Humanitarian or missionary?
Noreen Fagan | October 27, 2014Andrea Paras is a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the relationship between religion and humanitarian work. She explores how the religious values of different humanitarian organizations affect their practices, and how Christians in Canadian faith-based organizations distinguish themselves between missionary and development work. âI am trying to question the idea that there is a strict separation between the religious and the secular,â says Paras. âIt is something that is taken for granted by Western societies â the assumption that religion should be delegated to the private sphere.â Paras argues that going into a foreign country to deliver relief or assistance has strong historical roots in religious activity, and that religious actors have been involved with development work since it started. However, over the last 50 years the dynamics of humanitarian aid have changed, and so have the requirements for organizations interested in development work. For Canadian faith-based organizations to receive funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (formerly known as the Canadian International Development Agency or CIDA) they are required in to separate their development work from their religious mandate. This mandatory adherence to a secular format prompts Paras to question whether religious organizations can separate the two, and if they are really different from any other humanitarian organization. âI donât think they are that separate,â says Paras. âOrganizations buy into the secular fiction, but once they go down that road it can put them in tricky position. If they go too far away from their religious identities then their church-based constituencies start getting worried.â She says ultimately secular and the non-secular agencies may assume different appearances, but in humanitarian work they share a common set of values. âIf you look at the values ofÂ dignity and humanity that Medecins Sans Frontiere talks about, they are not all that different from the values that would motivate a Christian or a Muslim organization, â says Paras. She states these values are rooted in western values, which are in turn based on religious beliefs. But, as the Western worldâs approach to development changed, the religious tenets gave way to a more humanistic set of values. âAs Western society in general became more secular, the [development] organizations that emerged wanted to do the same kind of work, but not for religious reasons,â says Paras. In Canada, this shift from the religious to the secular became more apparent as the amount of humanitarian aid increased. Audiences started to understand the problems associated with development work. Hence, over the last 20 years agencies have steered away from the traditional paternalistic approach to development. The same fear of paternalism extends to faith-based organizations. âThey [Canadian audiences] are putting pressure of church-based agencies to stay relevant and to minimize the negative effect of what they are doing,â says Paras. In order to minimize any negativity, religious organizations have become more self-reflexive about their own identities, and more concerned about staying relevant. By staying relevant, Paras means faith-based organizations have to prove they are equitable, non-discriminatory, and that they engage multiple-faith audiences in their work. While non-secular organizations may only be driven by humanistic values, faith-based agencies still have to find a balance between satisfying their church-based constituents and their role in development. They have to position themselves very carefully between secular donors and church-based audiences that might expect certain things of them. Finding the right balance can be tricky. âIf they stay too close to their traditional mandates â and this is the case for a number of organizations in Canada that started off as traditional missionary sending agencies â they risk becoming extinct,â says Paras.