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Faith-based and secular humanitarian organizations

  • Elizabeth Ferris


This article examines the role of faith-based organizations, particularly Christian organizations, in humanitarian assistance within the broader context of the NGO world. Following an overview of the historical development of these organizations, the article examines the current context in which faith-based and secular humanitarian organizations operate. The different roles played by these organizations are explored, as are some of the difficulties they encounter. The article suggests that much more work is needed in the area of capacity-building of local humanitarian organizations and in the coordination of NGO programmatic work.



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1 Smillie, Ian and Minear, Larry, The Charity of Nations, Kumarian Press, Inc, Bloomfield, USA, 2004.

2 The Economist, “The non-governmental order,” 11 December 1999, p. 20.

3 Ibid., p. 21.

4 Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, The State of the World's Refugees, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000 a, p. 194.

5 The inadequacy of the term “non-governmental organization” has long been recognized by NGOs and academics (see e.g. Clark, John, Democratizing Development: the Role of Voluntary Organizations, Earthscan, London, 1991; Korten, David, Getting to the 21st Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda, Kumarian Press, West Hartford, 1990; and Hancock, Graham, Lords of Poverty, Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 1989, for a particularly critical assessment). Within the NGO community, some prefer a term with a more positive connotation, such as voluntary agency, rather than a term that defines an organization by what it is not. Critics have questioned whether agencies receiving substantial amounts of government funding can be considered non-governmental. A range of alternative terms have been proposed, from volag (for voluntary agency) to community-based development organization. Churches which are involved in humanitarian assistance often reject being called NGOs, preferring to see themselves as part of civil society. While recognizing the inadequacies of the terminology, this paper nevertheless uses the term “NGO” to refer to organizations which have been established by individuals and groups to promote public welfare and which are not formally a part of government, including those which are formally associated with churches.

6 See e.g. the report on the findings of Helen Rose Ebaugh for the Coalition Ministries and Congregations Study, in “Faith and public life,” <> (last visited 25 April 2005). The 2003 AmeriCorps (US government-supported volunteer service programme) Guidance provides the following definition for faith-based organizations: a religious congregation (church, mosque, synagogue or temple); an organization, programme or project sponsored/hosted by a religious congregation; a non-profit organization founded by a religious congregation or religiously-motivated incorporators and board members that clearly states in its name, incorporation or mission statement that it is a religiously motivated institution; a collaboration of organizations that clearly and explicitly includes organizations from the previously described categories.

7 Ecumenical Partners Survey, WCC, Geneva, 2003. However, because these funds are mobilized through national church-related organizations, each with its own name, this contribution is less visible than that of many other “families” of agencies (e.g. Oxfam, World Vision, Medecins Sans Frontieres). For more information on church-related organizations, see Act: <>, Caritas Internationalis: <>, World Vision: <>, World Council of Churches: <> (last visited 25 April 2005).

8 Nichols, J. Bruce, The Uneasy Alliance: Refugee Work and US Foreign Policy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, pp. 3233; Marrus, Michael R., The Unwanted: European Refugees in the Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1985, pp. 8384; Black, Maggie, A Cause for Our Times: Oxfam, the First Fifty Years, Oxfam, Oxford, 1992; Kent, Randolph C., Anatomy of Disaster Relief: The International Network in Action, Pinter Publishers, London, 1987, pp. 2141.

9 Nichols, Ibid.

10 Marrus, op. cit. (note 8), p. 83.

11 This was the precursor of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States.

12 Willetts, Peter, “Pressure groups as transnational actors,” Willetts, Peter (ed.), Pressure Groups in the Global System, Frances Pinter Publishers, London, 1982, p. 10. For descriptions of the role of NGOs in the development of human rights standards, see also Livezy, Lowell W., “PVOs, human rights and the humanitarian task,” in Nichols, Bruce and Loescher, Gil (eds.), The Moral Nation: Humanitarianism and US Foreign Policy Today, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1989, pp. 192209; Nchama, Eya C. M., “The role of non-governmental organizations in the promotion and protection of human rights,” Bulletin of Human Rights, 90/1, 1991, p. 50. Stein, Henry J., Diverse Partners: Nongovernmental Organizations in the Human Rights Movement, Harvard College, Cambridge, 1991.

13 Holborn, Louise, Refugees: A Problem of Our Time. The Work of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 19511972, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ, 1975, p. 125.

14 Cited by Bruce Nichols, op. cit. (note 8), p. 68.

15 By 2005, the number had increased to about 75, most of which were coalitions or umbrella organizations themselves.

16 When UNHCR was established in 1951, its mandate was restricted to working with those displaced by World War II and to the immediate post-war period.

17 “International faith-based initiatives: Can they work?” available at <> (last visited 4 March 2005).

18 UNHCR 2000a, op. cit. (note 4), p. 194.

19 Cited in Smillie and Minear, op. cit. (note 1), p. 15.

20 The terms local, indigenous, national and Southern NGOs are often used interchangeably.

21 Smillie and Minear, op. cit. (note 1), p. 20.

22 World Consultation on Ecumenical Sharing of Resources at El Escorial, WCC, Geneva, 1987.

23 Minear, Larry, “Partnerships in the protection of refugees and other people at risk: Emerging issues and work in progress,” UNHCR Working Paper No. 13, UNHCR, Geneva, 1999.

24 Stoddard, Abby, With Us or Against Us? NGO Neutrality on the Line, Humanitarian Practice Network, December 2003.

26 “International faith-based initiatives: Can they work?” op. cit. (note 17).

27 Abdel-Rahman Ghandour, “Humanitarianism, Islam and the West: Contest or cooperation?”, Humanitarian Practice Network, available at <> (last visited 4 March 2005).

28 “International faith-based initiatives: Can they work?” op. cit. (note 17).

Faith-based and secular humanitarian organizations

  • Elizabeth Ferris


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