Faith in development : what difference does faith make for Christian NGOs working in Bangladesh? : a research thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of International Development at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
Religious organisations are the oldest social service networks known to humankind. However, the underlying topic of religion and development has been mostly ignored in development literature until more recently. Rapprochement between proponents of secular development and supporters of religious-based social transformation is called for. Some writers claim faith-based organisations (FBOs), of which Christian NGOs (CNGOs) are significant actors, add value, make distinctive contributions and offer comparative advantages over secular NGOs. Seven motivational, organisational and institutional advantages claimed are that FBOs: reach and are valued by the poorest, have a long-term presence and low costs, offer an alternative to secular development theory, and motivate voluntarism and civil-society advocacy. Three spiritual advantages claimed are that FBOs: offer spiritual / religious teaching; hope, meaning and purpose; and transcendent power (prayer). In contrast, two possible disadvantages claimed are that: religion is part of the problem for development and churches are difficult to work with. Other writers claim a lack of evidence regarding these claims. My research investigated six CNGOs in Bangladesh, with the research question being: ‘How do Christian NGOs working in Bangladesh, a Muslim majority country, perceive that their faith identity influences their operating characteristics, making them distinctive from secular NGOs?’ This sought to determine if the operating characteristics that the literature claims attribute to FBOs, were applicable to the CNGOs. The research method was primarily deductive, using the CNGO research data to test existing literature definitions, typology and claims. With much FBO literature
seemingly sourced from broadly Christian cultural contexts, this research expands on this by researching CNGOs in a Muslim majority country, home to a very small Christian minority. CNGO representatives were interviewed using a structured questionnaire including qualitative and quantitative questions. The research findings conclude that the Bangladesh CNGOs’ faith identity critical to their vision and mission, results in some perceived differences compared with secular NGOs. These are found in the CNGOs’ operating characteristics including distinctive contributions (to various degrees) in the seven motivational, organisational and institutional ways and three spiritual ways, along with one of the two possible disadvantages, claimed in literature. However, claiming advantages (or disadvantages) for FBOs over secular NGOs, without better evidence, is subjective and prone to bias, reflecting the claimant’s positionality. The question of comparative advantage between NGOs of various types (faith-based or secular), requires a universal evaluation methodology able to assess and score any NGO operating in any project context. Until this exists, I suggest the literature claims of FBOs having comparative advantages (or disadvantages) should be reframed as distinctive operating characteristics.