Friday, February 10, 2012

Humanitarian Assistance and Religion

(I’ve arrived in Kampala and am safe and sound!)
I am currently en route to Uganda and contemplating where to start this new round of blog entries. First let me tell you that I’ll be in Uganda through mid-March and then will travel to Liberia until the end of April. More details to come on the work and all sorts of other exciting things.But, given that I’m on an airplane, let’s talk about one of the things that often occur to me when traveling, which is that it seems like I’m surrounded by people on missions or church trips on every flight. It’s really incredible how many people go to and from these countries regularly, whether to provide aid and development assistance, or to spread the gospel and assist local churches. There are also school and volunteer trips and the like, generally short term things working with particular communities.

Let’s focus on religiously based groups that engage in this sort of work. Everywhere I have worked I have encountered members of religious organizations. There were Mormon missionaries on my daily bus in Ecuador, Seventh Day Adventist missionaries on bicycles in the Dominican Republic, people who left Liberia during the conflict and returned to work with local churches, and religious groups from the Middle East supporting work in Indonesia.

I think it’s easy to make a snap judgment about whether or not development work should be tied to religion, but as with much of this sort of work, it usually depends on the organization. On the positive side, religion has the potential to unite groups of people who might otherwise not interact. People are often willing to work for groups associated with their religion, as they view it as a way to give back as well as a way to support and spread their faith. Alternatively, religion can be divisive; for example if two religions co-exist in a particular area and an outside organization only provides services to the members of one group this can lead to everything from anger from those not receiving support, ostracization among groups that may have been friendly in the past. Which of these outcomes occurs has much to do with the organization and its goals, both explicit and implicit, and their inclusivity or marginalization of those with different backgrounds.

I believe it is important to look at ethical guidelines when evaluating any emergency response or development program, and those sponsored or led by religious organizations should be no different. The first element of such work is “Do No Harm”; all programs must be considered for both their potential positive and negative outcomes, and must be evaluated to ensure that participants do not experienced unanticipated negative consequences from their participation. In addition to this, the issue of coercion must be addressed, because how coercion is defined is context specific. For example: if I tell you that I’ll give you a flu shot for free in return for answering my questionnaire, and you have health insurance, so you can access the flu shot without me, then that is not a coercive incentive for participation in any given program. However, if you’re uninsured and your only means for protection against the flu is to participate in my research or program, then the practice may be coercive, as there are potential negative consequences for you not participating, ie you get the flu.
Let’s translate this to Uganda for example: if a religious organization offers free education to all children at a local school, without demanding that they worship at this school or adhere to those beliefs, then they are simply supplementing the public education system. However, if this religious school is of superior quality to the public school, and the only way to enroll is to subscribe to adhere to a particular belief system, both children and parents may be coerced into subverting their own personal beliefs for their children’s education.

An actual example is where I was in an island country and while there were public schools (one public high school in the country) the high school that was widely regarded as the best was private and Mormon run (my memory might be failing me, it could be Seventh Day Adventist). If you attended the church associated with the school, your children attended school for free, however if you were a member of a different church (regardless if it was also Christian) your children had to pay fees to enroll. So, for access to quality education for their children, parents changed (or pretended to change) their religious beliefs. In my book this is coercion, worship my god or pay money you don’t have to educate your children?

And so, as you may have noticed with my blog entries, there really is no clear cut answer here. I think what is important is that we hold all development organizations, religious or not, to the same ethical standards. Religious organizations should not be allowed to discriminate based on race, creed, ethnicity, ability, religion, or anything else. Religious organizations do not get a pass on equal promotion of human rights simply because they are targeting a particular population. 
There have been a variety of instances where the intervention of religious organizations in conflict zones, South Sudan during the conflict for instance, has actually fueled the conflict itself. In an effort to assist South Sudan (viewed as the ‘Christian’ side of the North/South war, but that’s a little simplistic in truth), foreign Christian organizations provided funding to the SPLA, or Southern Sudanese liberation group, which is now officially in power in the country. Without the funding (and access to weapons according to some sources) provided by these external sources, the war might have ended long before it did.

There are religious groups that do great work, and there are those that miss the mark, as can be said about humanitarian and development groups in general. But let’s hold everyone to the same standard, because no matter whether you’re doing the work for your God or your conscience, the potential for unintended negative consequences for those you want to help has the potential to be equally devastating.

What do you think about intertwining religion and humanitarian assistance? Is it a good way to tap into commitment to a cause and funding, or is it similar to government and religion (according to my Western background) and the two should be separated lest they corrupt one another?

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