Aid money and mosques

If aid money is supposed to help rebuild communities and put people on a more stable footing for the future, is it legitimate to use that money to build a mosque (or church, temple or any other religious institution, for that matter)?

That’s a great question that Duncan Green offers on his blog about Oxfam facing this conundrum after the 2004 tsunami and 2006 earthquake in Java, Indonesia. In the end, Oxfam funded a request for infrastructure from the latter, but not the former (see his post for further specifics).

But back to the topic. Green asks:

If you take the concept of well-being seriously, religious identity is a vital element of the ‘good life’ for many poor people, and going to pray at the mosque is a central part of their daily routine for many muslims. Restoring the mosque restores a sense of control and order in a world of chaos. On those grounds alone, surely it merits support?

I remember hearing a CAFOD staffer speak a year or so ago, quite proudly, about how in the wake of the tsunami when the request came in from displaced people in Aceh for Korans, Korans were arranged. It’s a fascinating question, not least because it also brings into play the dimension of what the aid agency’s supporters might think and any reputational costs involved.

Of course, these issues crop up all the time in donor-recipient relationships, and it’s difficult to draw hard and fast rules. There are surely limits to the kinds of things that agencies will fund, even if requested by the community. The multitude of agencies out there is a reminder that each has been set up for a slightly different purpose, with a slightly different inspiration and slightly different techniques and methods. If you give to charity, I think we each give to different charities for meeting different purposes that are important to us. If ‘values’, and therefore delivering assistance that meets these values, is unique to each agency, is the only answer to this question of supporting religious infrastructure: on a case-by-case basis?

There other interesting point is about aid agencies that come from a faith background, which make up a significant chunk of the humanitarian landscape. A first thought might be to leave faith-related issues to agencies with a religious ethos. But on one hand, supporters of (mainstream) faith-based aid agencies would want to help to do good everywhere, not just for co-believers. And on the other, the tricky thing about aid to followers of other faiths is being open to a charge of opportunistic proselytism, i.e. to use aid as a front for seeking converts. Hmmm.

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One thought on “Aid money and mosques

  1. Nick L says:

    One problem he is the choices probably isn’t likely to be religious buildings or nothing. There will be an opportunity cost associated with every decision made in situations of post-disaster reconstruction. So you have to take into account what is being given up, which might be medical equipment or housing for instance.

    A second issue is that there is an assumption that religious buildings contribute to well-being. But that is an assertion lacking in evidence. In fact there is evidence that the more religious a society, the worse it performs in terms of human development. Now, the arrow of causation is probably the other way around, but it deflates at least some of the assumptions at work here.

    A third related issue is whether NGOs and charities have an obligation to improve subjective well-being or to focus on the objective measures of human harm. A capabilities-based approach suggests the latter. It is provides good reasons to focus on the situation of the poor and the extremely vulnerable in the first place, their objective needs outweigh the subjective wants of those in wealthier countries.

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