Academic journal article Global Governance

The Paradox of Multilateral Organizations Engaging with Faith-Based Organizations

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Paradox of Multilateral Organizations Engaging with Faith-Based Organizations

Article excerpt

Multilateral organizations, such as the World Health Organization, have traditionally not closely engaged with faith-based organizations. However, more recently, there has been a growing willingness among MOs to engage with FBOs. Factors promoting this engagement have included the rise of economic neoliberalism and participatory paradigms, a realization that FBOs may enhance program effectiveness, and a need for greater cooperation to respond to HIV/AIDS. At the same time, paradoxically, engagement with FBOs conflicts with the Enlightenment ideology on which most MOs are based. This ideology has traditionally espoused secularism and relegated faith to the private domain. To reconcile this paradox, MOs have often imposed conditions requiring FBOs to remove faith activities from their programs. This potentially compromises the unique cultural identity of the FBO. Keywords: faith-based organizations, World Health Organization, multilateral organizations, HIV/AIDS, partnership.


In the field of international development, there has been a trend toward increasing dialogue and partnership with nonstate actors such as faith-based organizations (FBOs). This article explains possible reasons for this increased engagement. For instance, the contemporary development discourse of empowerment, participation, local ownership, and public-private partnerships has driven multilateral organizations (MOs) to partner with, or work through, developing country FBOs. The influence of neoliberal economic philosophy on many programs is also discussed. However, does this increased engagement with FBOs create tension given the secular underpinnings of MOs? Because most multilaterals are established on a modernist or secular liberal philosophy, it is argued here that an increased "belief" in partnering with FBOs creates a paradox due to the coexistence of contradictory aims. The article concludes by positing that MOs attempt to standardize, or even secularize FBOs so as to overcome this paradox and, therefore, allow engagement with FBOs and utilization of their services.

In illustrating this argument, the article cites the attempts of the World Health Organization (WHO) to engage with FBOs to respond to HIV/AIDS. The WHO is an agency of the UN that acts as a coordinating body in international public health. Ultimately it represents, and is responsible to, the World Health Assembly and its 193 constituent member states, each of which funds the WHO through membership dues. However, this core funding is now exceeded by voluntary contributions from national and local governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), other UN organizations, and the private sector. Although the WHO mainly acts through its member states, its constitution does permit independent engagement with NGOs with "the consent of the Government." (1)

Increasing MO Engagement of FBOs

During the Enlightenment, it was thought that a philosophy of logic and reason would replace religious dogma in international politics and so provide order in world affairs. Secularization theory assumed religion would eventually be sidelined in public life with the advent of modernity. (2) Indeed, by the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that religion had been overcome, surmising that "God is dead." (3) However, the 2007 UN Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) State of the World Report details how the prominence of religion has not decreased with the advent of rationality and secular values. Instead, as Helmut Anheier et al. had earlier documented, a growing majority of those in the developing world practice a religion. (4) Not only does this majority continue to personally adhere to a religion, but the impingement of religion on the public domain is increasingly obvious (see Figure 1). (5) On the organizational level, FBOs continue to play a central role in development. For example, former president of the World Bank James Wolfensohn estimated that 50 percent of education and health services was provided by faith groups and FBOs. …

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