Putting our faith to work:
Overcoming poverty through collaboration
Act justly, love tenderly, walk humbly. These words, headlined in a recent Jesuit interfaith workshop, succinctly describe the Christian principles of faith-based agencies in today’s relief and development sector. They are, perhaps, the most important principles for us to remember when working with diverse communities and partners in the developing world. A key assumption is that we love our neighbour as ourselves – genuinely caring for one another to address poverty and mitigating the root causes of social injustice and inequity. But what happens when many worthy organizations have similar goals?
Growing up, I was inspired by my Father’s wisdom that there was “no single solution to any problem.”
“Keep a sharp eye,” he said, “and remember to listen to those who have something to say. Respect others’ opinions, be humble and don’t be close-minded.” This means that as an aid worker, I avoid coming with pre-packaged solutions, and I came to understand that through faith, God places amazing people and great talents in our path. I began with the United Nations Development Programme in Algeria in 1989. Over the years, faith in development has become an increasingly guiding theme of my work and has been nurtured by some great people I’ve met along the way. I also believe that building partnerships can change lives.
Obstacles to cooperation
Faith-based agencies have much to add to the discourse on relief and development. The key is to find ways to come together, to dialogue, to share resources and common solutions. The multiplier effect would have resounding impact and would model a robust aid effectiveness agenda. Unfortunately, over the years, competition for scarce funds has forced agencies to adopt other strategies. While some agencies have specialized into niche areas and serve only one group of people, others have become so diversified that they appear to do everything for everyone. At the end of the day, however, agencies compete for the same dollar and they compete against one another. Many also view “partnership” with some suspicion, considering it practical only if it yields revenue or tangible value. Some secular organizations view Christian agencies with suspicion, believing them to have a predominantly spiritual agenda. Partnerships or consortiums are difficult entities to manage and are, therefore, avoided by many. Bringing together any diverse group on sensitive topics is a recipe for conflict, with differences of opinion often leading to management instability.
I firmly believe, however, that faith-based organizations bring a unique value-add and common characteristic to work alongside impoverished communities: namely, their faith. Whether addressing maternal health, early childhood education or engaging in social entrepreneurship to achieve social and economic aims, faith drives developing communities and inspires people to overcome obstacles in a way that nothing else does. Human development requires a holistic definition around physical, emotional and spiritual development, and the latter is often ignored in traditional development practice. Faith assumes a genuine desire to change and to care for one another, between people at all levels of society. If selfless actions are accompanied by genuine caring and a belief in the divine, then one might assume good governance could result and fairer policies would be established, resulting in healthier and happier communities.
If we believe that injustice and unfair practices lie at the heart of poverty and describe societal or structural sin itself, we might also agree that faith-based NGOs have a unique lens by which to analyze this problem and define solutions. Indeed, the debate on poverty and aid effectiveness will be very different and well beyond cost-benefit analyses or logic models. Oftentimes, despite ecumenical boundaries or inter-faith divides, people of faith gain trust faster with other people of faith – and often it leads to stronger and faster traction on the ground. Discussions can be had that otherwise would not be possible, transcending issues of social and economic importance, and evoking a truly meaningful dialogue on development. Interestingly, while Christian organizations have typically shied away from engaging in secular development dialogue, of late, they appear to be emerging. Today, I believe that faith-based agencies have generally become and, wish to portray themselves as a more professionalized sector, with a coherent development agenda that complements and enhances the predominantly secular discussions. The faith-based NGOs have also developed a more sophisticated communication strategy, resulting in changes to how we define poverty, social injustice and the manner in which we engage with stakeholders at all levels. It takes wisdom, courage and experience to bring the necessary credibility to the table and to thus effect change.
A major catalyst in the Canadian dialogue is the Canadian Christian Relief and Development Association (CCRDA), a community of 43 Christian organizations that value high performance and have an informed opinion on relief, development and justice issues from a Christian perspective, to effect social and policy changes. In November of last year, for example, members of CCRDA – which includes World Vision, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Emmanuel International and the Christian Children’s Fund of Canada and more – came together to address the horrific maternal, newborn and child health issues in East Africa. Keeping their differing theologies and teachings aside, they united in their desire to prevent deaths of mothers during childbirth. In response to a call for proposals by the Canadian government, these reputed organizations set aside competition to address this problem. Smaller organizations worked alongside larger ones to bring their particular perspective as well as their constituency’s voices to the table. Each had unique access to geographical areas, talents, successes and strengths in managing projects overseas. Each agency also represented a large and diverse constituency of Christians in their regions, through which to advocate on behalf of the sector. The agencies learned from one another by working together: in budgeting, preparing proposals, sharing technical staff and so on. Ultimately, the consortium’s multiplier effect resulted in a strong four-year project design that will reach over a million people in Africa, .starting in April 2016, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD).
It’s a perfect example of a collective Christian response to God’s call to action through “wisdom and knowledge” in order to be the stability of our times (Isa. 33:6). Each organization set aside personal agendas and listened to one another to multiply talents and achieve an aid effective agenda in Africa, by working together! And the formula for reducing conflict and streamlining management decision-making was simple: respect each other, have faith and put God at the helm.