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Can faith-based organisations offer a different way of development?

By Calypso April, Ysabel Hannam, Jessica Brown, Freddie Gilbey, Lucie Bataller, and Sarah Keogh

Faith-based organisations, or FBOs, use their values and networks to plan and practice development. In this piece, we seek to uncover whether or not this means that FBOs can offer a different method of development to the norm – the norm being the work of secular non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It must be noted that our aim is not to evaluate FBOs against secular organisations or to conclude which method is better. In addition, the category of FBOs is broad, so we have chosen to focus on the work of Christian international FBOs.

Before examining what FBOs can offer to the field of humanitarian work, we first offer a definition. FBOs are religious organisations that are driven to carry out humanitarian or development aid because of their religious values. Whilst some organisations focus on evangelising, others seek to carry out humanitarian work because they see it as the right thing to do (Kline 2010). Christian charities especially have a problematic history, since Christian aid practices have historically involved missionary-style interventions, with a strong emphasis on proselytising and conversion. Whilst we acknowledge that these practices still exist today, in this blog post we will be focusing on charities that do not pose these kinds of problems.

Development projects by NGOs often fall short of their initial aims and objectives. The reasons behind this are explored by David Craig and Doug Porter (1997) and exemplified by James Ferguson’s (1990) ethnographic study in Lesotho. Craig and Porter (1997) extend the idea that development projects, professionals and organisations are ‘primarily instruments of control, rather than of participation’ (230).  These instruments of control materialise in bureaucratic frames, which limit the ability of local people to express their own needs and desires.

These issues are demonstrated in Ferguson’s study of the widely considered failure of the Thaba-Tseka project. Ferguson (1990) argues that the project’s failure to transform livestock practices was a result of incorrect assumptions made about the characteristics of the target population (192). From his ethnography we can understand the development apparatus as a ‘situation in which “failure” is the norm’ (254). If this mode of secular development outlined by Craig and Porter, and illustrated by Ferguson, is regarded as the norm, we should perhaps look to FBOs for alternative perspectives.

Dena Freeman’s (2018) work on Tearfund provides evidence for how FBOs can do development differently. Tearfund is a British FBO that mainly works in international settings. They focus on poverty alleviation through disaster response, community development, envisioning churches[1] and policy change (Tearfund, 2018). Through her ethnographic research, Freeman found that there is a difference between people with faith practising secular development or ‘Christians doing development’, and Christian values being at the heart of the design and implementation of development, ‘doing Christian development’ (2018: 280).

Freeman explains that the historical background to Tearfund’s practices was similar to secular development. Christian values influenced and motivated people to engage in development work, but that was the extent of Christianity in Tearfund. After a consultation about the theology of development,[2] Tearfund decided that their practice of development needed to be more in line with their understanding of Christianity, namely that being Christian was about transformation in all aspects of life, rather than just going to church on a Sunday. Subsequently, Tearfund began to use the word ‘transformation’ to describe their mission. This word has a strong biblical connotation and emphasises holistic change (Freeman 2018: 284), which is in line with their ideas of Christianity affecting all areas of one’s life. Tearfund put its Christian values into the design and implementation of their development – read transformation – work.

Freeman’s work on Tearfund provides evidence for how FBOs can do development differently. By using the networks that are already in place thanks to local churches, FBOs like Tearfund are able to reach deeper into communities (see also Kline, 2010). The long-standing existence of these local religious institutions also adds to the potential sustainability of these development projects. As such, FBOs are able to include local populations in many aspects of develoment projects, which does not happen as much in secular development agencies.

Furthermore, FBOs act as facilitators, rather than as directors or managers of projects (Freeman 2018: 286). This means that they take on a supporting role and are guided by the wants and needs of local communities, rather than impose their own specific goals. Local people can call on FBOs for support, different from development agencies implementing top-down approaches. These approaches offer something other than traditional development.

However, FBOs can be responsible for introducing problems into communities, as Erica Bornstein (2001) highlights in her study of World Vision. Bornstein exposes the conflict between the notion of the ‘Christian family’ and Zimbabwean culture that manifests as a result of World Vision’s child sponsorship programme. World Vision in Zimbabwe encourages giving as a selfless act which aligns with Christian traditions. However, the existing culture of giving in Zimbabwe is limited to the extended family, so the work of such FBOs can create tensions within a local community.

For example, a family can be targeted by others because they are recipients of a sponsorship programme. Similarly, World Vision can unintentionally create inequality and conflict within a family. A former sponsored child explained to Bornstein that his receipt of money from a stranger made his family jealous; his stepmother didn’t understand why her other children couldn’t benefit as well. Thus, the work of World Vision doesn’t necessarily align with local expectations of how resources will be distributed and managed in international aid.

In conclusion, the central beliefs of FBOs enable avenues of intervention different from secular organisations. This difference manifests ambivalently as Christianity is not always universal. Local churches and international organisations often hold very different perceptions of faith which can lead to conflict. Whilst FBOs create space for alternative methods of intervention, the extent to which they’re more productive than secular ones is a matter for further research.


[1] Which essential entails attempting to ‘spread the vision’ (Freeman 2018:287) of missionary work.

[2] Convened by the World Evangelical Fellowship (Freeman 2018: 283).


Bornstein, E. (2001) ‘Child Sponsorship, Evangelism, and Belonging in the Work of World Vision Zimbabwe’, American Ethnologist, 28 (3), pp. 595–622.

Craig, D. and Porter, D. (1997) ‘Framing Participation: Development Projects, Professionals and Organizations’, Development in Practice, 7(3), pp. 229–237.

Ferguson, J. (1994) ‘The Anti-Politics Machine’, in The Anti-Politics Machine: “Development,” Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 251-278.

Freeman, D. (2018) ‘From ‘Christians Doing Development’ to ‘Doing Christian Development’: The Changing Role of Religion in the International Work of Tearfund’, Development in Practice, 28 (2), pp. 280-291.

Kline, N. (2010). Disparate Power and Disparate Resources: Collaboration Between Faith-Based and Activist Organisations for Central Florida Farmworkers, NAPA Bulletin, 33, pp.126-142.

Tearfund. (2018). Tearfund: Homepage. Available at: [Accessed on: 29th November 2018].