Analyzing the diversity of faith-based development NGOs

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Despite predictions of the inevitable advance of secularism, the world remains strongly religious, as evidenced by the resurgence of politically and socially active religious identities in many parts of the world. Many observers have also argued that Western secular-rational models of development (whether neo-liberal or socialist) are failing. As a result, development actors and scholars are examining the relationship of religion and development as well as the role of faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in development efforts. Yet such analysis is no simple matter, given the diverse approaches adopted and roles played by faith-based organizations. Faith-based international NGOs like MCC have long wrestled with how faith and religion, on the one hand, and development and social action, on the other hand, should be related, both theologically and programmatically.

In this article I contribute to this discussion by, first, summarizing and critiquing common typologies of classifying faith-based development organizations. Alternatively, I then propose a three-fold typology of faithbased NGOs, describing the differing theological positions undergirding these three types of faith-based organizations. As with all typologies, this framework for understanding the diversity of faith-based NGOs can be
accused of over-simplifying, yet I hope that the typology might nevertheless generate productive reflection.

Development scholars and actors have proposed various classifications of faith-based development NGOs. Almost all of these approaches adopt a ‘more-to-less’ continuum, categorizing organizations by the (declining) degree of integration of religious belief and development approaches (see, for example, Berger, 2003; Sider and Unruh, 2004; and Clarke, 2008). Such models implicitly follow a type of secularization theory, which assumes that since religion is separate from the rest of culture, it can simply be removed to leave the rest intact.

Countering such models, other writers argue that a continuum approach follows an overly narrow definition of religion, an argument I find  generally persuasive. Rather than defining religion exclusively in terms of belief in a deity or spiritual reality, these scholars contend that traditional religions are only one type of foundational belief system or worldview (e.g. Deneulin with Bano 2009 for a discussion specifically related to religion and development; Naugle, 2002; and most broadly, Calhoun, Juergensmeyer and VanAntwerpen, 2011). All cultures and people-groups hold to certain ‘fundamental agreements’ on what the purpose of human life is and what it means to ‘live well’ (and so become ‘developed’). Thus, all definitions of development (and therefore the goals and purpose of all development organizations) are rooted in faith-like commitments and
traditions. Some of these convictions undergirding differing understandings of development are held through traditionally religious faith, and others are now held through modern secular warranted belief, but all are a type of belief system. The diversity of faith-based and secular development organizations should therefore, these scholars contend, be analyzed as embodying different (religious) beliefs and commitments rather than along a spectrum of more-or-less religious belief.

As my contribution to the ongoing work of analyzing religious actors in development, I propose a conceptual grouping of (Christian) faith-based development NGOs into three categories (faith-based humanitarian, missional, and transformational), with NGOs in each grouping reflecting underlying theological understandings of the world that shape the divergent ways these NGOs approach development. I developed this typology in part based on my research over many years into different faithbased NGOs operating in Haiti.

Faith-based humanitarian NGOs understand their development work as a witness to or expression of God’s love and justice. They draw inspiration for action from religious teachings, but their programming is largely similar to other development organizations. Following the humanitarian aid principle of independence (i.e., that aid should be independent of any political objectives), these organizations do not attempt to directly create any type of ‘religious belief’ change in those they assist. Serving those in need or suffering injustice, for these NGOs, is their Christian witness, their response to the experience of God’s love and Jesus’ incarnation. Service (deed) and evangelism (proclamation) are separated into two separate spheres and roles. This separation of service from evangelism can arise from missiologies that view service as a sufficient witness to God’s love, with evangelistic proclamation of Christ viewed as inappropriate or
exclusivist in a pluralist world. Others view such separation as necessary in order to guard against un-Christ-like conditional assistance that takes advantage of vulnerable and marginalized peoples.

Missional NGOs also separate service and evangelism, but to different ends. [I recognize that some people use the term missional differently than I do here, employing it to describe what I call transformational, viewingthe mission of faith-based organizations being the integral and radical transformation of all life.] For such organizations, service ministry is important, but primarily for its role in preparing the way for the ultimately
more important evangelistic ministry of accompanying people on the path to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. This flows out of a more dualistic body/soul theology. Even when such agencies do not engage in explicit proselytizing, agency staff are expected to be able to testify to their gospel hope when beneficiaries (project participants) raise ‘spiritual’ questions and concerns.

Between these two positions, transformational faith-based NGOs reject dualistic approaches to human life, grounded in the conviction that all areas of life are and should be shaped by foundational Christian commitments. Faith cannot be set aside to make way for purportedly neutral humanitarian efforts, be they in disaster response, education, food security, health or peacebuilding. Rather, for these organizations, development efforts are shaped by and flow from a comprehensive Christian vision of human flourishing. Authentic partnerships, with both organizational and community-based partners, requires that all parties should openly dialogue on their foundational, normative sources of meaning and hope that foster human flourishing.

Typologies typically conclude with the type preferred by the scholar who produced the typology, and this typology is no different: I find the transformational type to be most faithful to the Christian calling. I readily acknowledge that the compartmentalizing approach to faith adopted by the organizations in my faith-based humanitarian category can be attractive: knowing how to appropriately, peacefully and non-coercively witness to our faith is difficult. In certain times and places humanitarian action can be our only witness. Yet authentic witness in the name of Christ should testify in word as well as in deed to the comprehensive and radical nature of God’s transforming love to reconcile all of humanity and creation to God.

Ray Vander Zaag is Associate Professor of International Development Studies at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Berger, Julia. “Religious Nongovernmental Organizations: An Exploratory Analysis.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 14/1 (2003): 15-39.

Calhoun, Craig J., Mark Juergensmeyer and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Rethinking Secularism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Clarke, Gerard. “Faith-based Organizations and International Development: An Overview.” In Development, Civil Society and Faith-based Organizations: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular. Ed. Gerard Clarke and Michael Jennings, 17-45. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Deneulin, Severine, with M. Bano. Religion in Development: Rewriting the Secular Script. London: Zed Books, 2009.

Naugle, David. Worldview: The History of a Concept. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

Sider, Ronald J. and Heidi Rolland Unruh. “Typology of Religious Characteristics of Social Service and Educational Organizations and Programs.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 33/1 (2004): 109-134.

The difference faith makes (Fall 2016)

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

What difference does faith make in disaster relief, community development and peacebuilding? In this issue of Intersections authors answer this question from multiple perspectives and contexts. This framing question could also be stated thus: do faith-based organizations and local faith communities bring distinctive strengths to food security initiatives, conflict prevention efforts, maternal and child health and nutrition projects and more?

The term faith-based organization, or FBO, refers here to organizations with a predominant or exclusive focus on disaster relief, development and/or peacebuilding and with varying degrees of religious self-identification and rootedness in faith communities: some, like MCC, are international, while others, like the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita (CASM) in Honduras, are country-specific. In his article, Ray Vander Zaag sketches a typology of FBOs in the development sphere, introducing readers to the different types of actors grouped under the label. The term local faith communities, or LFCs, in contrast, points to groupings like congregations, synagogues and communities around mosques.

From its inception, MCC has been committed to partnerships with Anabaptist and other churches. Some actors in the international development sphere, however, raise a variety of skeptical concerns about FBOs and LFCs. A study commissioned in 2014 by Lutheran World Relief of senior development professionals working for USAID and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) regarding their perceptions of FBOs found ambivalent attitudes. On the one hand, respondents generally affirmed FBOs as a positive force in international development efforts, thanks to their connectedness to local networks and their responsiveness to beneficiaries. At the same time, respondents voiced multiple concerns. Some of these worries revolved around the effectiveness of FBO efforts: respondents rated FBOs lower than non-faith-based NGOs and for-profit development contractors regarding responsiveness to governmental donors, ability to implement and scale-up quickly and relative levels of professionalism and technical expertise. A significant number of respondents also expressed concerns about FBOs tying their services to religious identification and to proselytizing efforts: in this issue, Bruce Guenther discusses humanitarian principles of independence and impartiality and examines how FBOs like MCC work with such principles.

Recognizing the negative perceptions some development actors hold of FBOs, several organizations (including Christian Aid, Islamic World Relief and Tearfund) have formed the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLIFLC) to promote and share evidence-based assessments of the positive difference FBOs and LFCs make in disaster relief, development and peacebuilding. In its evidence briefs, the JLIFLC echoes points made by other development actors and scholars (e.g.,GiZ, 2015; Barnett and Stein, 2012) about the particular strengths and contributions FBOs and LFCs bring to humanitarian efforts. The points include the following:

  • FBOs have networks of connection and partnership with LFCs that give initiatives carried out by FBOs and their LFC partners greater geographical reach (offering access to remote areas) and longer-term sustainability.
  • LFCs are often a source of volunteers who are highly motivated to care for their
    neighbors and who can ensure the durable impact of particular initiatives. The care groups described by Beth Good in her article are composed of such church based
    volunteers, volunteers who promote vaccination, breastfeeding and other health behaviors among pregnant and new mothers in order to improve maternal and child health and nutrition outcomes.
  • In contexts in which government institutions are weak and lack popular legitimacy, religious leaders and institutions often retain authority and trust within targeted communities. Working with LFCs is thus often essential to the success of project interventions.
  • Churches, mosques and other LFCs are often best positioned to be first responders in times of disaster or other crises, investing their own resources in such responses, and can be mobilized as part of larger, longer-term disaster preparedness and risk reduction efforts.
  • LFCs foster hope and resilience in communities devastated by disaster and violent conflict (Ager, 2015).
  • Trusted religious leaders are often better placed than governmental or other actors to help shape and change community norms. So, for example, pastors, imams and other religious leaders can play essential roles in campaigns against gender-based violence by articulating religious arguments for why violence against women is wrong and why respecting the dignity of women is theologically mandated (Le Roux, 2011). Similarly, religiously-grounded arguments can often prove more persuasive in local communities than arguments made in supposedly universalist language. In this issue Vurayayi Pugeni and Dan Wiens offer an example of this dynamic in their article analyzing how presenting conservation agriculture practices as “farming God’s way” helps overcome farmer resistance to adopting non-traditional, labor intensive methods.
  • While religion is often deployed as a frame to justify various types of conflict, religious leaders can, as Wade Snowdon and Mark Tymm explore in their articles, prove essential to conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts. At the same time, as Lindsey Frye shows in her article, practical efforts like kitchen garden promotion that bring members of different religious groups together around concrete projects can foster and strengthen bonds across religious divides, in turn contributing to longer-term conflict prevention.

Does faith make a difference? As an organization that has served for nearly a century “in the name of Christ,” MCC is convinced that the answer to the question is yes. The articles below reflect ongoing attempts by MCC and other FBOs to reflect on and articulate the what and the how of that difference.

Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning and learning for MCC.

Learn more:

Ager, Joey, et al. “Local Faith Communities and the Promotion of Resilience in Contexts of
Humanitarian Crisis.” Journal of Refugee Studies 28/2 (2015); 202-221.

Barnett, Michael and Janice Gross Stein. Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

GiZ. More than Anything: The Contribution of Religious Communities to Sustainable
Development. Bonn: Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit, 2015. Available at

JLIFLC. Evidence for Religious Groups’ Contributions to Humanitarian Response. Evidence Briefs Submitted to the World Humanitarian Summit, May 2016, by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Available at

Le Roux, Elisabet. Silent No More: The Untapped Potential of the Church in Addressing Sexual Violence. Teddington, UK: Tearfund, 2011. Available at

Community-based natural resource management (Spring 2016 issue)

The equitable and sustainable management of natural resources is essential in MCC’s work to improve food security and livelihoods. However, there are inherent complexities associated with how these resources should be managed and by whom. Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) emphasizes the role of communities in making decisions about how natural resources are controlled. In contrast to top-down management approaches, CBNRM recognizes that communities are best positioned to make management decisions due to their intimate knowledge of local ecological conditions, traditional management practices and local interests and preferences.

The articles included in this issue of Intersections explore what effective and successful CBNRM looks like in a variety of contexts and identify common themes that arise when working at CBNRM. The first theme emerging from these articles is the complexity in the relationships among actors in CBNRM processes, including communities, local governments, national governments, NGOs and the private sector. These actors have different goals and motivations for engaging in natural resource management, as well as differing approaches to community participation. While multiple actors can work collaboratively to strengthen resource management, more often this dynamic generates complications and tensions stemming from competing interests.

Secondly, these articles raise important questions regarding the role of NGOs like MCC in CBNRM specifically and community development more generally. How can NGOs most effectively support communities as they take the lead in managing their natural resources, particularly when complex relationships exist among actors? Several articles in this issue address this question from numerous angles and contexts.

As these articles demonstrate, community-based natural resource management is not a straight-forward process. Many challenges exist within community engagement processes, especially when other actors (government institutions, private sector actors, NGOs) are involved. Despite complications within CBNRM, community ownership and active participation in managing natural resources can be successful. In instances where the CBNRM process has fallen short, opportunities exist for improvement.

Amy Martens is a research associate in the Planning, Learning and Disaster Response department. Allison Enns is an MCC food security and livelihoods coordinator.