A Potent Fuel? The impact of faith identity on development programming

Our paper, ‘A Potent Fuel? Faith Identity and Development Impact in World Vision Community Programming’, has just been published in the Journal of International Development. Happily, it’s open access, so anyone can read it by following this link.

Written with Matthew Clarke, Simon Feeny, Gill Westhorp and Cara Donohue, it is the result of a major project looking at World Vision (WV) and its community programming in five countries: Ethiopia, Georgia, Senegal, Sri Lanka and Peru. The project was an examination of World Vision and its child sponsorship approach, and included a research question on how the organisation’s faith identity impacted on its programming and wider work, with a focus on WV Area Development Programmes in each of the five countries.

Although there has been a growth in interest in the work, role and impact of faith-based development organisations (FBDOs) amongst academics, practitioners and donors over the past couple of decades, there has been relatively little empirically-driven research over whether, and if so how, the actual faith identity of an FBDO makes a difference. In asking what faith-based actors may do differently (better, more problematic, or just different) to their secular counterparts, we have explored the contribution of identity and values (as opposed to organisational type) to understanding the FBDO and what it does.

In our exploration of how the faith identity of a global FBDO impacts on its ability to establish common ground, trust and generate community development, the paper challenges two key understandings of religion in development:

  1. We argue that faith identity is not just how an organisation defines itself (internally-generated identity). It is also created externally, by how that organisation and its ‘place’ within faith is perceived by community members and partners; and assumptions as to what its faith values are and how they shape what it does. “Understandings of the role of the impact of faith identity on development must account for both types.”
  2. We call for the bringing back of ‘development’ into the analysis and understanding of FBDOs: “Understanding the FBDO through a faith‐only prism risks misunderstanding the ways in which faith and development values combine to generate a particular impact. ‘Development’, too, is more than just an institutional vehicle: it is a site of identity in itself and space for physical manifestation of values and social action aspirations.”

Key findings:

1. What do we mean by ‘faith identity’?

When we try to understand what the faith identity of a FBDO is, we need to look beyond the organisation itself. The way an organisation defines itself and its values is clearly very important, shaping as it does the way the organisation wants to be seen in the world and enabling its mission and objectives to be aligned with its self-declared values. But FBDOs (as with all organisations) do not operate in abstraction. When looking at an organisation in a specific context, it is critical to understand how that organisation is perceived, and how its values and identity are produced and re-produced, sometimes in new ways by those communities. In other words, we argue that faith identity is both an internal (to the organisation) and an external creation, and therein lies possibilities for enhancing engagement, for the establishment of common ground, as well as for the generation of tensions and points of (real or imagined) difference.

As an example, a FBDO may define itself as non-denominational. But the use of certain types of religious language, the emphasising of certain values teachings and texts over others, the denomination of the staff it employs, the way it is seen to operate, can all mark it out as belonging to a particular tradition, undermining its non-denominational identity. In Ethiopia, for example, the use of New Testament teachings and texts is seen by many as a Protestant tradition, meaning it is harder to maintain a non-denominational identity within Orthodox communities. So do we argue that the community is ‘wrong’ because its perceived view of the FBDO differs from the official version? If we are thinking about how faith identity contributes to impact, we need to acknowledge the reality of externally-produced faith identity, as it shapes how people respond to that organisation and its programming.

So we need to acknowledge the dual construction of faith identity in understanding what FBDOs do, how, and with what impact: analysis must not look only at internally generated faith identity but understand how that identity is seen and shaped by the communities themselves. We also need to pay attention to the specific context in which the FBDO operates, and understand that the same FBDO may look quite different in terms of its (internal and external) faith identity from one context to another. We must put the context in which these relationships occur at the centre of analysis. FBDOs do not operate as abstracted organisations but through activity in a specific space.

2. Faith identity matters

Faith identity does make a difference in the way in which an organisation works within communities and as a result the impact of its programming: “World Vision’s faith identity allowed it to work in particular ways (especially acknowledging the place of the spiritual in development) and with particular groups (especially faith leaders) and through that build trust in its programmes and its intentions and increase community engagement in WV supported programmes. In communities where a significant proportion of the population holds religious or spiritual beliefs, FBDOs are able to frame their internal identity and values within a broader social discourse of development, religious (social) values and obligations and through that establish common ground within individual and between different, faith communities. That common ground can then be used to build engagement and support in development activities, boosting participation rates and securing community support for both the initiatives and their objectives.”

Faith identity can provide a common language for development, one which can transcend faith boundaries. It can allow for programming to engage with sets of values and objectives beyond metrics and orthodox ‘impact’. But, faith identity can also generate concerns, fears and points of tension. Is the organisation seeking to attract converts to its particular faith? What does it expect in return for support? Such concerns can cause people to pull back from engagement and participation.

Faith identity matters, therefore, but is not inherently more likely in itself to lead to greater community engagement. The external perception (externally-produced faith identity) is critical, as is…

3. Faith AND development:

In our study, it was the intertwining of faith and development identities that was critical to generating strong community engagement and trust in WV. This highlights the fact that FBDOs are not just ‘faith-based’ actors: they are also development ones – FBDOs. And our research found this dual aspect was critical to the way in which its faith identity functioned

In particular, concerns and reservations over the intentions (and perceived faith identity) of the organisation were able to be overcome as communities saw what it was actually doing: sustained contact and engagement with WV and its activities was able to dispel or mitigate some concerns. In these instances, there was a shift away from a focus on points of intra-faith difference, to a growing recognition of shared values, and growing trust in WV’s declared intentions to be working for the good of all communities.

In the one site where WV’s faith identity had been de-emphasised, there was less evidence of cross-community activities and engagement, reinforcing our view that it was indeed the dual faith and development identities, rather than just the development one, that were critical.

It is worth noting that this division between ‘faith’ and ‘development’ identities is not necessarily one that would be recognised by the staff of FBDOs, who may well see one as the expression of the other. The hard division between ‘faith’ and ‘development’ within FBDOs largely reflects the external impositions of donors (and perhaps development academics), and it is worth asking whether these donors (and academics) would insist on such distinctions between secular political values and development activity, or be more tolerant of the co-existence of both in the overt manifestations of programming.


  1. FBDOs should not hide or downplay their faith identity: it is an important part of who they are and how they operate.
  2. But FBDOs should also emphasise their ‘development’ identities alongside: it is the interaction between the two that can create the impact.
  3. Donors should reflect on how effective their insistence on artificial boundaries between ‘faith’ and ‘development’ are, and whether such concerns / issues are reflected in the communities with whom these organisations work.
  4. Finally, this research suggests we should do more to think about how ‘values’ impact on all development actors, perhaps especially NGOs: shaping what they do, how they do it, and their impact. “To twist slightly Ferguson’s (1994) argument, development is an anti‐values machine. It professes a focus on measurable outcomes, efficiency and cost‐effectiveness and masks value‐based assumptions about society, change and what ‘better’ means. While this might be more overt when translated into political values (reflected in battles between the champions of more market‐focused, neoliberal forms of development and those who push against the policies and assumptions those ‘values’ have led to), all development and all development organisations have identities that are important in self‐understanding and in how those organisations are in turn perceived. NGOs, donors and other development actors are all value‐laden and value driven, even if that specific value identity is not always as easy to categorise as it can be with the clearer demarcations of faith identities. Identity and values matter in and impact on development, whether faith, secular or somewhere in between, and whether hidden, open or (deliberately?) written out of the script

About Mike Jennings

I am Reader in International Development and Head of the Department of Development Studies at the SOAS, University of London. I research, teach and write on Africa, and the history and politics of international development in sub-Saharan Africa. Research areas include: - The history of development in Africa, from the late nineteenth century to the current day - Politics of East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) - the role of non-state providers (NGOs, FBOs and self-help groups) in welfare service provision - Social aspects of health, including HIV and AIDS, and malaria
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1 Response to A Potent Fuel? The impact of faith identity on development programming

  1. Pingback: A Potent Fuel? The impact of faith identity on development programming – Cowboys and effigies

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