"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 23, 2013

Faith-Based Foreign Aid? A Very Bad Idea

I had a friend who had worked for many years in international development, first as a founder and managing partner in a new private, non-governmental enterprise which assisted foreign governments in strategic health planning, and later as a private economic consultant.

“You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”, asked the Director of a well-known faith-based organization here in Washington, hearing my friend’s surname. “So I presume that you have not accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior”.

My friend thought a moment before answering, at first wanting to challenge this preposterous statement and wanting even more to put this unctuous, pompous asshole in his place. He looked around the room, saw the benevolent pictures of Jesus with the poor, Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes, and Jesus curing the sick; and knew that he was in enemy territory.  Response would be foolish and, given the fixed, sanctimonious smile on the Director’s face, a total waste of time.

“All our employees are Christians”, said the Director, “and it is Jesus – no one else – who guides our work.  If an employee does not know Him and is not guided by His hand, he cannot do God’s work”.

Unmentioned, however, were the tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars funneled into this charlatan shop. On the pretense of providing aid and technical assistance to the poor, it was simply trolling for souls. No one in Washington ever minded that it never had any impact whatsoever on the economic or social well-being of its intended beneficiaries. Both the Congress and the President were quite happy to trot out the Director, invite him to prayer breakfasts and let him, once again, invoke the good offices of Our Lord in public.

I took a consultancy assignment to a newly independent Eastern European country shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union.  My job was to evaluate an American religious organization affiliated with one of the mega-churches and its well-known televangelist pastor.  The organization had received millions to dig deep wells to replace the polluted and decrepit ones left by the Soviet regime.  The whole operation was a sham.  Half the wells were built for the organization’s own churches and schools.  The warehouse supposedly built to house drilling equipment was overbuilt and used to store used clothing donated by the faithful back in Atlanta; and the only wells dug outside the perimeter were for Christian churches.  Up until my coming, the mega-church representatives had been given a free ride.  Don’t ask, don’t tell had been the rule.  The the famous Bible-thumping evangelist seen weekly on his television show had a huge following and contributed mightily to the Republican party.  No one wanted to rattle his cage.

Years later I took another assignment, this time to Rwanda, to help the country design its first National HIV/AIDS Prevention Plan.  One morning I sat at the breakfast table with two missionaries.  They were in Kigali volunteering for their church in Little Rock whose donations helped fund the humanitarian effort managed by a larger religious NGO similar to the one which had rejected my Jewish friend.

After we had gotten to know each other a bit, one of the women said, “Yesterday, we witnessed a miracle”.  Her colleague nodded and smiled.  “We had planned to serve a hot meal for 50 children – you know, those poor little ones living in the slumst”. She stopped, looked meaningfully out across the city to the hills beyond and continued, “The lilies of the field which have not been allowed to flower.

“After a half-hour of distributing food, we saw that there wouldn’t be enough.  The number of mothers lined up at our door was at least 100 and many more were arriving.  All we could do was to keep feeding and to pray for a miracle”.  Again she paused, looking knowingly at her friend and smiling.

“Jesus looked down on us and said, ‘No child will go hungry’, and lo and behold, our food never ran out.  No matter how many children opened their hungry mouths to us, the food was rich and plentiful.  It was a miracle”.

In the late 70s I lived in Ecuador and had a chance to travel in the high jungle.  Upon arriving I was told that I should visit an American family living nearby.  I was given directions, and the next day rode an hour in the back of a pickup down a rutted, dusty road to visit. What I saw as I drove up was a mirage – a white, Iowa farmhouse with a porch swing, picket fence, trellis of tropical flowers, and an old-fashioned well.  Two little blonde girls, dressed in petticoats and pinafores were playing on the lawn.

The Hendersons were warm, friendly, and hospitable.  They invited me in for dinner -  a full spread of pot roast, garden vegetables, mashed potatoes, milk, and blueberry pie.  After dinner, the father and I sat on the porch swing, and he told me what they were doing in this remote part of the high Amazon.

“We are bringing the Lord to these people”, he said, pointing to a group of Amazonian Indians who were working the fields nearby. “Before we came, they worshipped trees, rocks, and animals, if you can believe it.  Pagan, heathen beliefs.  The lived in a dark, godless world.  They wore no clothes, copulated like buffalo, and had no shame.”  He paused to sip his tea and reached for his Bible.

“We brought them the Word of God”, he said, tapping the well-worn leather cover of the book.  First we only read to them, and then, with the help of Jesus, we taught them to read.  We clothed their shame, righted their ways, and they joined the communion of the Lord”.  A young Indian came out to the porch with glasses of lemonade.  “Jose”, he said, “What did the Lord say to the Pharisees in the Temple?”.  Jose, still holding the silver tray, recited, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”  He stumbled over the verses a bit. ‘Pharisees’ came out ‘Frizzies’, and he mumbled the last few words, but both he and the missionary were proud of the performance.

“See”, the missionary said.  “The Lord’s work has been done”.

He went on to tell me that his little jungle enterprise was supported by his church back in the United States and through the generosity of yet another mega-church NGO in Nashville which in turn received funding from the US government.  I asked him how his religious mission satisfied the secular provisions of a US government contract. “Oh that”, he sneered. “We distribute anti-worm medicine and once a year our people in Quito come down to vaccinate the children.  It doesn’t interrupt our real work too much”.

I could go on.  I worked for over 40 years in international development and ran across these crazies in every country I visited.  George W. Bush gave the so-called ‘faith-based’ organizations a big boost, and extra points were given for every subcontract given to one of these Christian operations. As a Director in a large Washington firm which did all of its business with the US Government, I was told that I had to include at least one faith-based organization in every proposal bid I prepared.  As soon as word got out that the federal sluice gates had opened, every possible Christian organization quickly registered and lined up for money. I got applications from every crackpot, cockamamie, fly-by-night, street-corner group in the United States.  They would call me, email, and even show up unannounced at my door.  Their ships had come in, and they were ready to be paid.

Under the US government contracting system, no prime contractor actually has to use the services of subcontractors; but everyone knows that most of the women-owned, small-business, Vietnam-era, and faith-based groups are recruited just for show.  Under Bush, however, more and more money had to flow through them.  It wasn’t enough to have Partners in Christ on the proposal cover.  They had to receive and spend money in the field.

According to Katherine Marshall writing in The Guardian (8.23.13)

The launch of the new US State Department's Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives this month by Secretary John Kerry has prompted a slew of questions and something of a stir: is such a new office needed? What will it do? Are there special risks involved? Is it proper, in the light of the fabled Jeffersonian "wall of separation" between religion and state?

Obviously Obama is pandering to the religious right and the 60 percent plus Americans who hold fundamentalist Christian beliefs.  It is his way of mollifying the anti-government Tea Partiers, holding off his critics who claim that he is a Muslim, and getting nods of approval if not applause from a very religiously conservative Congress.  For Obama and all presidents before him, not only is there no downside to funding religious groups, there is political hay to be reaped.

Marshall argues in favor of faith-based initiatives because the world’s population is overwhelmingly religious, and because the moral teachings of religions are universal, foundational, and should be the guiding principles of any enterprise.

This is all well and good. Who can argue the correctness of the Sermon on the Mount or the wisdom of the Ten Commandments?  It’s just that saving souls – the bread and butter of faith-based organizations – gets in the way of everything else.

Many years ago, I worked for a major international relief and development organization in India.  The Director was a big, bluff, ex-longshoreman who had been recruited in the post-WWII years when the organization was in the business of delivering relief packages to the displaced of Europe.  By the time I joined, the company had expanded its scope and was now distributing surplus US farm commodities throughout the developing world. A lot of non-profit organizations were competing for distribution rights because revenues were based in large part on the quantity of food delivered.

One day our Director convened a meeting to discuss the inroads that an upstart religious organization had been making in the country.  It had to be stopped at all costs.  One of my colleagues opined that there certainly was room for all, and that Children Are Beautiful was operating far beyond our perimeter.

The Director reddened and the veins on his thick neck, still strong and massive even though the docks of Hoboken were far behind him, bulged and throbbed.  “Fuck Children Are Beautiful”, he spat.  “Fuck ‘em. Erase them.”

The world of international development, whether peopled by secular or religious organizations is as territorial, cut-throat, and aggressive as any corporate one.  It was all fine and dandy that Children Are Beautiful subscribed to the teachings of Jesus Christ and answered to a higher calling.  They were still elbowing for influence and money in Washington and on the Gangetic Plain.

Secretary of State Kerry talks of listening, sharing, and respect; and especially bringing more religious actors ‘to the table’.  These platitudes, nostrums, and feel-good slogans are empty, shopworn, and worthless.  Christian evangelists, like those of any religion, are up to no good.  They are motivated by parochial if not venal and self-serving interests and cannot be trusted with secular investments.

This position of the State Department does not surprise me. Just as our invasion of Iraq was based on vague, quasi-religious, idealistic neo-con sentiments of bringing democracy (our secular Jesus) to the Middle East, our promotion of Christian morality, ideals, and principles is just as out of place in a world of realpolitik and international competition.

Leave the preachers to their American flock.  There they can preach to the converted and do far less harm than if they are released into the wild.

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