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The role of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in development can be contentious. Some consider faith in itself unempirical or irrational and thus unintelligent. Some think faith groups base their programs and policies on feelings rather than facts. Others worry that FBOs do not respect peoples' local beliefs and customs; they shudder at the thought of someone demanding conversion in exchange for life-saving medicine. And since President Bush, who went on a five-country tour of Africa last week, made supporting FBOs a pillar of his support for African and other assistance efforts, many fear that condom distribution has taken a back seat to abstinence-only education (even though PEPFAR, the U.S. president's AIDS program, is one of the largest distributors of condoms in the world).

Last month I had an opportunity to visit the southern African nation of Zambia to look at the role of FBOs. Here's what I found:

Salvation Army hospital in Chikankata1. The term "faith-based organization" is too narrow. While well-established organizations such as Catholic Relief Services and World Vision are what typically come to mind in conversations about FBOs, it was clear on the ground in Zambia that such a view is too narrow. Formal FBOs are important, but there are masses of other people of faith doing development work on smaller scales all over the place: faith-based centers, groups, institutes, meeting places, clinics, youth groups, clubs, and of course churches, offer schooling for orphans and other vulnerable children, counseling for HIV+ couples, and programs for youth, among other things. These faith communities are more difficult to identify and quantify -- they are by their nature decentralized and informal -- but they, collectively, make up a huge part of the reality of faith communities doing development work in poor countries. When Washington developmentistas think about country context, this must be remembered.

A cathedral in the Zambian capital of Lusaka2. The scope and scale of faith communities is enormous. U.S. global AIDS coordinator Mark Dybul, on a trip to Zambia with Laura Bush, noted that 40-50 percent of health care in Africa is provided by faith-based groups; "It's not just orphan care and palliative care ... it's the actual clinical care," Dybul said. "If you don't engage them you are not going to tackle the problem." I certainly found this to be the case on my trip.

Faith-based organizations and communities are doing development work (especially health and education) all over Zambia, in every village, in every city in every district across the country. According to a 2007 World Health Organization study, almost a third of HIV/AIDS treatment facilities in Zambia are run by FBOs. FBOs have long histories in the country; a Salvation Army mission hospital I visited in the rural village of Chikankata was established in 1945. FBOs, partly because of their longevity, and because spirituality is important in the lives of so many Zambians, are well-integrated in communities; many of their employees are locals; they partner with the government and with other programs and players; and their collective reach is enormous. Further, because most Zambians identify themselves as religious (the Central Statistics Office of Zambia indicates that approximately 85% of the population is Christian; 5% are Muslim; 5% adhere to other faiths, including Hinduism and the Baha'i Faith; and 5% are atheist.), they tend to respond well to and appreciate the approach and values of faith organizations.

God is good grocery store in Ng’ombeAs the WHO report concludes: the failure of policymakers to understand the influence of religion broadly, and the important role of FBOs in HIV treatment and care particularly, could seriously undermine efforts to scale up health services. "The research makes clear the significant presence of religious entities contributing to health and wellbeing in Zambia, and suggests that it is impossible to understand health and wellbeing in Zambia without serious consideration of these entities."

3. The Great Divide. The role of FBOs may be controversial in the development community here in Washington, but the on the ground, controversy was little to be seen. The people I met, people who work for FBOs and individual believers, were intelligent and practical; their programs were based as much, if not more, on observable evidence as ours in Washington aim to be -- and why wouldn't they be? Implementers must respond to, and operate in, the real circumstances of peoples' lives, not in theory or abstractions. They were not proselytizing (they didn't need to; everybody goes to church) -- they were working on keeping people alive, fed, employed. When I asked them, they told me that coercive proselytizing by faith groups, though extremely serious, is also extraordinarily rare.

An HIV+ couple in Chikankata who is cared for by volunteer caregivers coordinated by the Salvation Army with support from the RAPIDS consortiumBut distrust of faith groups persists. And while a healthy skepticism is a good thing, in my view, development experts too often approach the issue of FBOs with little of the appreciation for nuance that they bring to other aspects of development. Frequently FBOs are viewed as one-dimensional, guilty until proven otherwise. What's this about? A couple of points:

  • First, everyone in development, every group and every government, imparts values of some kind in their work. Secular development organizations are as saturated with beliefs as faith organizations. And whenever a group of people goes to a land far, far away to help others, the visitors risk being blinded by the supposed superiority of their methods or research or practices and thus stomping all over the locals and mucking things up. So constructive criticism and reflection are appropriate but should be directed towards all groups, not just meted out to FBOs on the special grounds that they're in it, not for pure development reasons, but to promote a belief system.
  • Second, just as the term "evangelical" has in the past become synonymous with "Republican" and "conservative" and "close-minded," FBOs have also been pigeon-holed. It's becoming increasingly clear that evangelicals are not so homogeneous, indeed, that many evangelicals are progressive and liberal and (gasp) Democratic (see Amy Sullivan's piece in the Washington Post yesterday). We should recognize that FBOs are similarly diverse.
  • Third, the people I met on the ground are really good people doing the best they can. Now, why (you might ask) do I need to defend their "goodness" of all things? This is a very interesting question. It probably won't come as a surprise that many of the Americans and other Westerners I met in Zambia had a not-so-veiled disdain for Washington -- for people who think about development from 30,000 feet, sometimes with little regard for the actual people we serve. They leveled all sorts of criticisms my way, most of them completely fair, and valid, and true, and while I agreed on many occasions I also found myself defending Washington by saying, finally, that the people I work with are "good" people. Again, why did I feel the need to resort to defending our goodness?

    I think the reason is that both "sides" want, and claim, the moral high ground. Both think that they have more respect than the other for the people they serve. Both think the other group doesn't know what's really best for the people. Both think the other group is arrogant and imperialistic. And I think Washington's distrust of FBOS has a lot to do with this, ironically -- this desire to be morally right. This tension can be constructive -- both sides have a lot to learn. But the distrust and division is also unfortunate; both groups want essentially the same thing -- equity in the world, help for the poorest.

Chikumbuso Community Center, Ng’ombe, Lusaka, a faith-based center for widows, orphans, and single momsThe bottom line is: FBOs are doing a lot in developing countries to meet the needs of the poor, and they will continue to do so for decades to come. If we think understanding country context is important, and of course we do, then we need to understand and know what FBOs and churches and faith communities are doing and how far their reach extends. And we could always stand to learn more from people working in developing countries, both because it enriches our work, and because it can go a long way toward healing the deep divide between Washington and people on the ground, between the secular policy wonks and the Christians, Muslims, Jews and others delivering assistance in developing countries.

Check out Appreciating Assets: Mapping, Understanding, Translating and Engaging Religious Health Assets in Zambia and Lesotho, WHO, 2007.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.