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Religious Humanitarianism in a Neoliberal Age

Date:12 September 2012
Author:Religion Factor
Religious Humanitarianism
Religious Humanitarianism

Guest contributor Cecelia Lynch explores how neoliberalism, a phenomenon closely connected with the rise of the post-secular, is affecting the language and practice of religious humanitarian organizations.

Part of my current work involves interviewing representatives from various humanitarian organizations, religious and secular, on the place of religion in contemporary development and humanitarian aid work. Invariably, these interviews touch on issues of language and word choice, particularly for faith-based organisations (FBOs) trying to navigate their way through donor contexts that are predominantly secular, and practical situations on-the-ground that are often multi-faith. A representative from one such Christian transnational humanitarian organization says they use human rights language because it is “salient” and provides a common point of departure for working with non-Christian, and especially secular, organizations.  The director of another Christian transnational humanitarian organization in New York asserts that the “development model” is more rooted in Gospel teachings than the “charity model”.

Religious humanitarianism is not new by any means. But it seems to me that increasing neoliberalization of the global development context has led to fundamental changes in the ways in which religious NGOs describe and carry out their activities. I explore some of those changes here. I focus primarily on data from Christian NGOs, but similar dynamics are at play within FBOs from other traditions as well.

Religious  conceptions of rights have ranged from group to individual to political to economic to cultural conceptions. However, a common conceptual thread is found in the notion of “human dignity.”  Dignity connotes, in Charles Taylor’s terms, “human flourishing” or the ability of people to fulfill meaningful aspirations beyond mere subsistence.  Yet contemporary religious humanitarianism also operates in a context where civil society organizations writ large have become an indispensable component of global governance mechanisms comprising transnational as well as local and faith-based NGOs, donors, foundations, and multilateral agencies. Scholars increasingly point out that the discourses and practices of global economic and political liberalism enable and even necessitate NGO growth and inclusion in providing health care, development services, disaster relief, and conflict resolution procedures, especially after the end of the Cold War. This phenomenon takes place against the rise of neoliberalism since the 1980s.

Rights-talk and developmentalism tend to fit well within this context, in which increasing numbers of NGOs perform tasks that were once considered the responsibility of the state. Yet the state has not disappeared, taking instead the form of “donor agencies” that channel massive amounts of funding through NGOs, including faith-based ones. A key challenge for Christian (and indeed all religious humanitarian organisations) is how to balance their own faith-based commitments to human dignity with donor demands for “success” and “accountability”, increasingly measured in neoliberal terms such as efficiency and growth.

The pressure for market-based results and success affects faith-based NGOs in two main ways – the language they use and the programs they promote. In interviews I have conducted in Kenya, Geneva, New York, and elsewhere, it is clear that most religious FBOs consider “rights-talk” to be the primary way in which claims in favor of dignity can be made (despite some opposition from religious donor congregations who consider rights language too “secular”). Further, religious FBOs increasingly use particular terminology to engage in development and assess the results of various projects.  Development language tends to promote solutions through results-oriented market discourses that value and prioritize efficiency.  This language can influence both the conceptualizations and programmatic objectives of religious humanitarians.  The result is a globalized NGO discourse that requires recipient organizations to mold their work into buzz-word categories such as “training,” “capacity-building,” and “partnership” (Lynch 2009). All of these, in Christian organizations, are then shaped into programs to relieve suffering and promote human dignity. These programs, including controversial microfinance projects, reflect the uneasy tension FBOs grapple with in trying to marry the goal of promoting human dignity with neoliberal criteria for success.


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