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In the shadow of the ‘civilising mission’: religion in humanitarian work

Hanging over western charities operating in the global South is the ‘civilising’ mission of the colonial encounter, to which Christianity was central. But, as the West moves on to a new religion, it is important to ask ourselves what a ‘civilising’ mission would look like today.

First published by the Daily Maverick, 17 August 2020

By Tove van Lennep, Head of Frontline Advocacy at Arise

I work at an NGO in London – one in a solar system of secular non-profits working to end modern slavery and human trafficking. We operate in source countries like India, Albania and the Philippines, supporting local, frontline groups in their efforts to prevent the exploitation of their communities. 

To the Western aid sector, this is palatable so far. 

The part that raises the eyebrows of my millennial counterparts is that we, a secular NGO, support the work of religious frontline groups. Not exclusively – we support others, too. But, frankly, we have found that religious sisters are the most powerful and under-leveraged force in the global fight against slavery. 

I get to this part of my job description and, in the eyes of my listener, the colonial “civilising mission” is colliding with the Wretched of the Earth in a spectacle of smoke and flame. The original “white saviour” is rising from the ashes (me) and they are wondering what became of the copy of Orientalism that I kept under my pillow during university. 

So begins the secular inquisition. 

Isn’t faith-based humanitarian work used to create followers? 

As far as the world’s largest religions are concerned, there is a theological mandate to respond to all in need, regardless of their faith or tradition. Proselytising among communities of need is frowned upon, and many faith-based NGOs guard against it in their codes of conduct.1

However, when dealing with vulnerable people, there is a power differential to consider. The outstretched hand belongs to a human being with the profound belief that faith is a means to a better life. Even this could influence conversions. 

Held widely and unashamedly, this is a revealing argument. It assumes that secular values are neutral and do not colour humanitarian aid themselves and that secular values are favourable to religious ones. 

The fact is, secularism today is no more neutral or universal than Christianity was in the 17th century. It may feel this way to its western proponents, but not to the 84% of the world that is religious.2

It is, therefore, dangerous to ignore the comparable and implicit “conversion” element at play in secular work, that may encourage communities to “westernise” their belief systems. Faith and collectivism are the cornerstones of many societies. And spirituality is increasingly recognised as key to psycho-social survival in humanitarian work.

Hanging over western charities operating in the Global South is the “civilising” mission of the colonial encounter, to which Christianity was central. But, as the West moves on to a new religion (of non- and sometimes anti-religion) it is important to ask ourselves what a “civilising” mission would look like today. 

When it comes down to it, to bypass white and western organisations and support effective, local humanitarianism, you will be hard-pressed to find groups that do not operate with a faith. 

Why would a non-religious person choose to support faith-based humanitarian work? 

Faith-based work is efficient and sustainable. 

Religious sisters, for example, are the largest humanitarian force in the world and are rarely paid for what they do.3 This means bypassing the bloated bureaucracies that characterise the western aid sector and perturb many a good-willed donor. 

Faith-based groups often form part of networks. These are like great webs of protection that help to address the displacement of need, and which are integral to human trafficking prevention. 

Frontline religious groups, whether from a given community originally or not, have often lived there for generations. They do not arrive when things are particularly bad or bearably good. They speak the local language, know the local people and are trusted – a silver bullet for effective humanitarian work. 

Why support religious institutions when they are prone to corruption? 

Religions are powerful and ancient – it is only natural that history is littered with instances of their abuse. But just like we do not paint the entire humanitarian sector with the brushstroke of Oxfam in Haiti, or the UN sex abuse scandals, we would be mistaken to equate the giant institution of Islam with terrorism or Christianity with corruption. 

There are millions of religious organisations with millions of cultures and leaders scattered across the globe. They are often well-resourced, trusted and worthy of unbiased disaggregation and attention. 

Doesn’t the God-fearing motivation for doing good work diminish the “goodness” of the work itself? 

“Impact” is a buzz word in humanitarian work. Though impossible to measure accurately, secular audiences tend to support work that boasts a greater impact. But even after hearing of the unparalleled impact of sisters in the prevention of slavery, secular friends are wary. 

Their concern shifts from the impact of the work, to the motivation for the work. 

Albeit an oversimplification, religious people do good work in service of God and therefore humanity, while secular people do good to serve humanity (usually by upholding human rights). Non-religious people may view the God-motivation as compromising the moral status of the act, supposing that religious people only do good things to win favour with their god. But these motivations are not wildly different. 

Human rights, in what they are and where they came from, are more closely connected to religion than respective critics care to imagine. And when we drive down to the true reason that people do good, it is always to please a “god”. Whether that god is a deity, humanity (Yuval Harari’s ‘Homo Deus4) or the god within you – your ego.


1. Fear of being accused of prosely­tising has meant that many religious charities avoid mentioning religion, realising that they will only be seen as legitimate if their religious ethos is “implicit and internal”: The Tablet, 5 November 2015. Christian charities reluctant to allude to religion.

2. The least religious continents by far are Australasia, Europe and North America, here referred to as the West. See Gallup, 31 August 2010. Religiosity Highest in World's Poorest Nations.

3. There are approximately 650 000 religious sisters in the field. There is no institution or organisation of comparable size.

4. In his book, Homo Deus (“the human God”), Yuval Noah Harari argues that humanism is a form of religion by which humankind is worshipped instead of a god. It puts humankind and its desires above all else in the world. Humanists believe that ethics and values are derived internally within each individual, rather than from an external source. During the 21st century, Harari believes that humanism may push humans to search for immortality, happiness, and power.

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