Promoting a Flourishing Society

Sacred Aid: Does Humanitarianism Need Religion?

From the Archived "Cardus Policy in Public" Series

January 16, 2013

Is there an important, even decisive connection, between charity and the sacred? Has the growth of a rational, "cosmopolitan, one-worldism and material progress" in aid changed the nature of aid itself, secularized and, maybe, handicapped aid in a rapidly desecularizing world?

BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism by Michael Barnett and Janice Gross Stein. Oxford University Press, 2012. 270pp.

The field of political science has witnessed a remarkable "rediscovery" of religion over the past decade. Such was the exclusion of religion from the study of global politics in the preceding decades that Notre Dame's Daniel Philpott could count on two hands the number of articles published on religion in the field's leading academic journals between 1980 and 2000.1

While this systematic neglect of religion is beginning to be corrected, it remains a marginal area of study. For this reason alone it is notable that Janice Gross Stein, Director of the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto, and Michael Barnett, a leading International Relations scholar, would co-edit a book on Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism.

Canadians will know Stein as a regular media fixture on foreign affairs, although her academic expertise is in the area of conflict management and negotiation. Barnett is associated with the "constructivist" school of international relations theory—which studies the social actors and practices that create the "rules of the game" for global politics. Both have directed much of their academic attention to the politics and practice of humanitarian action.

In their introduction, Stein and Barnett note that humanitarian action is motivated by the "transcendental" belief that we have moral obligations to others across borders, outside the realm of politics. Many early humanitarians were religious missionaries who sought to improve the material conditions of life for the people they taught and tried to convert. However, the origins of modern humanitarianism are often traced to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in 1863. The ICRC expressed a spiritual ideal in a fundamentally modern form—that of an institution dedicated to the promotion of human progress.

Sacred Aid explores the resulting tension at the heart of modern humanitarianism: between the spiritual or sacred ideal of human solidarity and what Max Weber called the "iron cage" of modern rationalization. Is something essential to humanitarianism lost in the modern thrust toward secularization and bureaucratization? Does the ever-increasing demand for fundraising, reporting, evaluation, and results squeeze out the spirit of humanitarianism's "sacred" enterprise? Perhaps the belief in human solidarity is eclipsed by a belief in meeting fundraising targets, and motivation drifts from altruism to careerism.

What makes this volume stand out is the courage of its editors to invert the common academic practice of analyzing religion within a materialist paradigm, where spirituality, values, and beliefs are pushed to the side. The most trenchant analysis in Sacred Aid takes the form of a "spiritual" critique of modern humanitarianism, whether in the form of secular NGOs or "faith-based organizations." This doesn't mean wading into the thickets of theology, but rather analyzing whether—in the words of its editors—"a humanitarianism that loses is sense of the sacred will be a humanitarianism that ceases to exist" (p. 30).

This is an edited volume and, as with all such books, its chapters are eclectic. However, some common themes emerge around philanthropy and fundraising, and the role of culture and spirituality in the practice of humanitarianism. Most of the chapters ask, in one way or another, about the difference between "secular" and "faith-based" organizations. The differences are fewer than one might assume before reading this book. The chapters by Stephen Hopgood and Leslie Vinjamuri, Ajaz Ahmed Khan, and Erica Bornstein analyze how humanitarian organizations raise funds and what motivates giving. Hopgood and Vinjamuri take a reductionist approach that treats the religious aspect of an organization's mandate as little more than branding that is revealed or obscured in the perpetual competition for funds. The religious identity of an organization is emphasized to appeal to particular constituencies for private funds, whereas its more secular and managerially competent "face" is presented in the competition for public funds.

Khan considers motivations for giving to Muslim humanitarian organizations, and finds that donors do not clearly distinguish between religious obligation and altruistic motivations to alleviate poverty. Many see donations to Muslim charities as a form of civic engagement in their broader society, and the religious character of faith-based organizations elicits higher levels of trust in how the funds are spent.

Bornstein's chapter interprets forms of Hindu giving in India, which are outside the purview of the state, as what James C Scott might call "everyday forms of resistance." They exist in the "unreasonable and incalculable social field…against governmentality," or domination by the state (p.157).

These three chapters, each quite different, raise interesting questions about the distinction between taxation and philanthropy as vehicles for funding humanitarian action. Public funds are a major source of revenue for humanitarian organizations, but accessing these finances forces a "secular pose" on organizations. Even non-religious organizations must under-emphasize their value commitments and play up managerial competency. However, the appeal for private funds calls on humanitarians to distinguish themselves by their value commitments, which arguably requires them to act more faithfully to their actual mandates.

Chapters by Jonathan Benthall, Peter Walker et al, and Bertrand Taithe explore the role played by culture and spirituality in humanitarian action. Benthall asks whether there is a comparative advantage enjoyed by faith-based organizations when responding to humanitarian emergencies where co-religionists are involved. He finds that the benefit of "cultural proximity" goes beyond the efficiency and higher levels of trust that accrue to organizations with strong local contacts, and raises the question of whether human security has non-material (read: social, spiritual, or ontological) dimensions. Similar questions are taken up in the chapter by Walker et al, in a wide-ranging discussion of faith, spirituality, and resilience.

In one of the best chapters of the volume, Bertrand Taithe analyzes the transition of a Catholic humanitarian organization in Cameroon from a missionary agency to "faith-based-organization" to NGO. It provides a fascinating case study of autonomous secularization by a religious institution. Here Taithe describes the process of secular transformation: "The missionaries' Pyrrhic victory was to have been so successful at becoming experts and indispensible architects of the postcolonial world that their original role was weakened by the new one. The technicality of development and relief work created its own rules, which even if not antireligious left little room for spiritual maneuver or association" (p.181). The outcome of this process was not the complete excision of religion from the agency, but the detachment of knowledge and expertise from spiritual values.

Barnett's penultimate chapter is the most philosophical of the book, as he explores the application of the thought of American pragmatists to the field of humanitarianism. Pragmatists place a special value on insights gained from experience, and they preserve a degree of skepticism in the face of accepted knowledge and practice. Inquiry involves trying things out, and a restless sense of the possibility of progress drives the pursuit of knowledge. Barnett hears the influence of the pragmatists resonating within humanitarianism, like when Rory Brauman (former Director of MSF) says: "I am not sure if progress exists, but it is good to act as if I believe it exists" (p.207). Faith in the possibility of improving the world is one of the sacred beliefs that sustain humanitarianism. Barnett asks whether this article of faith—in religious or secular organizations—can be maintained in the face of professionalization and bureaucratization. The final chapter of the book, by Paras and Stein, ends on an optimistic note for religious humanitarian organizations. It proposes that they may be best equipped to "navigate the sacred and the profane" because of their "deeply embedded traditions" (p.231).

Whether or not this prediction comes true remains to be seen, but the editors of the book can be congratulated on expanding a space for inquiry into the spiritual aspects of security and human flourishing. A conceptual framework that guides humanitarian work to simply deliver the material goods to suffering foreigners is clearly inadequate for the task, as this book ably shows. It fails for lack of vision. While recognizing that humanitarianism is focused on meeting the material needs of people for shelter, security, healthcare, the enterprise is not value-neutral. Every organization brings a set of values to bear on its work, and these are reflected in the motivations of staff, the methods and approaches that are adopted, and the institutional structures. These values can be self-serving, instrumentalist, or altruistic. So the question we are left with is where we ought to look for the spiritual core of humanitarianism.

This inquiry necessarily leads to an investigation of religion itself—beyond the "faith-based organizations" it inspires, in all their variety. Despite the many laudable aspects of this book, it dispenses with the easy binary of the religious and secular only to embrace a dichotomy between the "sacred" and the "profane." It equates the visionary aspects of humanitarianism with the sacred, and the demands of running of modern organization to the profane.

However, central to the teachings of every major religion is the idea that the sacred is realized within the world of the profane. The sacred and the profane are intrinsically related. Spiritual principles of solidarity, love, compassion, justice, generosity, courage, and humility are expressed through relationships and institutional structures. These values inform the most "profane" aspects of humanitarianism, including resource allocation, approaches to local partnership, and decisions regarding sustainability.

If one of the effects of this book is to create more space for a discourse about the role of religion in humanitarianism, let us hope that it is not taken up by calls for more "faith-based organizations." Notwithstanding the merits of many such organizations, what is needed is a broader conversation about the moral, ethical, and spiritual aspects of the enterprise. Barnett and Stein's impressive book gives us a helpful place to start.


1 See Daniel Philpott. "Has the study of Global Politics found religion?" Annual Review of Political Science 12.1 (2009): 183-202.