FBO Vs NGO & Issues of Corruption

There is a widely held belief that faith and strongly held moral codes can provide an answer to the problems of corruption in much of the world. Based on this belief, can it be seen that faith-based organisations are better able to address the issues associated with corruption than their secular counter-parts?

The unwavering production of anti-corruption campaigns emanating from development organisations suggests that current approaches have not achieved the expected results and, as such, corruption is still a significant issue. Corruption is most frequently defined as the ‘abuse of public office for private gain’ (Beets, 2007; Cremer, 2008; Husted, 1999; Windsor & Getz; Getz & Volkema, 2001). This abuse commonly takes the form of bribery or extortion, but, as Beets (2007) finds “can also include the abuse of insider information, procurement, fraud, embezzlement of public money, and money laundering” (Beets, 2007:70). Corruption is evidenced to contribute to “delayed and distorted political development, weakening competitive processes and major institutions” (Johnston, 1998:90). The particular interest of development agencies in corruption stems from the understanding that ordinary citizens experience hardship as a direct result of systematic petty corruption, such as the paying of bribes for services which are officially provided by the state (Beets, 2007). The increasing urgency and mixed success in tackling such development issues has led to the evolution of concepts such as human development, social capital and participation. This has further “resulted in an opening of the development space” (Jones & Petersen, 2011:1294) which has allowed new approaches to be developed.

This shift in development thinking has led to a new interest in faith-based organisations (FBOs) which are considered to go beyond the ‘economic’ and ‘rational’ to engage with other dimensions of life, such as values and morality (Tyndale, 2003). There is a wealth of literature available debating the relative advantages and criticisms of FBOs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which are, in comparison, viewed as secular, implying a link to the economic and rational tradition which has fallen from favour. A broad definition is provided by Clarke & Jennings (2008) who define an FBO as “any organisation that derives inspiration and guidance for its activities from the teaching and principles of faith” (Clarke & Jennings, 2008:6). Berger (2003) offers a more active definition, including a need for self-identification as a religious organisation. (Berger, 2003:16) Marshall (2008) suggests these newly-defined FBOs have advantages for tackling corruption due to the mutual links between corruption and morality and morality and faith: these are considered lacking in secular NGOs. The highly-influential report Voices of the Poor asserts that “the moral authority of the religions in the world can be a powerful means to bring honesty and justice back in to public and private life” (Narayan et al, 2000:284). These links have been promoted by faith leaders who continue to play important roles on corruption issues (Marshall, 2008), and it is the potential of this relationship between FBOs and anti-corruption programmes which this paper will explore.

This paper will argue that FBOs do not address the issues associated with corruption better than secular NGOs as they intrinsically lack capacity for impartiality. FBOs, however, do bring an important dimension to development and social reform, building trust and engaging with hard-to-reach communities. They are consequently considered more relatable by many who dismiss secular NGOs, although this does not overcome the issue of impartiality. This discussion of FBOs will firstly summarise the current debate surrounding advantages, criticisms and distinctions in relation to secular NGOs. Secondly, the relationship between religion and corruption will be redefined and mechanisms for tackling corruption suggested. Finally, it will consider the benefits and viability of both FBOs and NGOs working effectively to tackle corruption, in relation to the policy suggestions and mechanisms recommended.

The increased visibility of FBOs is all the more surprising, considering the development industry’s past rejection of, and disdain for, religion. NGOs took over the provision of development assistance from governments and multilateral institutions that were considered “incompetent, unaccountable and corrupt, NGOs being in contrast efficient, honest and participatory” (Leurs, 2012:706). Until recently, the views associated with governments and other traditional institutions had also been levied at religion, and as Tyndale (2003) suggests “development organisations including many NGOs would share the perception of religion as an anti-developmental force” (Tyndale, 2003:25). Much of this negative association comes from the belief that faith-based organisations blur the lines between state and church (Clarke, 2006), that religious groups “foster superstition, hold rigidly conservative values or other world views which are inimical to material change” (Tyndale, 2003:25), or simply the “concern that their objectives and ethos are different, and that barriers between church and state are appropriate and necessary” (Marshall, 2008:222). The interest in religion has grown from the development industry which now considers that an alternative approach is needed, following patchy success from secular NGOs.

There is now an attempt to shift approaches to development away from practices which impose a western and secular set of ideas and institutions on ordinary people who, by contrast, view religion, culture and tradition as the determinants of social conduct. This shift has been accompanied by an increased understanding that these approaches reduce cooperation and even create resistance (Jones & Petersen, 2011; Nandy, 1998; Shah, 2008; Tyndale, 2003). Kaplan (2010) identifies the alternative approaches’ key aims to be social cohesion, social capital and the capacity of self-governance, before proposing that “few organisations are better equipped to reverse social atomisation and catalyse local capacities for self-governance than FBOs” (Kaplan, 2010:11). This supports the impression that FBOs and religious practices are more radical and alternative (Jones & Petersen, 2011:1299). Clarke & Jennings (2008) explore the claim that religiously-inspired work is more authentic than other forms of social action, due to its relation to people’s moral and spiritual life, which are a better reflection of their language and cultural norms. White et al (2012) find that “people see religion not as an arena set apart, but primarily as embedded with the everyday” (White et al, 2012:660). In relation to development, FBOs are perceived to utilise these perceptions and draw on a more legitimate morality than that available to secular organisations, thereby increasing reach and influence (Leurs, 2012; Marshall, 2008). In Voices of the Poor, people rated organisations in terms of effectiveness and importance: the results further support the significance of FBOs in development, as religious organisations were ranked highly in both regards (Narayan et al, 2000). The importance and influence of religion in many societies and individuals’ lives appear to highlight deficiencies in the authenticity of previous, supposedly secular, development work.

Advocates of FBOs claim further structural and measurable developmental advantages over secular organisations. The most important advantage is of their networks. These networks are able to “mobilise religious adherents estranged by secular development” (Leurs, 2012:708), and allow organisations to rely on religiously-motivated donors and volunteers, who also provide an alternative, unconditional source of funding.

These networks assist access to communities in rural areas and are perceived as closer to the communities in which they are engaged due to a responsive, yet “strong and enduring organisational structure” (Leurs, 2012:708). In many countries receiving development assistance, the government has little reach outside of the main cities, yet religious institutions are able to provide for these remote communities, reducing the deficit caused by weak, or uninterested political institutions, often providing means of building social capital through healthcare and educational programmes (Kaplan, 2010). The legitimacy and trust associated with these networks is often enhanced by charismatic religious leaders, providing an explicit link with moral and spiritual value systems and the benefits of historical rootedness (Berger, 2003; Clarke, 2006; Jones & Petersen, 2011; Kaplan, 2010; Kirmani, 2012; Leurs, 2012; Lunn, 2009; Marshall, 2008).

The positive points of distinction between FBO and NGO have been questioned by recent studies, although these are themselves instrumental and fail to acknowledge the primary advantage of FBOs for adherents of religion. Tomalin (2012) and Leurs (2012) both dismiss the claims of distinctiveness or comparative advantage regularly attributed to FBOs. Tomalin suggests that it is impossible to differentiate the influences of faith on an organisation from other influences such as cultural, political and historical context: any distinction should be attributed to the size and formality of the organisation, irrespective of adherence to either NGO or FBO labels. She goes on to draw attention to the current status of FBOs as a political priority, reminding us of the current “desire to promote FBOs as viable development partners” (Tomalin, 2012:700). Leurs (2012) supports the view of Tomalin, concluding that any differences are related to structure and aims, irrespective of religious associations.

Points of distinction are more simply identified and less disputed when raised as criticisms of FBOs and their approach to development, despite again being related to explicit aspects of an individual’s faith. The literature highlights four recurring themes: proselytising, discrimination, lack of professionalism and threat of community division. In Leurs’ study both Christian and Muslim FBOs state that they “have a responsibility to evangelise” (Leurs, 2012:713), treating their humanitarian work as the means of transmitting their message of faith. Jayasinghe’s study (2007) specifically addresses concerns relating to proselytising, finding it discriminatory, as a community’s access to development assistance often correlates with the available opportunities for conversion. Jayasinghe dismisses FBOs’ defence, of providing spiritual well-being, stating instead that the introduction of a new belief structure creates confusion and actually decreases well-being. Jayasinghe’s last point of note is that of need: “Proselytising work is unlikely to be a perceived need of the population and if carried out without consent breaches the principles of autonomy” (Jayasinghe, 2007:623). FBOs as a generalised type fit the model of groups and movements which are deeply resistant to modernisation. This resistance, Tyndale suggests, “is not to science and technology, but to the attitudes and values such as […] a lack of collective responsibility and the trivialization of life’s purpose” (Tyndale, 2003:24). This approach results in much of the work of FBO’s appearing discriminatory through their adoption of a “paternalistic and welfare-oriented approach” (James, 2011:110) which supports their members. In turn this risks exacerbating rather than healing community divisions (Kaplan, 2010, Kirmani, 2012). When considering FBOs’ professionalism they score highly in moral and ethical terms (Tomalin, 2012:699) demonstrating an ability to mobilise and control resources (James, 2010:110). However, criticisms are linked to a lack of competence in terms of “impartiality, transparency and accountability, providing feedback to donors and governments and helping communities form their own respective [political] bodies” (Tomalin, 2012:699). Each of these criticisms supports the original reluctance of the development industry to support the newly-elevated position of FBOs. It should be remembered that for the adherents of these faiths, “religion influences all aspects and dimensions of their lives, and this has implications for the way they understand what development processes and outcomes ought to be” (Deneulin & Bano, 2009:6).

The primary observation of those considered corrupt is their disregard for moral values, which has correspondingly led to principled behaviour being associated with faith. Under many moral and religious tenets, corruption is wrong in that it involves “some combination of theft, dishonesty, abuse of others, and illegality” (Beets, 2007:70). A paper by Sommer et al (2012) proposes that as religion provides the language of ethics this may translate into “political virtuousness and integrity” (Sommer et al 2012:4). This position is promoted universally by religious leaders who are “united in their opposition to corruption” (Beets, 2007:69). There is however no evidence to support the belief that more religion means less corruption, the reverse actually being true (Beets, 2007; Dimock et al, 2002; Marquette, 2010). Religion may, however, offer support in communities lacking alternative formal structures and encourage “qualities such as loyalty and a tendency towards acceptance of authority, both of which may undermine attempts to fight corruption, while also placing cultural emphasis on hierarchies and structures” (Marquette, 2012:17). It can be seen that corruption draws its criticisms from a moral base, which holds an incidental association with religion. Similar language is applied to both and the anti-corruption message seemingly emanates from the moral code of many dominant religions, much of the rhetoric being generated by spiritual leaders. However, overt suggestions that the presence of religious beliefs or organisation reduces corrupt behaviour have been dismissed.

The definition of corruption and the mechanisms of reduction or eradication are often generated outside of the place of implementation. Although international organisations have invested in anti-corruption politics, there have been relatively few successes. A lack of success may be viewed negatively by voters, reducing trust in political systems (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2006). Similar recognitions to those identified above suggest reduced cooperation and cultural differences are the likely consequence of applying universal standards. These realisations have resulted in a shift away from the imposition of purely economic and rational approaches to more moral, locally-nuanced and value-orientated strategies (Bukovansky, 2006; Gupta, 2005; Rakodi, 2007; Shah, 2008). The historically-dominant ‘principle agent’ model sees corruption as a criminal behaviour of those entrusted to act on behalf of an honest or benevolent principle, most often translated as the ‘people’ (Aidt, 2003; Teorell, 2007). This approach has led to the widely-applied definition of corruption being the abuse of public office for private gain. Rothstein (2011) finds this definition problematic, suggesting it to be incomplete: an abuse can only be committed “against some kind of normative standard” (Rothstein, 2011:230). Bukovansky (2006) explicitly relates the problem to the “external imposition of contingent standards on societies that are not fully participating in defining those standards” (Bukovansky, 2006:184). Cremer (2008) supports this view, and suggests this approach may “stigmatise certain societies by implicitly assuming that their ethics are underdeveloped” (Cremer, 2008:59). The deficiencies of a universally-held definition suggest the need for an alternative framework in place of a static definition. This would enable locally-appropriate approaches, adhering to “narratives surrounding corruption which are central to understandings that ordinary people have of the state” (Shah, 2008:296).

Alternative frameworks which best define the interplay between corruption and morality are founded on concepts of impartiality, trust and an empowered civil society. Kurer (2005) advances a framework based on a “specific norm for public officials, namely impartiality, by which is meant non-discrimination in the exercise of public authority […] corruption involves the holder of public office violating the impartiality principle in order to achieve private gain” (Kurer, 2005:230). The root of systemic corruption has been attributed to a particularistic political culture, which is defined as a “system in which government’s treatment of citizens depends on their status or position in society” (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2006:82). According to Uslaner (2008) this type of inequality works its way through society to reduce levels of interpersonal trust, increasing corrupt conduct (Uslaner, 2008). An absence of interpersonal trust has been demonstrated to weaken civil society, leaving citizens’ interests vulnerable to exploitation by political monopolies due to a lack of community strength to insist on formal rights (Johnston, 1998). Inequality and low levels of trust results in a lack of expectation of fair treatment by the state or fellow citizens, leading “people and firms to have few reasons to think that if they refrain from corruption others would do the same” (Johnston, 1998:92).

This lack of belief in the collective appears to most challenge the morality of individuals, increasing the likelihood of them engaging in corrupt activities. Research by Marquette (2012) shows that religion and associated moral frameworks may have an impact on attitudes towards corruption, but that this has very little impact on actual behaviour (Marquette, 2012). Bandura (2002) asserts that this dissonance of attitude and action occurs when corruption becomes so endemic that being uncorrupt makes little sense: Marquette (2010) claims there is “little evidence to suggest that the religious will reject behaviour that is anti-social any more than the secular” (Marquette, 2010:25). The consequent ‘selective moral disengagement’ (Bandura, 2002) points to corruption being a problem of the collective, rather than a problem of values or ethics (Marquette, 2012; Rothstein, 2011). Bandura’s research found that people could describe themselves as religious and moral, yet be able to carry out corrupt activities through a ‘diffusion of responsibility’: “where everyone is responsible, no one really feels responsible […] any harm done by a group can always be attributed largely to the behaviour of others” (Bandura, 2002:107).

Previous approaches to corruption have been based on rational, economic and universal strategies, despite moral overtones. The ideologies of the World Bank and IMF created and reinforced these associations to serve their own purposes (Bukovansky, 2006). The international community’s agenda previously focused on top-down state building, over-emphasising the role and position of western and foreign NGOs and in country political institutions, which in many cases were located in “capital cities geographically and culturally remote from most of the population” (Kaplan, 2010:15). There also appears to have been impatience by both the international community and local partners which has led to the repeated implementation of ready-made, universal solutions, with both sides wanting to be seen as producing a resolution to a problem (Ellerman, 2002; Hirschman, 1973). The most high-profile mechanism to address issues of corruption, the Ombudsman, has contributed to the promotion of “universalism at the expense of particularism (which) has not been replicated well” (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2006:96).

Contemporary development agencies aim to tackle corruption by placing emphasis on social and multi-institutional reforms appropriate and specific to the country or community. This approach must include multifaceted policy programmes incorporating civil society, government officials, the international community and mass media, all of whom are encouraged to play equal roles. Specific reforms of public institutions attempt to address the absence of accountability that support systematic corruption, by promoting impartiality and anti-discriminatory practice, to engender public trust while weakening political monopolies (Marshall, 2008; Rothstein, 2011). The enfranchisement of civil society through the creation of grass-roots community leaders enables the monitoring of public officials, discourages the self-interested behaviour of decision-makers, and nurtures the development of best practice (Johnston, 1998; Marshall, 2008). The key role of development organisations in influencing and progressing social reforms and campaigns of anti-corruption mean that the type of organisation will affect the strategies and effectiveness of those programmes.

Much of the argument in support of the potential role of FBOs in anti-corruption work extends from their relation with morality, and the perception that they are ‘better’ organisations. While this distinction is considered inaccurate, the strength of belief supports the legitimacy of their role. In support of this suggestion, Marquette (2010), states that people who consider themselves to be religious are likely to derive their ethical and moral framework from that religion, while even those who describe themselves as non-religious may still be “influenced by the religious that form a significant part of their cultural heritage, even if this influence is not acknowledged” (Marquette, 2010:7) and respond positively to FBOs which appeal to these cultural norms. In contrast, many secular NGOs are associated with western values and anti-corruption policies which have no appeal to a community’s cultural tradition. It is this relationship and association which appears enduring, placing FBOs in a particularly advantageous position.

Most of the perceived differences between NGOs and FBOs, when considered in the context of anti-corruption, appear as nothing more than a false differentiation. However, the quality of impartiality, which remains the dominant mechanism for tackling corruption, is an attribute which FBOs intrinsically lack. Key mechanisms necessary for tackling corruption include impartiality, accountability; transparency; the ability to foster political and organisational competition; appointment of community leaders; particularism; enfranchisement of the public and the engendering of public trust. Each of these mechanisms places certain demands upon development agencies: in the debate surrounding the comparative advantages between NGOs and FBOs, each type of organisation is generally held to be more effective than the other at performing certain functions. For example, the engendering of public trust is better addressed by FBOs, which are perceived to have more personal and grass-roots relationships and infrastructure. Conversely, NGOs are perceived as having structures better able to ensure transparency and effective long-term capacity building. In relation to anti-corruption programmes many of these claims of difference can be dismissed in line with both Tomalin (2012) and Leurs (2012) who state that any perceived distinction between NGOs and FBOs is attributable only to the size and formality of the organisation. However, with regard to anti-corruption, two particularly relevant areas of distinction between the organisational types can be seen: impartiality and the need to proselytise. While it is acknowledged that not all NGOs are impartial, they have the ability to be so. Conversely, FBOs are intrinsically discriminatory and often partisan in favour of their own faith or needs. Jayasinghe (2007) relates their humanitarian work to an opportunity to evangelise. This often extends beyond a decision about who receives support, to additionally influence how support is given to communities and individuals in accordance with their belief structures. The importance of impartiality in anti-corruption can be understood through Kurer’s (2005) revised framework, in which corruption involves the holder of public office violating the impartiality principle in order to achieve private gain. Although Kurer’s framework was not initially devised to relate to development agencies, organisations who lack the principle of impartiality at their core risk reducing levels of interpersonal trust, and thus reducing their ability to have a positive affect across diverse societies, weakening their influence.

In conclusion FBOs do not better address the issues of corruption than their secular counterparts, due to their inherent lack of capacity for impartiality. The debate surrounding NGOs and FBOs clearly serves to highlight weaknesses in past understandings of the role of religion and faith, and there is a need for still more consideration of the lived realities of those in receipt of development assistance. Distinctions attributed to each type of organisation can be readily dismissed as perceptions rather than analysable differences, and instead have been found to be relative to the size and form of the organisation. However, the process of knowledge sharing and development of strategies to reduce the perceptions of difference should be continued and welcomed. Despite the dismissal of the positive correlation between religion and less corruption, it is considered that the moral narratives held by citizens are central to their understandings of corruption, and hold the key to societal reform. Enthusiasm for FBOs involvement in anti-corruption stems from their perceived link with morality and trust, which supports the overt move away from approaches based on rational, economic and universal principles. This enthusiasm is however premature, as contemporary frameworks for tackling corruption are founded on concepts of impartiality as a mechanism for overcoming issues of inequality and to promote fair treatment, which have been found to be intrinsically lacked by FBOs.


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