This is my comment response to Bjorn Karlman’s thoughts on culturemutt.com.
Yes, yes, yes! I’m glad to hear my own frustrations vocalized so succinctly. Evangelism-based-aid was a great introduction to the world of aid for me, but now that I’m pursuing a career in international development and affairs, I’ve realized the damaging effects that religious incentives can have on effective aid. There are good intentions there, but too often the pure ideal of exemplifying Jesus is lost in the incentive game. And who wins that game, anyway? You can count baptisms, but you can’t count souls anyway, no matter how many stars you promise in my heavenly crown.
Just yesterday I had a conversation with one of ADRA International’s directors about the junction between the church and the NGO that is ADRA. I carefully asked what church involvement policy existed, and the role of evangelism, and he emphatically responded, “ADRA will not do that! We do not say, ‘before you get your rice, you have to come to worship.’ We show the gospel through good works ONLY.”
My own experience with ADRA Argentina reflected this principle. I was impressed with the balanced objectivity exhibited by the volunteers in the field operations. In our particular project, the local culture was historically Anglican and my project leader informed me that it was as much a part of their heritage as a religion. To criticize their religion would be to criticize their way of life, effectively damaging the nascent relationship between ADRA and the people we were there to support.
Instead, all the volunteers kept busy with Jesus-style activities—building a community garden and kitchens side by side with the indigenous people, teaching the kids how to keep their feet clean and healthy, helping some friends construct a sustainable life. I firmly believe that passing out seeds was infinitely more loving and helpful than passing out Bible literature. Call it sustainable love, if you will. Once these shoeless, malnourished babies can live to their 5th birthday, then maybe the evangelists will have an audience.
I don’t think that we can generalize to the point that all aid-for-religion transactions are evil, but it is evident that this approach can be self-limiting and counterproductive. In the case of ADRA, it would have demolished the regional project. In any religion-based organization, it could limit the scope of work, impede local relationships and create a negative reputation for the organization as an incentive-based scam. Another drawback is the relationship with donors and bilateral partnerships; of course, there is an entirely different pool for evangelism resources, and that’s fantastic, just not to be sprinkled in the aid pool.
I’ve been interning with a humanitarian office within the US government that is a major donor to organizations across the board. Here, more than ever, I’m able to see the virtue of aid-for-aid’s-sake (politics aside) and the beauty of multilateral, multi-sector, multicultural partnerships. Motivations and expectations may vary, but the bottom line is that families are being helped with no strings attached, for the simple reason that they need aid and we are able to give it. Now that is what I think Jesus would do.