But no, I was asked to waste my time making Xmas cards and paperchains for these poor kids (waste of paper/resources too), while I could see some of them swimming in their own shit and one boy, completely paralysed from the neck down, stuck in a cot staring at the wall and singing softly to himself.
I left after 1 day, and found a brilliant orphanage nearby run by a Khmer orphan-turned-director. Never looked back.