Not Your Grandma's Church Charity: Today's Faith-Based Organizations Play Vital Role in Efforts To Alleviate Poverty, Global Hunger

Tilling the soil in Bihar, India.
Tilling the soil in Bihar, India.

By Daniel Speckhard, President and CEO, Lutheran World Relief

With a long history of charitable work, a global reach, and decades of experience and technical expertise, faith-based international development organizations have become key players in delivering US humanitarian assistance, supporting global agricultural development, and building food security abroad.

They constitute nearly 60 percent of US-based international development organizations, and groups like World Vision and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) are among the largest and most respected by their peers in the humanitarian sector. Their role is all the more significant at a time when private flows to the developing world, including investment, remittances, foundations, and the resources of NGOs and faith-based organizations greatly outpace Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Historically, many of the well-known American faith-based humanitarian groups, including CRS, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), the American Friends Service Committee, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, were formed during and after the World Wars to provide relief for war victims and refugees. In the post-war period, they quickly moved beyond Europe to address needs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and evolved from charitable agencies often with volunteer or clergy staff providing immediate humanitarian relief to sophisticated and innovative practitioners of long-term, sustainable development.

And to borrow from an old cliché, these modern faith-based NGOs are not your grandmother’s church-based charity. They still respond to emergencies, whether man-made or natural disasters, in increasingly unsafe environments. But they have become international development practitioners on the cutting edge of the sector, incorporating approaches such as using new information communications technologies (ICT) to facilitate knowledge flow and data collection in the field. Instead of providing relief aid to food-insecure subsistence farmers, for example, they are working to provide technical know-how and create linkages along the market value chain that will increase incomes and improve life for their families and communities over the long term. For example, through LWR’s Mobile Cocoa project, we are seeking to make poor, rural cocoa farmers in Central America more competitive in the market by digitizing and conveying training and best farming practices that they can access with their mobile phone.

In Nicaragua, cocoa producers use smart phones to take photographs and send and receive messages pertaining to their crops
In Nicaragua, cocoa producers use smart phones to take photographs and send and receive messages pertaining to their crops

Increasingly, these international faith-based organizations are helping to form public-private partnerships with a convening power that brings together faith community donors, US government agencies, and influential foundations with private-sector entities that help bring projects to larger scale and make them sustainable. For LWR, this “relational capital” to Lutheran donors in the United States, and also to farmer cooperatives in Africa, drives us to respond to new challenges with and through communities. A failure to do so—as I observed in my time as the director of reconstruction in Iraq a decade ago—undermines buy-in and sustainability.

A new LWR project in southern Niger aims to reduce poverty by increasing farmer incomes through just such a consortium. In it, LWR will work with a wide array of partners: the United States Agency for International Development (USAID); the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies; mobile telecommunications provider Bharti Airtel Limited; African financial services provider Ecobank; SH Biaugeaud, a fruit and vegetable processing firm; and four local farming cooperatives. These kinds of wide-ranging partnerships diversify funding and bring a spectrum of expertise from the public and private sector to the table.

As US foreign assistance comes increasingly under budgetary pressure, the role of private faith-based and secular non-profits will loom even larger. They are able to leverage US government support with private donations to extend and expand American efforts to fight poverty and global hunger. According to an analysis of the Hudson Institute data by the Center for Faith and the Common Good, the 27 US faith-based NGOs currently receiving public funding raised approximately $5 privately for every $1 they received from the US government.

Therefore, it is essential that we keep our donors engaged in and excited about our work overseas. As the president of one of these organizations, I find that the donors I meet as I travel around the country are most excited by and want to support programs that have large impact, produce lasting results, and that empower people.

I see their passion rise when they hear about communities like the one I had the privilege to visit in Bihar, India. LWR is working on a project with Dalit women, members of that society’s lowest caste. They organized into self-help groups, where they learned best agricultural practices and how to access credit. With this support, they were able to move from growing a single subsistence crop like sorghum, millet, or rice, to growing vegetables, which are income-producing crops that they can sell in local markets. Very quickly, they went from growing only 4-5 months of their food needs a year to year-round food security and even had money left over to spend on their kids’ education and families’ other needs.

But what amazed and inspired me most was what happened next. These women, who occupied the bottom rung of society and never dared to hope they could significantly alter their future, had learned the power of community and self-help. They told me how they used this knowledge to stage a sit-in at the office of the local government authority to demand their public distribution cards, which had been kept by corrupt officials for their own benefit. The sit-in attracted the attention of the press and the next thing you know, they got their cards. They beamed as they told me the story, flush with a sense of empowerment and self-determination. I shared in their elation, recognizing that this was the true ingredient that would ensure the sustainability of their food security and path out of extreme poverty. 

This approach to development and foreign assistance—emphasizing resilience by empowering individuals and communities—is ultimately the best way to foster development that is lasting and garners the support needed here at home.

This article first appeared on the Global Food for Thought blog of the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs

LWR president & CEO Daniel Speckhard meets farmers in Kenya.
LWR president & CEO Daniel Speckhard meets farmers in Kenya.
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