Religion and NGOs: Understanding new global configurations of humanitarian, development, and ‘faith-based’ institutions

  • R Michael Feener
  • Philip Fountain
21 January, 2018

As Development Studies scholars have long argued, the rapid and remarkable growth of nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) since the Second World War has amounted to nothing less than an institutional revolution of the ways in which people around the world organise themselves. But while the scholarly literature on NGOs is vast, and continuing to grow, some themes in the history of NGOs have attracted more attention than others. One remarkable feature is that, historically, relatively little attention has been paid to questions of religion.

This lacuna has recently been addressed by a growing number of voices – including researchers at ODID – that have drawn attention to the pervasive and vital roles that religion plays in shaping the origins, motivations and activities of NGOs.

At the forefront of this emerging movement to take religion seriously were leading figures in the development industry and donor governments, including James Wolfensohn, former President of the World Bank, and Tony Blair, who after stepping down as the UK’s Prime Minister established his own Faith Foundation. A series of initiatives has been launched to tap into the development potential of religious groups, including most recently the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development (PaRD).

This interest in religion within western and ostensibly secular development organisations has made scholarly assumptions of religion’s marginality look increasingly anachronistic. Academics quickly played catch-up, but the focus on religion inspired by mainstream humanitarian and development actors has tended to be quite narrow, often driven out of a felt need to assess what religion can contribute to existing agendas and established practice.

Beyond this, there has been less interest in attempting to understand the more complex and diffuse ways in which religious ideas and institutions have contributed to the shaping of NGOs, and how in some contexts ‘religion’ itself is being transformed in significant ways through entanglements with the structures and programmes of NGOs.

Over much of the past decade our research, together with that of colleagues at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute, has sought to engage with these broader issues. Our work has been particularly focused on Asia, though the implications of our findings are not restricted to any one region. We have examined many different ways in which the religion and NGO nexus is configured through detailed empirical studies of particular cases beyond the more familiar western contexts of Christian ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs).

A focus on particular cases is necessary because both religion and NGOs are, of course, highly diverse. Building upon a diverse body of empirical works in conversation with each other has helped us to identify broader themes for discussion on the interactions of religion and NGOs from a more global perspective. In particular, two major themes have emerged during the course of our research: (1) faith-based organisations are playing significant roles within the fields of development and humanitarianism, and (2) understandings and experiences of religion are being transformed through encounter with NGOs.

Faith-based activism

Any perception that religious NGOs include only small and marginal organisations is displaced when considering World Vision International. In terms of finances, this organisation is the largest single NGO in the world today. In 2015 World Vision had an annual budget of US$2.7 billion, employed 44,000 staff in almost 100 countries, and delivered assistance to over 41 million people each year. World Vision is an explicitly Christian organisation which seeks to “follow our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” in witnessing to the “good news of the Kingdom of God.”

But Christian organisations originating in the West, such as World Vision, represent only the tip of the iceberg. The world of religious NGOs is populated by an increasingly diverse set of religious organisations based all over the globe and coming out of diverse confessional traditions.  

Founded in the UK in the 1980s, Islamic Relief Worldwide and Muslim Aid are two of the most prominent Islamic NGOs, each wielding multi-million-pound budgets. These organisations are thoroughly integrated into the broader development community while also drawing on an explicit Muslim identity, arguing that this affords distinctive advantages for their work among many recipient communities.

The Shanti Volunteer Association is a Japanese Buddhist NGO that was founded at about the same time as the major Islamic organisations. Over the decades since, it has grown rapidly in size and reach, carrying out community development and relief work. Much of this has been directed toward majority Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia, where the Association regularly sends volunteers. It has also, however, established transnational programmes that reach across religious lines, as for example in their work in Afghanistan.

In India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has engaged in ambitions programmes of humanitarian and philanthropic activities as part of a multipronged strategy, also involving political activism and militant mobilisation, toward the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra (nation). While the ideology of the RSS does not attract much broad sympathy outside of India, as Malini Bhattacharjee has recently argued, ignoring the movement’s compassionate side would involve a significant misunderstanding of its appeal for its local supporters.

Regardless as to whether their impact is construed as positive or otherwise by particular observers, it is clear that religious NGOs are actively involved in many of the most important development and humanitarian issues today, ranging from issues of communal violence and refugee displacement to campaigns against human trafficking.

Transforming religions

In the process of their engagements with NGOs the structures, practices, and ideals of diverse religious traditions are themselves coming to be transformed in complex ways. These recent reworkings of the forms and meanings of religion are potentially far-reaching, yet little understood.

The introduction of the NGO as a model of institutional organisation in Indonesia, for example, resulted in the rise of new patterns of ‘doing religion’ which one of us has characterised in an earlier publication as “NGO Islam”. New patterns of financing, authority and accountability, coupled with new mechanisms for transnational connections, have reconfigured what it means to practise Islam for many in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Similar processes of “NGO-ification” are apparent in the case of the Taiwanese Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation. Founded by the charismatic Buddhist nun the Venerable Cheng Yen, Tzu Chi draws on deep Buddhist understandings of merit-making and charity but reconfigures the ways in which these are organised and practised.

One of the main impetuses for religious groups to adopt the NGO form is the need to reorganise to respond to disasters. For example, the mass mobilisation of religious groups in Japan after the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami disaster, and the widespread use of Buddhist temples as relief centres in Szechuan after the 2008 earthquake, saw substantial reconfigurations of religious groups.  

New frontiers in the study of religion and NGOs

The study of the relationships between religion and NGOs remains in its infancy. Research into their complex entanglements has barely begun with only a few of the thousands of religious organisations having received significant scholarly attention. Beyond this, the downstream impacts on religious traditions themselves has scarcely been considered, and deserves much more sustained critical attention.

The contributions to this series on religion and NGOs draw upon cutting edge empirical research about dynamics taking place on the ground in diverse global contexts. Future instalments include pieces by Amelia Fauzia on trans-national Muslim relief work in Myanmar, Giuseppe Bolotta on a Catholic NGO in the slums of Bangkok, Gustav Brown on inter-faith management of religious NGOs in Indonesia and Catherine Scheer on Protestant Christian missionary engagements with minority cultures in Cambodia.

We hope that these interventions might serve to stimulate new thought and further studies on this relatively unexplored area of contemporary global reconfigurations of religion, politics, economy and society.

The series has been produced out of a collaborative research project on ‘Religion and NGOs’ led by R Michael Feener, and funded by the Henry Luce Foundation.

Read all posts in the series here.

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About the author(s)
R Michael Feener
Philip Fountain