– On Monday March 1st, reports surfaced about violent incidents occurring in Liberia near the border with Guinea, allegedly pitting Mandingo (primarily Muslim) against Loma (primarily Christian) people. It’s absolutely impossible to understand what actually happened, as every single news story contradicts the other, and often are peppered with inaccuracies (as a side note, this speaks to the importance of strengthening local media organizations there, because their job is crucial, and people cannot possibly be well-informed when headlines read things like “Lofa Explodes – Religious and Tribal Tensions Burst in Flames and Death“). Shelby Grossman attempts to piece it together here. Sadly, the international media coverage simplifies the issue as Christians against Muslims – while this is obviously part of the story, it’s only one dimension of a very complex pattern of conflict and cohabitation between these groups in northern Liberia. Don’t be fooled by oversimplifications and intellectual shortcuts…
– Nicholas Kristof (whose reputation in development circles is eroding day by day due to his sometimes pernicious approach to subjects he purports to understand) published a piece about faith-based organizations, encouraging liberals “to give up some of their snootiness” regarding faith-based orgs, because, well they do good work. Chris Blattman essentially sides with Kristof, explaining that on the ground, these organizations aren’t engaged in full on efforts to convert the masses. Fair enough. I tend to agree more with Owen Barder’s take, who argues that “Either religion is irrelevant to the work these organisations do, in which case they should not discriminate on the basis of religion in their hiring; or religion is important in the work they do, in which case they should not be allowed to spend public money in its pursuit.” I think I fall somewhere in the middle on this subject, but with some important caveats. Organizations like World Vision or Samaritan’s Purse that do great work on the ground but also have bizarre, antiquated discriminatory hiring policies are interesting cases: I just wonder how opinions would shift if we were talking about organizations hiring only Muslims… Anyway, besides these well-established, professional relief, humanitarian or development organizations, there is a real issue with aid that comes with major, major religious strings attached.
For instance, both in Ghana and Liberia, I’ve come in contact with small, church-based organizations that have an extremely strong religious dimension. To the point where, sometimes, it really freaked me out. One such example is D., an American woman who started an orphanage in Liberia and who was a certifiable lunatic. Another example comes from Ghana, where I was living in a guest house with an American man who now lived in Jerusalem and whose job was to recite the bible to church groups in the refugee settlement where we worked. For four hours, twice a day, this man would recite the New Testament, often speaking in tongues. He was sponsored by a group that was also supporting the creation of orphanages in the area, and he was absolutely convinced that among the non-Christian Liberian refugees were witches who would gather at witch conferences, which they would attend using their trusted flying broomsticks (I swear this is true – I was so curious about him and had him tell me all about his thoughts and feelings about Liberians. Everyone else at the guest house stayed 10 feet away from him.) While this is obviously a different category of aid than say, World Vision, these small faith-based organizations are often registered charities in their home country and potentially receive money from the government.
Another example of this are actual church groups (the ones Kristof praise for volunteering in Rwanda during their vacation) who go to random poor communities around the world with the express intention of sharing the Gospel. One of my college acquaintances belongs to a tight-knit church group (she is now in the process of becoming a pastor), and she spent a couple of summers during university in Afghanistan (of all places!) to help teach English. Except that English would only be taught as the Gospel, and that the intention was to make these children “accept Jesus into their hearts”… I remember a recent conversation with a friend in Liberia, during which I was condemning these missionaries – no one should have to convert or adopt a certain religious belief in exchange for humanitarian assistance. Having spent two years in Togo, she explained that some missionaries there were primarily concerned with non-religious activities: in particular, she described how missionaries were helping create a written alphabet for disappearing, rare traditional languages. Clearly, this work in cultural preservation is important and should be supported – even if they only ever wrote the Bible in these languages, at least they created a basis for the preservation and cultivation of eroding cultural heritages.
I’m not “against” faith-based organizations, particularly when they are doing vital or life-saving work. I think that Kristof is right to highlight the fact that they are often highly professional and efficient. Nonetheless, I am against the interpenetration of aid and religion, development and religion. These are very distinct realms (does that even need to be mentioned?), and, as a secular modernist, I believe religion should remain in one’s own private domain.