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Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman
Clockwise from top left: Lorna Dueck, Vettivelu Nallainayagam, Michael Higgins, Guy Nicholson, Sheema Khan, Howard Voss-Altman

Faith Exchange

Religion, the original NGO? Add to ...

Guy Nicholson: Are people more likely to give to a charity that assists people of their own faith? If so, is this a bad thing?

Lorna Dueck: That’s not a bad thing – that’s a relationship. You should always know and understood who is using your money, and how.

Sheema Khan: I think so, and, no, it is not a bad thing, so long as the charity is not viewed through an exclusively chauvinistic lens. All major world religions call on universal principles and recognition of our common humanity. Therefore, faith groups, while looking toward their own at first, should always be reminded of the wider humanity, and encouraged to go beyond their own circle – based on the very principles of their faith. Think of it as concentric circles of giving.

Michael Higgins: I am not sure that is the case, Guy, although it would be logical to conclude that they would. The work of Caritas, Misercordiae, CAFOD, and CCODP – international, German, British and Catholic aid agencies – is by no means limited to serving those of similar faith, or even principally so.

Howard Voss-Altman: The answer to your first question is yes. People care more about the welfare of their own people than they care for others. Is this a bad thing? It depends if you are a universalist or a particularist. As a universalist, I would say that such giving is not a positive trend. Yes, we should give to our own, but not at the expense of the other. In the Torah, we are commanded to welcome the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and we must not repeat what happened to us. Indeed, the Torah commands us to welcome the stranger 33 times, more times than any other commandment. My guess is that the Torah understood that this commandment would be the hardest to fulfill, so we had to be reminded to do it more often. So far, our philanthropic experience is probably below average. It’s certainly nothing to be proud of – at least not here in North America.

Guy Nicholson: Final question. I lived for a time in a Third World country where the NGO roster included organizations operating under the banner of seemingly every faith and denomination. I met people who were uncomfortable with this brand marriage of aid and religion – does anyone here share those qualms?

(And while I’m on this topic, why are there so many faith-oriented charities? Why don’t faith communities just roll into bigger machines such as Oxfam and United Way?)

Lorna Dueck: This takes us back to the philosophy of giving. I do not agree with food-for-faith exchanged giving, which is rare and abusive. I remember General Roméo Dallaire, recently returned from Rwanda, chastising me that evangelicals had harmed in feeding the hungry because of our brand of aid and religion. But I have travelled enough to watch these faith-based aid programs to see how deeply the poor value the community that church brings when it brings aid. And that is why faith communities don’t always roll into bigger machines like the mega-charities. Sometimes they do, but generally they want to be in a relationship with the people to build an ongoing permanent road to a more just life for those needing aid, and that takes understanding. There’s a role for both, the large and small charity, those who put faith practice out front, and those who don’t mention it. It’s all needed.

Howard Voss-Altman: I think we have reason to be uncomfortable with the alliance between aid and religion because of the unfortunate relationship between Christian missionary work and aid to developing countries. When aid has been conditioned or associated with bringing the “good news,” we all have reason to be skeptical. After all, how many indigenous religions and belief systems were wiped out in the zeal to bring the “word” to poor, unfortunate souls? While such religious abuses have largely been eradicated today, the legacy of centuries of religious hegemony still remains with us.

Regarding your second question, I think faith communities have a much better chance of raising money through their own charitable organizations than through larger machines like Oxfam. A religious community trusts its own charitable mechanism and is therefore more likely to give than to a generic one.

Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us today, panelists. Looking forward to talking again next month.

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