Religious and secular NGOs in the slums of Bangkok: why a sharp dividing line is unhelpful and mistaken

  • Giuseppe Bolotta
12 February, 2018

In the slums of Bangkok, children simultaneously benefit from the humanitarian assistance of Catholic, Buddhist and officially secular local and international NGOs.

The presence of secular NGOs is mostly legitimised by a transnational discourse focused on the concept of children’s rights. But despite the fact that the concept of rights is expressed in terms of international law, it is far from being religiously neutral.

At the same time, NGOs led by religious actors are open about their confessional commitments, while engaging with the ‘worldly’ economic and political dimensions of development.

Rather than seeing religious and secular NGOs as opposite to each other, ‘faith-based’ and ‘secular’ organisations intersect and interact with each other in complex ways in the spheres of humanitarian and development work. The interweaving of religious and secular agendas in NGOs in Thailand involves historical, economic and political dynamics.


NGOs began to spread through the Thai capital’s shantytowns during the 1970s. In this context, many NGOs emerged as part of a strategic secular repositioning of previously explicitly religious actors.

For example, until the 1960s, Christian missionaries’ evangelistic efforts mainly focused on non-Thai and non-Buddhist hill tribes of the North. With the proliferation of NGOs, missionaries began new projects engaging with poor Buddhist citizens of the capital. They did so by establishing formally secular aid agencies that nevertheless often also pursued religious ideals through new structures and mechanisms.

International trends in development have also affected Thai Buddhism over recent decades. With the coming of western NGOs and the proliferation of Christian charities in Thailand, some Buddhist temples have responded by replicating some of the same models and practices of service provision and the promotion of agendas for ‘social development’.

Fig 1: Poster portraying Buddha together with Jesus Christ in a Catholic private school in Bangkok

The moral economy of childhood

In the context of Bangkok’s slums, the economic functioning of development agencies both shapes and is shaped by religious discourses and practices. Like secular NGOs promoting children’s rights, the activities of Catholic NGOs are funded in the form of child-sponsorship or ‘long-distance adoption’ programmes.

The strategy to mobilise international donor support is based on the ‘mercification’ of the sponsored children’s cases through the deployment of dramatic pictures and biographies. Photographs of slum children, accompanied by stories that emphasise their dramatic plight, are effective in eliciting donors’ compassion and economic solidarity.

This emotional and economic exchange can be usefully thought of in terms of a ‘moral economy’ of childhood. It is important to note a number of features associated with this moral economy.

Christian NGOs, for example, explicitly refer to children as sacred by drawing on a biblical and theological language of children as ‘little ones' needing to be saved and protected. In contrast, secular NGOs secularise the sacredness of children through the concept of children’s rights.

Even in this latter case, however, the highly emotional value of suffering children and the consequent compassionate response from donors are both quite clearly related to a diffused sense of Christian moral ethos. Secular development agencies like UNICEF might, in this sense, be seen as economically capitalising on a moral response which is historically shaped by the symbolic and emotive heritage of Christianity.

UNICEF Thailand’s ‘Child Protection’ fundraising campaign © UNICEF Thailand/2011/Athit (retrieved on 24 February 2017 from:

Buddhist NGOs are also being re-shaped through engagement with development discourses and practices. Some Buddhist monks heading charitable organisations in the slums, for example, have developed doctrinal innovations that work to give religious legitimacy to the projects of their own NGOs.

The traditional Buddhist notion of merit-making, for example, has been reformed in relation to the idea of economic transaction: to financially sustain monks’ social development programmes is to gain both merit and ‘secular happiness’ at the same time. In their recast roles, the leadership qualities of Buddhist monks have thus been expanded to now include spiritual guidance, administrative responsibilities, use of media technologies, fundraising and financial affairs, highlighting the relations between Theravada Buddhism and development in contemporary Thailand.

This-worldly religion

The engagement of religious actors in development expresses a worldly orientation. This worldly engagement has produced theological innovations within both dominant Thai Buddhism and Christianity. These innovations, moreover, involve important political dimensions.

For example, the Catholic missionaries I research in Thailand are committed to applying the principles of liberation theology in the context of Bangkok’s urban poverty, while some Buddhist monks involved in social services and development are exponents of socially engaged Buddhism.

Engaged Buddhism and Christian liberation theologies share a reformed understanding of salvation as deeply anchored to the worldly, material ‘here and now’ rather than only to the metaphysic ‘there and after’.

Within this new soteriology, liberation or salvation is no longer conceived only as an individual commitment to spiritually access an other-worldly reality. Rather, salvation is gained in this world and realised through the religious promotion of socio-political justice and human rights.

In socially engaged Buddhism, there is a new religious awareness of the social, economic, political and institutional determinants of suffering (dhukka) which produces secular strategies to religiously support the poor.

Similarly, some of the Christian missionaries leading NGOs in the slums of Bangkok are far from considering the poor as sinners to be spiritually saved. Rather they conceptualise the poor in a sacralised sense as oppressed and in need of liberation, while the concept of sin is moved outside the individual and located in the economic and socio-political processes producing poverty in Thai society.   

The organisational and legal structure of the NGO form works as an ideal institutional framework for these world-oriented theological approaches. It is also possible to argue that the very emergence of these approaches has been somehow favoured by the entanglement of religion with secular development.

The secular concepts of human rights and social justice are theologically appropriated by both Buddhist and Christian NGOs, and religiously addressed through secular development strategies. Of course, this produces political results which deserve to be investigated, particularly now, while the Thai military junta’s political violence is primarily targeting those very minority groups religious NGOs are working with.

The work of Catholic, Buddhist and secular NGOs in the slums of Bangkok show the kaleidoscopic relationship between religion and secular development.  According to the point of observation, this relationship seems to produce an infinite grid of duplicate images mirroring each other and revealing the complexities of the entanglements between religion, politics and economy in Thailand as in many parts of the contemporary world.

This post is part of a series on Religion and NGOs edited by R Michael Feener and Philip Fountain. Read their introductory post here and all posts in the series here.

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.

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About the author(s)
Giuseppe Bolotta

© UNICEF (see further information in text)