International development aid and its religious origins

Reviewed by Adeze Ojukwu

Not many people are aware of the nexus between international humanitarian aid and religious charity.

The current avalanche of global assistance and emergencies had their roots in the missionaries work of faith-based organizations.

There is ample historical evidence for this verdict according to a recent publication by ace writer, Julia Tsvigun, tagged: ‘International development aid has its origins in religious charity work.’

It was quite interesting that Tsvigun captured the significant role of German inventor, printer and publisher, Johannes Gutenberg in spreading education.

Though his pivotal innovation even in spurring the media industry, is not often remembered, Gutenberg introduced printing to Europe, and by extension the rest of the world, with his mechanical movable-type printing press.

His revolutionary work heralded mass literacy, modern knowledge-based economy and the media industry.
According to Dave Roos, the 15th century German goldsmith is credited with inventing the printing press around 1436, an innovation enabled people to share knowledge more quickly and widely.

‘This innovation spurred the Protestant Reformation and catalyzed the democratization of knowledge in the Enlightenment era, as well as emergence of public opinion and its power to topple the ruling elite.’

Therefore, it is quite exciting, to review the interesting account by Tsvigun. Here are excerpts:

‘We are so used to the United States Agency for International Development(USAID) or the United Nations(UN) leading foreign aid efforts that we think that international development aid only started after World War II.’

‘However, world hunger, natural disasters, and the violation of human rights are not new issues. So how did the world work to solve these problems before international development aid became an industry? Let’s explore this topic.’

On a mission to save the world
‘An interesting fact is that development aid has its origins in religion. Before international development aid became a professional field, European Christians undertook charity work, their motivation being the belief that they had a duty to serve God through helping people.’

‘Going back as far as the Middle Ages, many different Christians such as the New England Puritans, Moravians, and Jesuits, sent their church members ‘on a mission’ which, in Latin, literally means ‘to send’ to other societies to convert them to Christianity and to help those societies progress, in other words, adopt a Western Christian way of life.’

‘These missionaries taught people about everything from agriculture, introducing such crops as wheat and grapes – essential for Christian traditions, to Western medicine and medical education, ideas about political, economic, and social life as well as religious freedom and so forth.

‘Robert D. Woodberry, who found that societies in Asia and North Africa that hosted missionaries were better off than societies where missionaries were not present, wrote, “Missionaries were central to campaigns against slavery and forced labor, the rise of foreign aid programs, the creation of international relief organizations, banning the opium trade, protecting indigenous land rights and many other reforms.’

From religion to mass literacy
‘The missionaries also modernized the world through literacy. The printing press introduced by the Protestant Church 500 years ago was one of the most impactful changes that the missionaries brought.’

‘Not only did they print Bibles and teach people to read for themselves, they also created fonts, translated, copied and wrote books, built buildings, and trained teachers, all of this creating systems that educated many people, not simply the elite but the poorer social classes including women and children, Woodberry noted in The Social Impact of Christian Missions.’

‘It is no surprise that the first newspapers and periodicals in many non-Christian societies were published by Protestants. Even in societies such as those in China, Korea, and Japan where printing technology existed years before the Christian missionaries arrived, printed materials were few and accessible mostly only to the elite.’

‘ However, in the 19th century, missionaries stimulated mass printing and mass education and, at the same time, mobilized other religious communities – Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist – to publish their own periodicals and make these available to the masses.’

Religious charity today
‘Since the 19th century, many Christian religious organizations have been established, the more famous being Christian charities such as the YMCA, the Salvation Army, Caritas Internationalis, Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, etc.’

‘The work of these organizations covers a large variety of issues such as poverty, homelessness, hunger, community building, injustice, and natural disasters amongst others.

‘However, Christians are not the only religious followers who are concerned with helping others. There are also Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu charitable organizations less well known but active today such as World Jewish Relief, Islamic Relief Worldwide, and SEWA UK.’

‘World Jewish Relief is known to have rescued 65,000 Jews from Nazi Europe even before WWII and today is lifting people out of poverty and unemployment and helping the elderly to fight dementia.’

‘Islamic Relief Worldwide is recognized for carrying out seasonal programs that provide Muslim people with food parcels for the holidays of Ramadan and Qurbani and, in the meantime, supplement this help with medical assistance and livelihood sponsorship for children and adults in African and Asian countries.’

Is it toxic?
‘Despite the success of charity and aid as illustrated above, religious-based (at least Christian) charity has been criticized for wiping out indigenous cultures and substituting local customs and languages from the Old World.’

‘Scholars such as Robert Lupton have criticized modern religious charity work for what development aid is criticized for in general – wasting financial resources, corruption, lack of coordination between humanitarian efforts and, most importantly, for creating dependency – harming communities by doing what they can do for themselves, writes Lupton in his 2011 book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).’

‘Nevertheless, religious-based charity paved the way for human development and humanitarian work. Ingrained with a belief in kindness, service, love, and duty, these people extended their hands to those in need and even organized systems that supported vulnerable communities long before reliable transportation and telecommunication, procurement, monitoring, evaluation, and learning mechanisms or development strategies existed.’

‘One can even argue that colonial governments and democratic societies were blessed (no pun intended) to inherit and build upon the systems created by earlier missionaries.’


Comment here