Delivering aid through religious organizations

UNU-WIDER / Oct 2012

Australia has a plan to double its Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) by 2015. To attain this goal identifying new channels through which aid can be delivered, and used, as effectively as possible is crucial. One example of this is an aid-delivery mechanism, based on a partnership with churches, being piloted by the Australian government in the Pacific region. Churches have existing, functioning and well-regarded national networks and close links with local communities and are thus, in theory, ideal partners for the delivery of effective aid.

In the WIDER Working Paper 'Innovative Delivery Mechanisms for Increased Aid Budgets: Lessons from a New Australian Aid Partnership' Matthew Clarke looks at an AusAID initiative in Papua New Guinea which utilizes churches as a mechanism through which aid can be delivered and considers the benefits this model can bring. Clarke also considers how this partnership model might be extended to non-Christian religious faiths in other countries, such as Islamic nationwide organizations in Indonesia.

The Case of Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is a country that faces many development challenges. It is ranked at 148 on the Human Development Index, and most human well-being indicators show that the conditions there are similar to those in Sub-Saharan Africa. The government of PNG faces several barriers to improving the situation. In particular the population is dispersed and largely rural, making service delivery difficult. Furthermore the government itself suffers from weak institutions and there has been a long-run decline in public-sector performance. The challenges then are not purely financial and as such the government of Papua New Guinea (GoPNG) does not necessarily have the capacity to effectively use all the aid it receives.

The churches in Papua New Guinea have an extensive network that covers the entire country. Clarke points out that since the arrival of missionaries in 1875 religious organizations have focused on providing basic health and education services as a way of engaging with the community. While the GoPNG has since formally taken control of these services the reality is that churches are still heavily involved in the delivery process both in partnership with the GoPNG, and separately where government services do not exist.

The Papua New Guinea Church Partnership Programme (CPP) was established by AusAID in 2004 with the stated purpose “to help PNG churches promote good governance, through strengthening their role in policy dialogue, service delivery, and peace and reconciliation activities”. AusAID engages PNG churches by working through Australian-based NGOs which have existing links and partnerships with them. Implicit in this programme are the ideas that governance is of key importance in the future development of PNG and that the churches are in a unique position to influence government through their involvement in policy dialogue. The CPP accounts for only 2 per cent of total funds AusAID expended each year but the amounts have been rising. Clarke argues that this indicates a satisfaction with the programme, and suggests that the churches have an increased capacity to efficiently absorb aid.

Some specific areas of focus for the CPP are;

  • Improving sustainable livelihoods of local people so they can better manage their own lives.
  • Reducing conflict between and within local communities and clan groupings.
  • Providing a voice to marginalized members of communities, including women and children.
  • Increasing awareness of human rights and policies.
  • Advocating for improved governance within the public sector.
  • Facilitating a better relationship between local communities and PNG government departments.

A report on the effectiveness of this model of aid delivery found that success had been achieved in some of these areas but not in others. In terms of sustainable livelihoods a number of interesting projects has been introduced. For example, the Lutheran church has established a brick-making project for highland migrants and the Salvation Army introduced an effective income-generation scheme for family-owned coffee producers.

A number of programmes specifically aimed at enhancing the church’s role in reducing clan conflict have also been introduced. Clarke gives the example of the Salvation Army's Guns for Bibles project which was implemented to end clan-based fighting that had lasted nearly three decades. It should be noted that while in PNG religious organizations can play this kind of role, in countries where religion is the cause of such conflict this would not be a likely role for these organizations.

There are a number of ways in which religious organizations can help deal with gender inequality, which is a particularly important issue in PNG. Clarke argues that churches can help challenge gender inequality through women holding positions of power, through funding gender programmes, through preaching and social teaching, through modeling by ordained members, and through advocacy at the local and national level. Some denominations have better records than others in this area, the CPP highlighting the importance of gender inequality has helped by challenging churches involved in the programme to better understand their own practice and teaching in this area.

The CPP has encouraged the churches involved to improve their communication and cooperation and has strengthened their ability to play a greater role in civil society and enhanced their ability to continue providing basic services. For these reasons AusAID considers the programme cost effective. The programme leverages existing relationships and networks, and thus avoids the costs associated with creating new networks, and employing technical advisers.

It is important to note that while the CPP could have been a project simply aimed at sustaining and enhancing the ability of churches to deliver services, it has also focused on increasing the churches’ capacity more generally. This may seem to conflict with secular ideals, but it is a recognition of the wider role churches play in the PNG society. In particular the CPP was designed to help give churches the capacity to facilitate local demand for the GoPNG to display good governance.

Clarke points out that there are limitations to how much can be achieved by partnering with churches. Constraints include the fact that churches do not focus solely on development, they have a limited ability to absorb aid, and there are limitations of the churches’ internal management. While churches can play a positive role in development they do not hold all the answers and cannot substitute for a functioning GoPNG.

A Mosque Partnership Programme?

Could this approach be useful more widely for AusAID? Take the example of Indonesia. Australian ODA to Indonesia is substantial and over 86 per cent of Indonesians identify as Muslim. Given this, and the success of the CPP, Clarke suggest that is important to consider whether models like the CPP are only viable in Christian countries or whether a similar project is feasible in countries with a largely Muslim population.

There has been some funding to Islamic organizations in Indonesia, and there is evidence that increasing the capacity of moderate Islamic groups has the dual effect of combating fundamentalism, and increasing social capital. However Clarke identifies two main reasons why a more substantial replication of the CPP is unlikely to be successful.

First, unlike PNG, the Indonesia government is more effective in using aid delivered through the traditional channels. Due to the government of Indonesia's ability to deliver services to the entire country local religious networks are not as vital as their PNG equivalents. Furthermore bilateral aid to Indonesia is not beset by absorptive capacity constraints in the same way as it is in PNG. Further, Indonesia currently has a much lower ratio of net ODA to GNI and there is therefore greater scope for increased aid to be spent effectively without the involvement of religious organizations.

Second, it may be more difficult for Muslim organizations to find Australian NGO partners who share their beliefs. There is not a large number of Muslim organizations in Australia, and those that do exist may lack absorptive capacity on that side of the partnership. While sharing religious belief is not necessarily a prerequisite for forming a productive partnership, it is certainly helpful, and was utilized to good effect by the CPP in Papua New Guinea.

The CPP demonstrates that partnerships with religious organizations can have positive development outcomes. This is especially true when the aid budget is rapidly increasing; the recipient country has a government with capacity constraints, and where local religious organizations have the necessary strength and scope to implement aid programmes. While it seems unlikely that a CPP equivalent could be delivered in Indonesia, it remains true that the CPP provides evidence that religious organizations can increasingly be used as an effective aid delivery mechanism, and more generally that engagement with religion can lead to positive development outcomes.

This report by James Stewart summarizes UNU-WIDER working paper no. 2011/73, 'Innovative Delivery Mechanisms for Increased Aid Budgets: Lessons from a New Australian Aid Partnership' by Matthew Clarke.

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