Palms Australia is a catholic organisation, but we do not demand our international volunteers, our board nor any individual staff members to be Catholic or Christian. Such a criteria would at times be counter-productive, with many fantastic candidates coming from a variety of backgrounds who could contribute to an organisation’s mission. The diversity within each religion is so great that “ticking the faith box” may not indicate an individual is any closer to an NGO’s values than someone of another or no religion. Ruling out applicants on the basis of their faith may also be a slippery slope as individuals may also be required to be a “certain kind” of Christian or Catholic or Muslim, etc.
Though a limiting criteria may hurt an organisation, there may be certain positions where some religious background or understanding may be a significant advantage. To the extent that individuals and partner organisations in Australia and overseas belong to a certain religious background, it may provide a shared understanding of purpose or clarification of the motives of an aid worker. An example might be if a person needs to speak with bishops or represent the organisation at faith-based events as well as secular ones. Perhaps one could think of an understanding of religious language, culture and motivations as a competency or skill required for certain positions, though for someone with little religious background it may be more difficult than one thinks to navigate diverse religious sensitivities within a particular church context.
Probably the essential aspect for someone wishing to work for a faith-based organisation is to have some respect for its faith foundation. This may be difficult at times for non-religious as they struggle to identify what this means. To this end, NGOs have an obligation to have clear policies on key issues relevant to its work. Those NGOs existing without such clarity of vision risk becoming something else entirely when staff or board members turnover. Words like ‘mission’ and ‘evangelise’ may turn some off if seen as indicative of some sort of conversion crusade, but if understood in the more nuanced way they are often used, they can be informative of the faith-based NGO’s historical, spiritual and cultural priorities. But if individuals share the same vision, mission and values, despite their different backgrounds, they should still find ways to work together.
Despite the similarities between some faith-based and some secular NGOs in terms of program objectives and operations, it is important not to think faith could be removed from development entirely. Significant numbers of individuals are motivated by faith and will seek programs which reflect these values. If these agencies were to drop their faith in pursuit of inclusiveness (noble an aim as it is), those who identified with the organisation because of their faith may feel unsupported or misunderstood, possibly moving on to less established or ethical organisations professing these values but perhaps implementing different, even nefarious, aims.
There is also a great risk that the increasingly secular ‘developed’ world neglects the importance of the spiritual in many of the cultures in which development activities occur. Many of Palms Australia’s partners, even some non-faith-based ones, identify something in the particular values informing our work which appeals to them more than a secular alternative. Understanding someone else’s values is a vital step in building a mutual relationship of trust and respect with them. Community Development (and long before that, the “catholic social teaching” principal of Subsidiarity) tell us that the decisions should be made as much as possible at the grassroots level. If a community in Timor-Leste, Indonesia or India feels more comfortable working with a Catholic, Muslim or Hindu organisation, then that should be respected by aid workers and donors.
Respecting the local culture also mean respecting their right to define their own culture. As uncomfortable as it may be to a “lapsed” or non-religious person, this will often include aspects of Western culture passed on in “missionary” times which many Westerners feel they have outgrown. By seeking to understand local counterparts, rather than judge them, the development worker might actually learn more, better understanding the development needs of both the community and themselves.
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