What Secular Academics Can Learn from the Faith-Based Development Community

The more I am involved in practitioner and academic development work, the more I have become aware of a great divide separating the secular and faith-based international development communities.  In not all, but many respects, the secular and faith-based efforts are pushing on the same wall.  Oxfam, CARE, and JPAL (Jameel Poverty Action Lab at MIT) share many similar objectives with World Relief, Compassion, and Food for the Hungry.  Both communities are major players in the relief and development world.   But it’s as if a second perpendicular wall separates the two in the task.  If the two were to communicate better and work more closely together, a series of more coordinated shoves on the common wall could make major inroads into eliminating poverty on the planet. But the dividing wall makes each less effective because it prevents them from learning from each other and pushing together.COMM1

Two anecdotes from my own experience illustrate the “pushing-on-the-same-wall-while-separated-by-another-wall” state of affairs.  First story: A few years ago in a conversation with a monitoring and evaluation director at a major faith-based NGO, we were talking about the need for establishing transparent measures of program impact on the organization’s beneficiaries.  It was clear that this would involve inconveniences for the organization.  “Look, we know we’re doing God’s work.  He confirms it to us every day.  So honestly, why is it necessary to spend our resources demonstrating “causal effects” if people continue to support our programs faithfully?”

Second story: Once when I was presenting results from our child sponsorship study at an economics seminar at the World Bank, a woman visiting from a secular child sponsorship organization raised her hand.  “These are amazing results from Compassion,” she said.  “But how can we get these without the Ick-Factor?  What I mean is…you know…religion.”   The interesting issue, as one of the lead economists at the Bank kindly pointed out, was to what degree important parts of the program’s success might be in some way related to the “Ick Factor.”

I’m going pull a switcheroo on the title, first presenting three things faith-based practitioners and academics can learn from their secular counterparts, and then I’ll conclude with the latter.

  1. In evangelical circles in particular, we like to talk of being a blessing to the poor, relay testimonies of life-changing missions work, and create a climate of positive feelings among both church-based donors and beneficiaries. But faith-based practitioners need to understand the waning tolerance for clichés, positive anecdotes, feel-good marketing in favor of solid evidence of impact. Faith-based organizations, including not only smaller NGOs, but larger ones such as Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, and Samaritan’s Purse, need to re-double their effort to incorporate rigorous scientific evaluation into their routine operations and actively solicit the objective evaluation of academics.  In doing this, they will a) gain a better understanding of how to adjust programs for maximum impact, b) eliminate ineffective ones, and c) provide a credible and ethical basis for soliciting funds from donors.
  2. Faith-based NGOs need to understand that they will be at least partially judged by “secular” outcomes, and that they should be. Some faith-based NGOs seem to resist outside evaluation because they don’t believe the impact of their work is measurable on a secular yardstick. So they avoid using objective or conventional measurement systems that smack of worldliness.  Using spiritual cloud-cover to avoid demonstrating that your program works isn’t spiritual; it is irresponsible.  If you run an organization that is seeking to reduce poverty, you need to demonstrate that it is reducing poverty.  If you run an organization that is seeking to reduce violence and injustice, you need to demonstrate that it is reducing violence and injustice–and not by a steady supply of heart-warming anecdotes.  Question for faith-based NGOs: If your child were dying of cancer, would you choose a drug based on a heart-warming anecdote, or one that had shown clear and positive results in a scientific randomized trial?
  3. Third, faith-based NGOs must understand that if your organization is making an impact, science is on your side, not working against you. Randomized trials aren’t always appropriate, but the great thing about them is that if well-executed, they are good at revealing the truth about the effectiveness of a program. You can build randomization into your program in an ethical way by using clear allocation rules, lotteries “to give everyone a fair and equal chance” and by proper phasing in of beneficiaries or communities.  (More on this in a future blog post.)  Now the extent to which this truth is valid outside of the sample frame is always up for debate, but well-executed science will tend to reveal impacts if there are impacts to be revealed.  The more confidence you have in the effectiveness of your program, the less you have to worry about outside academics doing a serious impact study on it.  Take the plunge.

Now three things that secular practitioners and academics can learn from faith-based counterparts:


  1. Let’s get down to brass tacks: Faith-based development NGOs have a conception of human beings, their goals and motivations, their root problems, the source of their daily conflicts, that dwarfs that of secular practitioners, and especially, academic economists. Too many secular economists have created policy prescriptions and program interventions based on a dimensionally-reduced view of the human person.  Interventions based within a framework that essentially reduces human beings to consumption machines have resulted in billions of dollars in wasted aid.   At the same time an award-winning article in the American Political Science Review demonstrates a strong causal effect of Protestant missions on the formation of democracy in the developing world.  A patient, holistic approach of human transformation that works simultaneously in areas of spiritual belief, psychology, identity, human dignity, social relationships, and character values such as responsibility, self-control, and accountability—along with relieving important economic constraints—is far more likely to be effective than economic interventions by themselves. Internal constraints may be just as important as external constraints.  Religion and worldview matter far more than secular academics currently acknowledge.  Economists need to know that these phenomena are operative even if their understanding of them is dim; faith-based practitioners need to know how to measure them and bundle them in a coherent framework of understanding.
  2. Consistent with #1, secular organizations and academics tend to have frightfully narrow measures of impact. Income, consumption, infant mortality, education, disease reduction, life expectancy—these are the metrics that secular world uses to measure progress. By these tokens, Bulgaria should be doing really well; but as it is Bulgarians rank #134 out of 158 in the world in happiness.  Bulgarians are significantly less happy than people in Haiti who have a fraction of the income.   Now happiness isn’t everything, and nobody is asking secular practitioners and academics to adopt all the spiritual components of faith-based metrics, but at a minimum they need to explore broader and more creative measures of impact.  Secular academics and practitioners often attempt to use “values-free” measures of development.  But talking about poverty reduction without incorporating a system of values is of course silly.  Moreover, the secular measures are not “values-free,” they just represent a deficient set of values.  After all, what is the end-game in development?  Is it merely higher income, or is higher income for the poor a means to something greater and more profound, such as a fuller expression of human dignity?  If so, then let’s figure out reasonable ways to measure human dignity.
  3. Secular researchers can learn from the richer set of interventions undertaken by faith-based practitioners. They also can work with them so that both can better understand the causal mechanisms behind the effects of more holistic interventions. In their new book A Path Appears, Nick Kristoff  and Sheryl Wu Dunn highlight the wealth of contribution made by faith-based practitioners to poverty work, not only in the extraordinary risks they often take in working among the poor, but in their innovative, multi-dimensional approach to addressing poverty issues.   In my experience, the top behavioral economists possess a level of insight into the dimensions of human poverty that that is close to that of the average well-educated missionary with significant experience in working among the poor.  Although the lenses though which they understand problems differ (or perhaps because of this), there are great gains from trade here from an honest exchange of thoughts and ideas on key questions.  (Example: Why do the poor often hesitate to grasp at opportunities to prosper?)  Behavioral development economists and faith-based practitioners unknowingly share much in common, not least that empirical research shows the work of both offering a substantial challenge to the antiquated homo-economicus. Greater collaboration between the two will have to overcome many biases and stereotypes, but can only portend to bear much fruit.

You can follow the Shrewd Samaritan and AcrossTwoWorlds.net on Twitter @BruceWydick.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *