Humanitarianism’s Proselytism Problem

The question of whether and how aid helps or harms recipient populations, sometimes referred to as “the great aid debate,” increasingly includes discussion of the impact of faith-based organizations (FBOs), or religious humanitarians. Yet the question of whether religious aid groups help or hurt recipient populations tends to be framed as a problem of proselytism. We agree that proselytism is problematic. However, we argue that the focus on religious agents alone stems from a presumption about secularism regarding humanitarian aid which assumes both that aid should be framed in secular (i.e., non-religious) terms only, and also that any inclusion of religion can only be for nefarious purposes of conversion (Paras 2012:239). We argue that this secular fiction, combined with a lack of knowledge regarding the complexity of religious ethics, masks the differences and debates within and among Christian FBOs about the meanings and role of proselytism in development and aid. Moreover, we also argue that the secular fiction has prevented sufficient examination of an additional, and very potent, form of pressure on aid deliverers and recipients, which we call “donor proselytism.”

Our interviews with Christian groups in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S. demonstrate the contestation among Christian humanitarians about what constitutes proselytism. These and other interviews, together with NGO conference observations, also show how donor pressures shape aid to conform to neoliberal conceptions of efficiency, sustainability, and measurable results. We assert that humanitarian NGOs are players in both religious and donor forms of proselytism, enacting religious and/or donor guidelines in their programs and practices vis-à-vis recipient populations. It is these populations who in turn bear the brunt of religious and/or neoliberal pressures, which influence their livelihoods and their ways of life.

Ultimately, we assert that donor proselytism is in fact the more pervasive of the two. Both scholars and policy-makers, therefore, should take into account the complexity of religious ethics regarding proselytism as well as the power of donor proselytism to affect the lives of those receiving humanitarian assistance.

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