Rev. Robert A. Sirico looks at the Bush Faith-Based Initiative following the departure of Jim Towey, who headed the office. “I would far rather see a president rally people to give more to charity than rally voters to support government programs that go to religious organizations, and to create incentives and lessen penalties when they do give,” Rev. Sirico writes.
Here’s an article in the Washington Post recently that I want to pass along, “Tithing Rewards Both Spiritual and Financial,” by Avis Thomas-Lester.
Among the highlights are the Rev. Jonathan Weaver of Greater Mount Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church, who says, “Some people have a sense that pastors are heavy-handed . . . in the use of the Scripture to insist that people tithe. But we are not encouraging people to give 10 percent. We want them to be effective managers of the other 90 percent. God wants us to be effective managers of what He has entrusted us with.”
The story also points out the critical function that churches serve in the relief of the poor: “Long before government programs were put in place to help the poor and the needy, black churches were responsible for assisting their congregations with everything from food and shelter during Reconstruction to legal help during the civil rights movement. Money dropped into the offering plate wasn’t just for the building fund. Black churches paid to help poor and disenfranchised citizens at a time when no other help was available, experts said.”
The article goes on to observe some of the potential pitfalls of tithing, namely giving only “under the belief that the members will prosper financially in return.” This is part of a larger “prosperity gospel” movement, and as this piece illustrates, is not restricted to churches in the US.
For more about how the principle of the tithe can function in helping the poor and those who need it the most, see my “The North American Church and Global Stewardship,” and “Building on the Tithe.”
Bryan Caplan at EconLog says that he has long wondered about the validity of the statistics of the spread of AIDS on the African continent:
The whole story had a quasi-Soviet flavor to it. The main difference: Soviet growth statistics were too good to be true, while African AIDS statistics were too bad to be true. Reflecting on the incentives cemented my skepticism: Just as the Soviet Union had a strong incentive to exaggerate its growth numbers in order to get the world’s respect, researchers and advocates had a strong incentive to exaggerate their AIDS number in order to get the world’s money.
He goes on to cite a recent Washington Post story that backs up his doubts. While Caplan may ultimately be wrong in his skepticism, I think it’s a responsible question to ask. Any system of charity or aid that faces an ongoing and high-level need should wonder about the incentives that it creates for people to take advantage of the system.
Update: More on “disease-mongering” at WorldMagBlog. I suspect there’s an analogous phenomenon in all the climate change, environmental disaster hubbub.
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.
Pat Nolan, president of Justice Fellowship, writes about the challenges that non-profits face in seeking funding, in the latest Justice eReport, “Equpping the Armies of Compassion.” Nolan highlights the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide and We Care America, which has a grant center that assists charities in getting proposals together.
And on a related note, Joe Knippenberg at No Left Turns critiques an article by Amy Sullivan in The New Republic, “Patron Feint,” which depicts the faith-based initiative as a mere political tool to satisfy the GOP’s evangelical base.
Joe Knippenberg raises three issues with respect to my critique of the faith-based initiative (here and here). He writes first, “any activity that depends upon money is potentially corrupting, whether the source is governmental or private…. Why governmental money is different from private in this regard isn’t clear to me.”
I agree that the potential for corruption is present in both cases, but the immediate constituency differs from private to public funds. For the former, the donors are the immediate stake-holders and the charity is accountable to them. For the latter, politicians and bureaucrats are those who hold the charity immediately accountable.
Despite the best intentions of many people who work in government, special interests and ideologies can skew their proper stewardship of taxpayer money, and does not always represent the interests of the citizenry. Since taxpayer money is mediated through the government, there is another layer of institutionalization that serves to increase the distance and thus the accountability between the charity and the donor constituency.
This raises another important issue, which is that strictly speaking taxpayers shouldn’t be considered “donors” in the traditional sense at all. Paying taxes is enforced by the power of the state in a way that voluntary donation to private charities is not. One aspect of this is the distancing effect I just pointed out, but another effect is that the moral virtue of the act of giving is displaced by the coercive nature of the taxpayer/government relationship. Surely those who voluntarily give even more to charities than they are required by taxation are worthy of even greater praise because of this, but nevertheless the nature of the money flowing in to charities from these two sources is quite different. One is coerced the other is voluntary. (more…)
My commentary last week on the situation of the Silver Ring Thing has occasioned some conversation on the LewRockwell.com Blog (here, here, here, and here). The consensus on the faith-based initiative seems to be that, in the words of William L. Anderson, they “were pointing out at the beginning that this was a bad idea, and that taking the state’s money ultimately would mean that the state would be interfering with the larger mission of these religious groups.”
Contrariwise, Joseph Knippenberg, who blogs at No Left Turns and is a professor at Oglethorp University, writes in this week’s The American Enterprise online column that the faith-based initiative is being undermined by partisan Democrats and that it will have to continue under the diligent faithfulness of Republicans.
Citing the differences between the Republican and Democratic approaches, he writes of the former, “because the shekels come without unnecessary shackles, the effect of government funding isn’t necessarily homogenizing or secularizing. In a nutshell, this co-religionist hiring exemption enables government to cooperate with, but not dominate, a vigorous and diverse private philanthropic sector.”
The danger is, in Knippenberg’s view, that the faith-based initiative will become dominated by Democratic partisans, who “would force every government contractor into essentially the same bureaucratic mold. Every recipient of government funding would ultimately be simply an extension of the government, offering more or less the same services in more or less the same setting.”
But even if Knippenberg is right, and there is this vast difference between the approaches of the two parties, it merely serves to underscore my point about the unreliability of government funding. He is responding in part to this Washington Post story which notes the boon that Bush’s faith-based initiative has been to certain conservative-minded charities. (more…)
In this week’s Acton Commentary, “The North American Church and Global Stewardship,” I note that blessed with extraordinary material riches, Christians in North America are increasingly viewing their stewardship responsibilities in a global context. I look at one school in British Columbia and how their local building project also raised funds for a school in Sierra Leone.
Dennis DeGroot, principal of Fraser Valley Christian High School, writes and informs me, “The money keeps coming in for the school project. The students have far exceeded their goal. The total now at $36,000 and money still coming in.” He also says, “My long term vision for this is that all Christian schools would find partnerships like ours in the developing world; true partnerships where we learn from each other where real wealth lies.”
For some background, you can read my brief column in The Banner, “Building on the Tithe.”
As mentioned in an earlier post, Acton was in Washington D.C. last week to honor the 2005 Samaritan Award-winning programs. But we managed to do a lot more than hold a reception for our honorees – almost all of them also met with members of Congress to impress upon them the value and importance of private charities in their communities.
We spoke with Karen Woods, Director of Acton’s Effective Compassion Initiatives, to get her perspective on a successful couple of days in our nation’s capitol. You can watch that interview by clicking the play button below.
Related items: Acton Senior Fellow Marvin Olasky was interviewed last week by NPR on the White House’s plans to increase faith-based grants. To read about Olasky’s Seven Principles for Effective Compassion, click here.
William Easterly, professor of Economics at NYU, has written a new book challenging the prevailing development orthodoxy of increased aid and the “big push” to combat poverty in the Third World. The White Man’s Burden: Why The West’s efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good, published by Penguin is to be released on March 20th.
I have only read a short bit of it so far, but what I have seen is refreshing. He questions the effectiveness of aid, pointing out that aid has been largely ineffective and more of the same is not the answer. In so doing he goes up against politicians such as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, economists such as Jeffery Sachs, and rock stars such as Bono and Bob Geldof.
Sachs calls for increased aid and Blair speaks of a “big push” to bring about The End of Poverty. (Sach’s book is also v. interesting by the way) Easterly agrees with Sachs that extreme poverty is a tragedy, but while there is a lot of talk about poverty itself, he says there has been very little said
about the other tragedy of the world’s poor. This is the tragedy in which the West spent 2.3 trillion dollars in foreign aid over the last 5 decades and still has not managed to get twelve cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West has spent 2.3 trillion and still has not managed to get four-dollar bed nets to poor families
He contrasts the central planning inefficiency of the aid industry to the market’s ability to distribute 9 million copies of the sixth volume of Harry Potter books to the British and American economies in a single day.
There was no Marshall Plan for Harry Potter, no International Financing Facility for books about underage wizards.
Easterly makes the distinction between what he calls planners and searchers. Planners like Jeffery Sachs and Tony Blair advocate large scale attacks on poverty through aid and global initiatives. Planners operate from top-down schemes that are often well intentioned but have not worked. Searchers on the other hand avoid large scale plans and look for entrepreneurial solutions to solve problems that take into account incentives and accountability.
Despite the evidence, why do big plans remain so popular? Well, one reason of course is that planning schemes are inspiring. End poverty by 2025. Grandiose plans often have the support of big name politicians and celebrities and they promise a solution right away. Piecemeal solutions rarely inspire even when they work. Second, no one is accountable when the fail. And when they do fail the answer is do more of the same thing. The One Campaign is a perfect example. But popularity and good intentions are not a substitute for effectiveness.
A third reason is the prevailing allure of utopian schemes. Easterly writes that the planning approach to foreign aid is part of the what Karl Popper calls the “utopian social engineering” approach to problem. This approach has been tried and failed in diverse times and places such as the five year plans of the Soviet Union, the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank in Africa in the 1980s and 90s, and the “shock therapy” used on the transition economies after years of failed planned economies.
Utopianism is nothing new. Eric Voegelin saw Gnosticism and utopianism as the driving force of modern politics, and it appears to be the driving force of aid as well.
Maybe Easterly’s challenge will wake people up to the failures of planning and get them to respect the entrepreneurial capabilities of the people in the developing world. As Hernando de Soto has pointed out in The Mystery of Capital, there is no lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the Third World.
Instead of increasing aid and more top-down plans decrease regulation and barriers to starting businesses, and let local entrepreneurs and the markets find solutions that far away planners have been unable to accomplish.