Acton Institute Powerblog

‘Overwhelmed by Orphans’

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:
Where will they go?

Churches and religious relief organizations are playing a much more active role in U.S. foreign policy. And that has been obvious in recent months in the recovery efforts for the South Asian tsunami and the Pakistan earthquakes.

In March, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited Andrew Natsios, who recently left the U.S. Agency for International Development as chief administrator, to talk about his five-year term there. This is a must-read for anyone who works in this field, or donates money to religious relief organizations. Some of Natsios’ most fascinating observations are about the way “Beltway Politics” influences aid policy in remote corners or the world, and the conflict within Islam about its relations to the West.

He recounted a story about a meeting with religious leaders in an unnamed African country:

We had a discussion about how HIV/AIDS was ravaging their congregations and the mosque. And the man representing the Muslim community was the president of the Muslim Doctors Association of this country. The interesting thing was the tension in the room was not among the Muslims. Muslims were 20 percent of the population of the country. It was between the pentecostals and the Anglicans. That was the theological tension. I could see it going on at lunch. I was troubled by it. But by the end of it the ambassador said, this is the best conversation I ever heard. It was a wonderful conversation because they didn’t realize that they’re all active in this area. They are all worried about HIV/AIDS because when parents die, you know who they go to first. They don’t go to the NGO community in this African country. The government ministries are not that functional. They don’t go to the government. They go to the mosque and the church for the children. Who is going to take care of the children?

And they said, we’re completely overwhelmed by orphans. They don’t know what to do with them all. They don’t have any money; they are poor parishes and congregations.

Natsios talks about Eurpean and American NGOs that press a secular approach in societies that are fundamentally religious. In fact, he says, many are hostile to the Church:

The Europeans and the Americans go in, groups not necessarily associated with governments and they press this secular thing, but in fact they are deeply religious societies. Peter Berger has written something on this; the argument he makes is that the West is basically an island of secularism, particularly Europe, when the rest of the world comes from a religious tradition – regardless of what the tradition – whether it’s animism, Catholicism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or Confucianism.

If you are really developmentally mature, you don’t go into another country and trash their culture because you’re not going to be very successful in the development process if you do that. Both the left and the right do this, and they have done it to AID. I have received letters attacking us simultaneously from the left and the right on the same policy.

Read the transcript for “Religion and International Development: A Conversation with Andrew Natsios” on the Pew Web site.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Clare Krishan

    Thanks for the insights. Note a more ominous issue regarding influence peddling thru trade at the end of the talk:
    (regarding efforts to combat monetirization of famine relief of US grown wheat using quotas for local procurement, >>my emphasis< <) "MR. NATSIOS: Well, guess what happened? Josh Bolton said, Andrew, I think this is a neat idea; we are going to put it back in, and they did. It's in the budget for '07. I will tell you … the worst, the most difficult, is the >> maritime industry <<. I don't know how they have much power given the size of that industry, but they apparently do. So we will see what happens." Power? Corruption? (this is the Acton Blog right?) State-owned Chinese and United Arab Emirates port enterprises have cornered the market on stevedoering - its in their interest to make money shipping US aid (wheat in this case) to the food-crisis regions rather than assist peaceful development. Mr Natsios closing words speak for themselves: "You know what is happening in Afghanistan? In 2002 we had the best wheat crop in the history of the country because we put in new seed varieties that were extremely productive and also drought resistant. Wheat prices collapsed to 20 percent of their normal level. They were not harvesting the wheat crop because the price was so low. And the same year, we imported 300,000 tons of USAID food for the relief effort because people were still displaced. You know what the farmers did the next year? They started growing poppy. They said we can't make any money in wheat; we are going to go to poppy. John Miller, who is one of the great agricultural economists in the country and a friend of mine said, Andrew, if you had bought the stuff locally you could have moved the price up to the normal level and no one would have switched to poppy, or very few would have. I used that in front of this group meeting in June and there was stunned silence in the room. It was very interesting to me. " Mercantilism is not charity. The prevalence of faith-based partners in successful development projects can be perhaps be explained as the natural human inclination to perpetuate eternal values, as the beautiful thought of Saint-Exupery, goes something like this: "If you want to teach a man to sail, don’t send him to the forest to cut down trees, saw planks, and follow orders on how to build a boat. Instead, teach him to yearn for the vast and endless sea." Godspeed (and pray for Niger and Dafur) Clare