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Christian evangelical organisations in global anti-trafficking networks

Produced by R. Michael Feener

American evangelical Christian organizations comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement, and mobilize considerable financial resources around a moral objection to prostitution and sex trafficking. In this interview, we talk with Elena Shih about her ethnography of missionary vocational training rehabilitation projects that train sex workers in Beijing and Bangkok to make jewelry that is sold in the United States, and what this can show us about transnational dynamics of religious activism and non-governmental organizations enacted through the corollary motives of salvific evangelism and social entrepreneurship.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, pocket knives, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks

Podcast with Elena Shih (27 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Shih- Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-Trafficking Networks 1.1

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the fourth installment in our series on religion and NGOs. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect of religion as an international aid in development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs, or faith-based organisations, has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how their engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

CS: Since the turn of the twenty-first century, North American Christian NGOs have become increasingly visible actors in the humanitarian sector. One particularly prominent area of attention and interventions for such organisations has been in the global movements against human trafficking. In this interview we talk with Elena Shih about her multi-sited research on US Evangelical NGO’s involvement in the global anti-trafficking movement, and specifically on their projects in Thailand and China. She will explain how her findings contribute to our understanding of the role of US-based Christian actors in this specific field of rights, advocacy and development. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. So speaking with us today is Dr Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, also Faculty Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Dr Shih is a Sociologist specialising in gender and sexuality, transnational race and ethnicity, social movements and labour in the Global South. Giuseppe would you like to go ahead with the first question?

GB: For sure. Thank you very much Elena for being here with us. So in your book, Manufacturing Freedom, you shed light on the role played by Protestant NGOs in the Global anti-trafficking movement, looking at long-term fieldwork in the US where the NGO’s are headquartered as well as in China and Thailand where they have projects. So, what led you to specifically focus on these Christian organisations, and how do you position yourself as a researcher in relation to both these organisations and those that you work with in the aid projects?

Elena Shih (ES): Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of this podcast and for the wonderful introduction and really provocative first question. I actually didn’t begin this project hoping to understand the role of Christian organisations, and I think that understanding the genesis of the methods that led to this project, maybe, sheds light on some of its ultimate findings. So I began this project in 2007, having just begun graduate school in Sociology at UCLA, and having also just returned from three years of living in China; first working with a women’s legal aid organisation in Beijing and subsequently working with ethnic minority youth on the China-Burma border. And at that time I was very concerned with how the growing American interest and investment in trafficking, globally, didn’t really resonate on the ground in China. And so, when I returned back to the United States for graduate school I wanted to understand some of the gaps between the global and the local in manifesting things like the 2000 United Nations Palermo Protocol and 2000 United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act. So I began by attending a series of anti-trafficking conferences and anti-trafficking fairs that were increasingly prevalent in Southern California around 2007. And we saw an enormous response by American civil society, responding to what the United States had called over and over again a “growing scourge” of human trafficking (5:00). And, week after week, I would go to these different fairs and I started to see a pattern of numerous organisations that were working in different parts of the world, but had centred on social enterprise as their way of intervening. And by social enterprise, what I mean is that they were trying to turn to the markets and sell goods – often what they termed “slave-free” goods – as a way of raising funding around human trafficking, but also bringing money and jobs back into the very communities that they claimed people were trafficked from. I happened to get to know two organisations very well – one that was working in Thailand and one that working is China. Both happened to have offices and activist home-bases in Los Angeles. And I began volunteering with them, doing everything from helping them sell jewellery – which was the good that they were selling – to liaising with customers, to processing inventories, and to just generating different kinds of awareness around their cause. And it wasn’t until maybe eight months of volunteering with these organisations – when I travelled to Asia to see their production sites in Beijing and Bangkok – that I began to understand how important Christian faith was for these organisations. What that looked like on the ground is that for sex workers who are recruited to become jewellery makers in this project, across both organisations, Christian worship – an hour of Christian worship or Bible Study – was a mandatory and populated part of their wage, as were different kinds of spiritual and moral rehabilitation. So, I had workers comment to me that they often-times felt like maybe their promotions or salary bonuses were dependent not so much on their labour output making jewellery, or how they were doing on the shop floor, but more in terms of their spiritual growth and how much they had grown to accept Christianity in their lives. So I think, looking back now, in over a decade that I’ve been working on that project, it still is fairly striking to me that, a lot of times, when this jewellery is sold, a consumer or slavery activist doesn’t necessarily know that it’s attached to highly missionary goals. And, for many people, even the fact that it is a Christian organisation or it is a missionary organisation would not be problematic because it is ultimately serving a development goal in the end. Which is that of bringing jobs and economic alternatives to sex workers in Asia.

GB: Right.

CS: Wow. That is a very long-term engagement and it is fascinating to hear how you have really encountered, or kind-of bumped into the religious aspect of these organisations, and how your own experience reflects what the customer sees or doesn’t see in a very interesting way. Now, a question more specifically about these American Evangelical organisations. They comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement and mobilise considerable financial resources around the moral objection to prostitution, as you point out in your research. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which these organisations situate themselves within this global movement of anti-trafficking, for instance, in relation to non-faith-based organisations? And also how do they influence the movement’s lines? And how are they influenced by this more general global anti-trafficking movement?

ES: Yes, I think that there’s a really fascinating and particularly American history of the Christian Right, in particular, in the formation of anti-trafficking protocols in the United States and there are definitely scholars who are far better positioned to talk about that than I (10:00). So I would definitely direct listeners to work by two scholars in particular: that of Yvonne Zimmerman, who has a book under the title Other Dreams of Freedom, and then one of my own advisers, Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on what she called the sexual politics of neo-abolition, that documents a really interesting strange-bedfellows-coalition between Evangelical Christian and radical feminists, particularly on the issue of trafficking. But inasmuch as my work is concerned, I think that this actually is a good opportunity to talk about how the work fits into your wonderful volume on religion and the techno-politics of development, because I’ve really seen that religious organisations used the secular politics of rights and development alongside evangelical goals of proselytisation, so that the two are almost mutually interchangeable.

GB: Right

ES: And I think that vocational training has become a really, really popular technical solution for human trafficking, and particularly around something like prostitution, which is framed as a hugely moral problem, and which is framed as an absolute worst choice for a woman in the Global South who has no other options. And so, you see everybody from USAID to these grassroots religious organisations trying to think of ways to retrain people, to provide vocational training, as way of offering other alternatives to sex work. The main problem around it is that when you’re still training people in menial and manual low-wage labour, it still is not much of an alternative. So jewellery is one such menial low wage job, but it’s just one of the numerous commodities that’s now sold as a part of the anti-trafficking movement. You see everything from bedspreads to silk pyjamas being made in India, to traditional Henna craft and silk scarves coming out of Mongolia. And I think these are all part of a concerted attempt among anti-trafficking organisations to, what they call, “leverage the market-place”, to raise funds and awareness around the issue of trafficking. And I think one of the reasons why religious organisations have had to turn to social enterprise is, for the United States as an example, faith-based organisations are often excluded from certain kinds of federal or government funding when religious proselytisation is a core goal of theirs. And also, as religious organisations, they’re able to tap into huge bases of church-goers, parishioners, who see social justice goals as inextricable from Christian theology. And so I think that there’s been a real turn, on the part of churches, to recognise social justice in a reasonably complicated world. And – in a more shrewd, market-based, calculated turn – to find ways for faith-based organisations to fund themselves when they can’t seek other sources of funding.

GB: Right. So we’ve been talking about faith-based organisations, Evangelical movements in the United States, but it’s interesting to see what is happening in the other two field sites you chose which are Thailand and China. And Thailand and China provide two very different legal contexts for the work of Christian NGOs. So, Elena, how do these different juridical and policy frameworks influence the ways in which these NGOs implement their projects on the ground, and how do local perceptions of the articulation between aid and Christianity take shape in these very different contexts?

ES: I think that one of the greatest empirical paradoxes of this project is still that you could have the exact same American Evangelical Christian jewellery project operating in both Thailand and China, which we understand to be vastly different in terms of their political economic regimes. And so, one might classify as Thailand officially as a democratic monarchy, whereas China is more often understood as post-socialist authoritarian (15:00). The way that this plays out is that concretely, on the ground, Thailand offers over three hundred missionary visas to foreigners every year. And that means that foreign missionaries constitute one of the largest sources of tourist income – expat populations – and that their comings and goings are very rarely monitored. But it’s completely legal to be a foreign missionary in Thailand and it’s absolutely prevalent. You know, if you show up to any of the large cities there are public gatherings, churches, Christian churches that foreigners can attend. You contrast that to China which is notoriously restrictive of religious practice and which absolutely would see the presence of American Christians as a threat of imperialism. There are very few places for Chinese Christians to practice. They are almost completely relegated to what are called “home churches”. And as a foreigner, there are like single-designated places where Christian who are foreigners can practise in China. So that’s just the religious atmosphere. Combined with their atmosphere towards foreigners, it’s vastly different from China in Thailand. How this plays out within vocational training organisations for sex workers is, in Thailand sex workers who’ve chosen to work as jewellery makers are able to treat that more as any other kind of job that they might choose. So they’re not required to live on site. They rent an apartment, in Bangkok. A lot of them have part-time jobs, or are actually on full-time jobs working up to forty hours a week because of the pay cut that they have to take from being sex workers to becoming jewellery makers. It just doesn’t provide them with a living wage. And by contrast, in China, because the organisation has to be more careful about the scrutiny of the local police and government censorship, they require all workers to live on site in a mandatory dorm and there’s no way that any of those workers would be able to have a part-time job. And workers definitely feel a bit more stifled in China. And I think one larger difference in how this affects workers’ experience of religion is that in Thailand, given that freedom – or relative freedom – of religion, about 30% of people under rehabilitation have actually converted to Christianity. Whereas in China, where a history of conversion isn’t as prevalent, there are very, very low – it may be one or two people converted in the decade that I’ve studied these organisations.

GB: Right.

CS: Well, thank you very much for these very insightful and precise answers that can give us a grasp of what is going on in those countries. Just, maybe, a last question that is more general: is there anything that you would like to add, as a kind of concluding note, about what we have learned about faith-based activism in this field?

ES: I think the takeaway that I would love listeners to have is hopefully not that faith-based organisations in particular are flawed in their approaches, but that it really is anti-trafficking or human trafficking or sex trafficking as a concept that is flawed and misunderstood, and needs to be interrogated more clearly. Because, ultimately, my work argues that by transforming sexual labour into low wage manual labour these organisations are able to meld Christian ideas around good morals and salvific evangelism within secular development goals around decent work. But these should not be satisfying because we’re living in a world without decent work options (20:00). And I think the last thing that I’ll say about this, or that I’d further caution, is that there’s a growing trend moving away from the Palermo Protocol and definitions of human trafficking, shifting to an increasing number of people wanting to use the term “modern day slavery”. And I think what modern day slavery signals is a gesture towards pinpointing extreme and absolute cases of human suffering. Faith-based organisations and secular rights-based organisations both need to expand their purview of work into maybe taking a little bit of morality out of what we understand is good work, and listening to migrant workers, sex workers around the world who are telling us the different conditions that they’re looking for. So I think what I was saying was that by looking at, and fetishising theses extreme cases of human suffering – the one-off cases in brick kilns or in full sexual slavery – we don’t get to understand the hundreds of people who are seeking to have better lives, working in those areas, where there can be incremental changes for worker health, safety and better access to labour rights and working conditions across the board.

GB: This was really inspiring. Thank you very much, Dr Shih, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

CS: Thank you, Elena.

ES: Thank you so much to both of you, and for all of your hard work. And I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series.

GB: Thank you Elena.

Citation Info: Shih, Elena, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-evangelical-organisations-in-global-anti-trafficking-networks/

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

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Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organizations’: Religion and NGOs in comparative perspective

Produced by R. Michael Feener

Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organization, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already fraught policy environment in which NGOs operate.While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake and aim to govern practice, the way this takes place in context is an empirical question. In this interview, we talk with Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in India and Africa, and what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of ‘Faith-Based Organizations’ across diverse religious contexts.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Athlete’s foot powder, hot sauce, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective

Podcast with Erica Bornstein (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Bornstein_-_Beyond__Faith-Based_Organisations__1.1

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the second instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. A few words on this series: Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

GB: Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organisation, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and  complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake, they rarely dictate practice. In this interview we talk with Professor Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in South Asia and Africa,and about what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of faith-based organisations across diverse religious contexts. So, before formally introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Arias Foundation for supporting our research into this topic and the production of this series. Now, speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Erica Bornstein. She’s an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research critically examines non-profits, non-government organisations and groups working in the voluntary sector. She has written several books on humanitarianism, philanthropy and economic development, including the monograph The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOS, Morality and Economics in Zimbabwe, first published by Routledge in 2003 and later reprinted by Stanford University Press in 2005; and more recently Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi, published by Stanford University Press in 2012. She’s one of the major experts on intersections between religion, economy and politics in humanitarian fields and we are greatly looking forward to speaking with her today. Thank you very much for being here with us at the Religious Studies Project, Erica.

Erica Bornstein (EB): My pleasure.

GB: So, Catherine will start with our first questions.

CS: Sure, thank you. Your book, The Spirit of Development was a groundbreaking ethnography exploring the intersections between religion and development in  Zimbabwe. You have since gone on to author Disquieting Gifts and also added to a collection of chapters titled Forces of Compassion, which includes some rich essays analysing the entanglements between religion and humanitarianism. How did you first become interested in this field?

EB: I originally wanted to study the relationship between religion and politics and I was looking for an ethnographic site to think through a series of questions. More broadly, I’m interested in what motivates people to make social change, to change someone’s religion – as in evangelical organisations – or to change someone’s beliefs. In the case of faith-based organisations, like World Vision Zimbabwe, I wanted to understand what motivates people to want to change people’s lives economically and spiritually. For religious people, economics can’t be disaggregated from cosmological understanding. The distinction between material and spiritual realms doesn’t make sense in many parts of the world. I’ve been fascinated by the conviction it takes to want to change someone’s religion. Personally, I never understood it until I conducted my fieldwork in Zimbabwe, and I’d actually been rather afraid of it: the extreme force of the conviction. One finds similar conviction in other realms: humanitarianism and social activism. It has this utter urgency.

GB: At first sight,  a religious NGO might look like a strange hybrid between faith and socio-political activism within an apparently secular policy framework. These organisations with religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. Now, if we consider the development scenario in Zimbabwe in the nineties, compared to the very different humanitarian context of contemporary India, how do you see global, national and local policy frameworks shape the form taken up by religious NGOS and the projects they engage in?

EB: Well, the world was really a different place in the mid 1990s, especially for NGOS. It was a hopeful time and a growth period in both Zimbabwe and India. Zimbabwe achieved its independence much later than India, but both countries were former British colonies, both had periods of socialism that later shifted to rapidly liberalising economies. And NGOS were considered hopeful forces in the liberalisation process. They multiplied in both settings. In Zimbabwe and in India, religious NGOs were involved in development education and healthcare etc. I can’t say much about what’s happening in contemporary Zimbabwe as I’m not in touch with the NGO community there any more. But in India – and in other parts of the world that have strong states and strong civil society traditions such as Russia, Egypt and Turkey – the state has become very suspicious of the non-profit sector. And the non-profit sector has come to signify an arena of potential dissent. Of course, this varies according to the religious orientation of the state, or if it’s secular. There are laws protecting non-profits in each context. So global policy frameworks are less influential these days than national ones, which can restrict funding that crosses borders. And this is a really big change since the 1990s, because NGOS can’t survive without donor support. They’re donor-dependent.

GB: Right

CS: In your work on Christian NGOs in Zimbabwe, and humanitarianism in India, you shed light on different intersections of religion and development, by examining how different cultures of charitable giving operate within specific policy frameworks, institutional arrangements and socio-economic contexts. Religious NGOS emerge as important brokers of these intersections. How would you describe the nature, of these organisations, their specific position within global humanitarianism and the impact of the intervention in the context in which you conducted your research?

EB: Transnational NGOs like World Vision are very powerful because they move across contexts. They’re a lot like corporations. And, increasingly, such types of institutions are structured like corporations with international boards and national offices. At times the national office has to be incorporated as a local organisation in each country, thus World Vision Zimbabwe will look and operate very differently than World Vision India. It will have a local board, it will be staffed by local people. It will also abide by national laws. And this isn’t any different from non-religious or secular NGOs like Oxfam or MSF.

GB: Right.

EB: But what might be different is the way that faith and faith-based activities can be carried out in each national setting. And for anthropologists like me this makes a lot of sense. Because context really matters. It poses specific and careful questions for anthropologists. If one studies a faith-based organisation one must ask what that means in each particular context.

GB: Thank you so much, Erica. Another question for you. You have problematised the tension between global religious humanitarianism and the business of everyday life. The concepts of a “liberal altruism” and “relational empathy” you introduced in your book, on humanitarianism in India, seem to echo this tension. Do religious NGOs position themselves in a specific way within this tension?

EB: So, based on my last answer to the question about context, I’m reluctant to make huge generalisations. But if I must try, I’d say that religious organisations operate within a framework within a community of believers, and in this sense they’re relational. However, we have to be attentive to minor differences. Some religions, like Christianity, are congregational. Relationality could be in terms of the congregation, and organisations like World Vision raise their money through church  congregations  for their child sponsorship programmes. Hinduism is not a congregational religion. Nonetheless, I would say that the language of belonging and kinship can be extended to relationships in Hinduism as well – perhaps with deities, for example. Now liberal altruism, the way I’ve conceived of it, privileges institutions over people, and individual or cause over known relationships. It’s more abstract. In this sense, it could be a motivating force for Christian philanthropy as well. So these are empirical questions that have to be explored in context. When we understand patterns of motivation and social action it’s easy to see larger social processes at work. So it’s an empirical question: what’s motivating for people to help others. Liberal altruism might motivate someone to give to a cause or volunteer millions of miles away. I venture to say that more local practices of humanitarianism are almost always guided by relational empathy.

CS: Well, this was a fascinating introduction into how you got to your initial book. Now it would be interesting to understand how you moved from this ethnography, this pioneering ethnography of Protestant NGOS in Zimbabwe, to the broader topic of . . .  giving in the Indian context. How did that go?

EB: It’s a good question. As a matter of fact, in anthropology it’s not very common to change such regional areas of research. So it was, I think, either a brave or a stupid thing for me to do. But I did it because there was some unresolved issue from my first book, The Spirit of Development, that I felt I needed to explore. And  in my first book, when I was studying child sponsorship, I realised that the gift could mean something very different for the person who’s giving the gift and then for the recipient. So for example, in Zimbabwe, when a sponsor gives to a family it might displace power relationships within the family. And I know that World Vision has since changed its practices to try to avoid this, but in the mid 1990s it was a real issue. It was creating jealousies and it was really disrupting all sorts of relationships on the ground, in communities, between children. And that really fascinated me. Also there was some hesitation to start child sponsorship programmes within Zimbabwe because of people’s understandings of ancestral relationships. And, “ how could one take care of a child if one didn’t know the ancestral relationship?” So the whole sense of relationality extended out into the spirit realm as well as the local community, and that really stuck with me. And that was a part of my project, but it wasn’t the entire book. So I wanted to study giving, I knew that. And I wanted to go to a place that was radically different, that wasn’t Christian – because I ‘d thought so much about Christian ideas of giving and charity. But I knew that there were other places where people do this kind of activity and it’s very different looking. So, India: not a Christian nation, it’s majority Hindu although it has a missionary history as well. It has this British colonial history. But the gift, ideas of giving . . . some of them are radically influenced by Hindu ideas of freedom and liberation from the material realm. So it presented a completely different environment to try to test some of my questions. When I got to India I had a lot to learn. And that was good , as an ethnographer: you have to be humble, and you learn, and you realise how complicated the world can be. But what I was really struck by is how people in New Delhi, Indians – mostly Hindus that I was talking with in religious contexts like temples as well as in secular arenas like orphanages – Indians had really different ideas of what it meant to donate their time and their efforts and even their funds than the volunteers from . . .

CS: Coming from abroad?

EB: Exactly. So that became the comparative relationship. Which is kind of similar to what I was looking at in Zimbabwe, with its sponsors. But because the cultural, historical context was so radically different it really opened my mind up to think about giving differently. And humanitarianism as well.

CS: Right. Coming up from the ground?

EB: Coming up from the ground and not the ground, right? From all over the world, landing in  aeroplanes, and not knowing how to behave properly in a humanitarian context. People expecting to volunteer and NGOs not really knowing how to integrate volunteers.

CS: And channel the energies.

EB: Yes.

CS: Thank you

GB: Do you want, maybe, to tell us – because this is an interesting story – how you positioned yourself as an anthropologist, as a mother, as a wife, within the humanitarian Indian context in its plural manifestations? Because this was a very interesting introductory part of your book on humanitarianism in New Delhi.

EB: Sure, I mean that was another aspect of the fieldwork for my second book that was just very different than my first one. My first book was my dissertation, and I went all by myself to a place where I had no connections except for some scholar friends who had introduced me to people. And I was viewed by many people as a kind of oddball, right? “What kind of woman comes so far away and leaves all of their relationships to spend a year in this place, trying to understand our world?” And when I went to India I was a lot older, married, had a kid. And my partner is from India, so I had a kind of network of social relationships that I was sort of thrust into and embraced by. And those relationships taught me a lot about what it meant to participate in society as a good human being. And what it meant to give: what the duty of giving meant to family – a kin-based kind of giving which is not humanitarian – and then giving to strangers. And I think that was something that also helped me understand the distinction between the kinship of humanitarianism and more liberal ideas of giving to strangers.

CS: And I think in this book, in your concluding notes, you kind-of put into context the Western perception of giving emphasising agency, putting it in a larger context. Could you maybe say a few words on the broad picture . . .?

EB: Well the broad picture comes out of the tradition of liberal thought. And this is something that I encounter when I teach my classes on humanitarianism and human rights. And I teach the canon of these traditions. And students really understand it and it comes naturally to them. But then, when they’re forced to think about giving practices, or humanitarian caring practices, in other cultural contexts, they start to get more confused, right? And that’s the comparative relationship that I was trying to explore. I was really struck also, as I wrote this book – and writing ethnographies takes years – so I would go to the field for a year and then come back and write, and then go back and explore and come back and write . . . and teach in my job. And it was teaching students who really, really were desperate to go and volunteer somewhere, and participate in the world, and experience the world through charitable dynamics and charitable engagement that made me think about this liberal altruism as well. And some of my students had actually been on mission trips. So they come to classes on human rights or humanitarianism with their own religious-based experience of doing humanitarianism.

CS: Wow!

EB: But they’re forced to think critically about it for the first time. And it’s very exciting to see their worlds opening up. Because they’re beginning to really analyse their own experience and the experience of others.

GB: Maybe a last question, Erica. You told us before that you are working on a new exciting project, so maybe you can tell us a little bit more about this, and how this project is departing from your previous projects in both Zimbabwe and India? How these projects, if they are, are related somehow?

EB: Sure, they’re definitely related. So, if I could create a narrative arc of my books, the first one was really about NGOs, and I compared two NGOs, and I really looked at what it meant to be a religious NGO. What it meant for the people who worked for the organisation in different office locations, and for people who engaged with the organisation kind-of peripherally – as sponsors or donors – and then, also, as beneficiaries. So the NGO, as a central form, I really wanted to put on the map, with that book, and say this is important. We need to understand what these kind of institutional actors are doing in the world, because they’re doing a lot. And they’re very powerful. And World Vision at the time was the biggest Christian NGO in the world. It was the big fish. So I wanted to look at something that was good at what it did. Then I – to be honest, it’s hard to study not for profits. And I just got a little sick of it. And when I was in India I decided for my second book, Disquieting Gifts, I wanted to really explode the category of humanitarianism and giving, and not get constrained by the category of the NGO and the institution. So my fieldwork was very different. I didn’t sit down in one organisation, I went all over the place. I talked to as many people as possible. I tried to think about humanitarianism in all of its possible incarnations.

GB: Including your family circles, right?

EB: Right. Within my family circles. And they honestly were very helpful in introducing me to people who did this kind of work. It was through those networks that I could find people doing the daily practices, the ordinary practices of humanitarianism. And the Indian ideas of dān or sava – they’re not extraordinary, right? They’re ordinary. And that’s important to think about as well. But then, just like my first project where there was an unresolved question that I had to explore, I found another one for my second project, which has turned into my third one, which is: this incredible pressure by the state and by other NGOs in India, to figure out how to do their work better; how to regulate this crazy unruly dynamic diverse sector called the non-profit sector. How does one . . . ? In the non-profit sector they’re not elected, they’re not assessed in any coherent way. And that’s part of their power in that arena, is that it’s so diverse and so dynamic and so responsive to what happens. So I decided I wanted to look at that process itself. And this book I’m writing now is an ethnography of regulation. And it looks at laws. And I’ve been studying advocacy and research organisations [who are] trying to work with the government, trying to create laws that are helpful to the non-profit sector. I also have been interviewing tax accountants, civil servants and people who really try to help NGOs abide by the laws. And looking at it over time – it’s like a kind-of decade long view that I’m exploring – how did these laws change? How does the engagement with the laws affect people doing this kind of work, this kind of non-profit work?

CS: In the Indian context?

EB: In the Indian context, yes. I think civil society is changing, as I mentioned, in the world as well. So it’s part of a much larger shift that I see taking place of the relationship of non-profits in society. And religious non-profits are part of this. They’ve always been a big part of it.

GB: We are greatly looking forward to this book now!

EB: Thank you

GB: So, one could listen to Erica for hours but our time is over. So once again, thank you very much, Professor Bornstein, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

EB: Thanks very much for inviting me.

Citation Info: Bornstein, Erica, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/beyond-fath-based-organisations-religion-and-ngos-in-comparative-perspective/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts  are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Podcasts

Christian evangelical organisations in global anti-trafficking networks

Produced by R. Michael Feener

American evangelical Christian organizations comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement, and mobilize considerable financial resources around a moral objection to prostitution and sex trafficking. In this interview, we talk with Elena Shih about her ethnography of missionary vocational training rehabilitation projects that train sex workers in Beijing and Bangkok to make jewelry that is sold in the United States, and what this can show us about transnational dynamics of religious activism and non-governmental organizations enacted through the corollary motives of salvific evangelism and social entrepreneurship.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, candy, pocket knives, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks

Podcast with Elena Shih (27 November 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Shih- Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-Trafficking Networks 1.1

 

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Giuseppe Bolotta

Catherine Scheer (CS): And Catherine Scheer

GB: And this is the fourth installment in our series on religion and NGOs. Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect of religion as an international aid in development. Within this broad field the work of religious NGOs, or faith-based organisations, has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how their engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

CS: Since the turn of the twenty-first century, North American Christian NGOs have become increasingly visible actors in the humanitarian sector. One particularly prominent area of attention and interventions for such organisations has been in the global movements against human trafficking. In this interview we talk with Elena Shih about her multi-sited research on US Evangelical NGO’s involvement in the global anti-trafficking movement, and specifically on their projects in Thailand and China. She will explain how her findings contribute to our understanding of the role of US-based Christian actors in this specific field of rights, advocacy and development. Before introducing our guest for today’s interview we would like to thank the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting our research on this topic and the production of this series. So speaking with us today is Dr Elena Shih, Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnic Studies at Brown University, also Faculty Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Slavery and Justice. Dr Shih is a Sociologist specialising in gender and sexuality, transnational race and ethnicity, social movements and labour in the Global South. Giuseppe would you like to go ahead with the first question?

GB: For sure. Thank you very much Elena for being here with us. So in your book, Manufacturing Freedom, you shed light on the role played by Protestant NGOs in the Global anti-trafficking movement, looking at long-term fieldwork in the US where the NGO’s are headquartered as well as in China and Thailand where they have projects. So, what led you to specifically focus on these Christian organisations, and how do you position yourself as a researcher in relation to both these organisations and those that you work with in the aid projects?

Elena Shih (ES): Thanks so much for inviting me to be a part of this podcast and for the wonderful introduction and really provocative first question. I actually didn’t begin this project hoping to understand the role of Christian organisations, and I think that understanding the genesis of the methods that led to this project, maybe, sheds light on some of its ultimate findings. So I began this project in 2007, having just begun graduate school in Sociology at UCLA, and having also just returned from three years of living in China; first working with a women’s legal aid organisation in Beijing and subsequently working with ethnic minority youth on the China-Burma border. And at that time I was very concerned with how the growing American interest and investment in trafficking, globally, didn’t really resonate on the ground in China. And so, when I returned back to the United States for graduate school I wanted to understand some of the gaps between the global and the local in manifesting things like the 2000 United Nations Palermo Protocol and 2000 United States Trafficking Victims Protection Act. So I began by attending a series of anti-trafficking conferences and anti-trafficking fairs that were increasingly prevalent in Southern California around 2007. And we saw an enormous response by American civil society, responding to what the United States had called over and over again a “growing scourge” of human trafficking (5:00). And, week after week, I would go to these different fairs and I started to see a pattern of numerous organisations that were working in different parts of the world, but had centred on social enterprise as their way of intervening. And by social enterprise, what I mean is that they were trying to turn to the markets and sell goods – often what they termed “slave-free” goods – as a way of raising funding around human trafficking, but also bringing money and jobs back into the very communities that they claimed people were trafficked from. I happened to get to know two organisations very well – one that was working in Thailand and one that working is China. Both happened to have offices and activist home-bases in Los Angeles. And I began volunteering with them, doing everything from helping them sell jewellery – which was the good that they were selling – to liaising with customers, to processing inventories, and to just generating different kinds of awareness around their cause. And it wasn’t until maybe eight months of volunteering with these organisations – when I travelled to Asia to see their production sites in Beijing and Bangkok – that I began to understand how important Christian faith was for these organisations. What that looked like on the ground is that for sex workers who are recruited to become jewellery makers in this project, across both organisations, Christian worship – an hour of Christian worship or Bible Study – was a mandatory and populated part of their wage, as were different kinds of spiritual and moral rehabilitation. So, I had workers comment to me that they often-times felt like maybe their promotions or salary bonuses were dependent not so much on their labour output making jewellery, or how they were doing on the shop floor, but more in terms of their spiritual growth and how much they had grown to accept Christianity in their lives. So I think, looking back now, in over a decade that I’ve been working on that project, it still is fairly striking to me that, a lot of times, when this jewellery is sold, a consumer or slavery activist doesn’t necessarily know that it’s attached to highly missionary goals. And, for many people, even the fact that it is a Christian organisation or it is a missionary organisation would not be problematic because it is ultimately serving a development goal in the end. Which is that of bringing jobs and economic alternatives to sex workers in Asia.

GB: Right.

CS: Wow. That is a very long-term engagement and it is fascinating to hear how you have really encountered, or kind-of bumped into the religious aspect of these organisations, and how your own experience reflects what the customer sees or doesn’t see in a very interesting way. Now, a question more specifically about these American Evangelical organisations. They comprise a significant contingent of the global anti-trafficking movement and mobilise considerable financial resources around the moral objection to prostitution, as you point out in your research. Can you tell us a bit more about the ways in which these organisations situate themselves within this global movement of anti-trafficking, for instance, in relation to non-faith-based organisations? And also how do they influence the movement’s lines? And how are they influenced by this more general global anti-trafficking movement?

ES: Yes, I think that there’s a really fascinating and particularly American history of the Christian Right, in particular, in the formation of anti-trafficking protocols in the United States and there are definitely scholars who are far better positioned to talk about that than I (10:00). So I would definitely direct listeners to work by two scholars in particular: that of Yvonne Zimmerman, who has a book under the title Other Dreams of Freedom, and then one of my own advisers, Elizabeth Bernstein’s work on what she called the sexual politics of neo-abolition, that documents a really interesting strange-bedfellows-coalition between Evangelical Christian and radical feminists, particularly on the issue of trafficking. But inasmuch as my work is concerned, I think that this actually is a good opportunity to talk about how the work fits into your wonderful volume on religion and the techno-politics of development, because I’ve really seen that religious organisations used the secular politics of rights and development alongside evangelical goals of proselytisation, so that the two are almost mutually interchangeable.

GB: Right

ES: And I think that vocational training has become a really, really popular technical solution for human trafficking, and particularly around something like prostitution, which is framed as a hugely moral problem, and which is framed as an absolute worst choice for a woman in the Global South who has no other options. And so, you see everybody from USAID to these grassroots religious organisations trying to think of ways to retrain people, to provide vocational training, as way of offering other alternatives to sex work. The main problem around it is that when you’re still training people in menial and manual low-wage labour, it still is not much of an alternative. So jewellery is one such menial low wage job, but it’s just one of the numerous commodities that’s now sold as a part of the anti-trafficking movement. You see everything from bedspreads to silk pyjamas being made in India, to traditional Henna craft and silk scarves coming out of Mongolia. And I think these are all part of a concerted attempt among anti-trafficking organisations to, what they call, “leverage the market-place”, to raise funds and awareness around the issue of trafficking. And I think one of the reasons why religious organisations have had to turn to social enterprise is, for the United States as an example, faith-based organisations are often excluded from certain kinds of federal or government funding when religious proselytisation is a core goal of theirs. And also, as religious organisations, they’re able to tap into huge bases of church-goers, parishioners, who see social justice goals as inextricable from Christian theology. And so I think that there’s been a real turn, on the part of churches, to recognise social justice in a reasonably complicated world. And – in a more shrewd, market-based, calculated turn – to find ways for faith-based organisations to fund themselves when they can’t seek other sources of funding.

GB: Right. So we’ve been talking about faith-based organisations, Evangelical movements in the United States, but it’s interesting to see what is happening in the other two field sites you chose which are Thailand and China. And Thailand and China provide two very different legal contexts for the work of Christian NGOs. So, Elena, how do these different juridical and policy frameworks influence the ways in which these NGOs implement their projects on the ground, and how do local perceptions of the articulation between aid and Christianity take shape in these very different contexts?

ES: I think that one of the greatest empirical paradoxes of this project is still that you could have the exact same American Evangelical Christian jewellery project operating in both Thailand and China, which we understand to be vastly different in terms of their political economic regimes. And so, one might classify as Thailand officially as a democratic monarchy, whereas China is more often understood as post-socialist authoritarian (15:00). The way that this plays out is that concretely, on the ground, Thailand offers over three hundred missionary visas to foreigners every year. And that means that foreign missionaries constitute one of the largest sources of tourist income – expat populations – and that their comings and goings are very rarely monitored. But it’s completely legal to be a foreign missionary in Thailand and it’s absolutely prevalent. You know, if you show up to any of the large cities there are public gatherings, churches, Christian churches that foreigners can attend. You contrast that to China which is notoriously restrictive of religious practice and which absolutely would see the presence of American Christians as a threat of imperialism. There are very few places for Chinese Christians to practice. They are almost completely relegated to what are called “home churches”. And as a foreigner, there are like single-designated places where Christian who are foreigners can practise in China. So that’s just the religious atmosphere. Combined with their atmosphere towards foreigners, it’s vastly different from China in Thailand. How this plays out within vocational training organisations for sex workers is, in Thailand sex workers who’ve chosen to work as jewellery makers are able to treat that more as any other kind of job that they might choose. So they’re not required to live on site. They rent an apartment, in Bangkok. A lot of them have part-time jobs, or are actually on full-time jobs working up to forty hours a week because of the pay cut that they have to take from being sex workers to becoming jewellery makers. It just doesn’t provide them with a living wage. And by contrast, in China, because the organisation has to be more careful about the scrutiny of the local police and government censorship, they require all workers to live on site in a mandatory dorm and there’s no way that any of those workers would be able to have a part-time job. And workers definitely feel a bit more stifled in China. And I think one larger difference in how this affects workers’ experience of religion is that in Thailand, given that freedom – or relative freedom – of religion, about 30% of people under rehabilitation have actually converted to Christianity. Whereas in China, where a history of conversion isn’t as prevalent, there are very, very low – it may be one or two people converted in the decade that I’ve studied these organisations.

GB: Right.

CS: Well, thank you very much for these very insightful and precise answers that can give us a grasp of what is going on in those countries. Just, maybe, a last question that is more general: is there anything that you would like to add, as a kind of concluding note, about what we have learned about faith-based activism in this field?

ES: I think the takeaway that I would love listeners to have is hopefully not that faith-based organisations in particular are flawed in their approaches, but that it really is anti-trafficking or human trafficking or sex trafficking as a concept that is flawed and misunderstood, and needs to be interrogated more clearly. Because, ultimately, my work argues that by transforming sexual labour into low wage manual labour these organisations are able to meld Christian ideas around good morals and salvific evangelism within secular development goals around decent work. But these should not be satisfying because we’re living in a world without decent work options (20:00). And I think the last thing that I’ll say about this, or that I’d further caution, is that there’s a growing trend moving away from the Palermo Protocol and definitions of human trafficking, shifting to an increasing number of people wanting to use the term “modern day slavery”. And I think what modern day slavery signals is a gesture towards pinpointing extreme and absolute cases of human suffering. Faith-based organisations and secular rights-based organisations both need to expand their purview of work into maybe taking a little bit of morality out of what we understand is good work, and listening to migrant workers, sex workers around the world who are telling us the different conditions that they’re looking for. So I think what I was saying was that by looking at, and fetishising theses extreme cases of human suffering – the one-off cases in brick kilns or in full sexual slavery – we don’t get to understand the hundreds of people who are seeking to have better lives, working in those areas, where there can be incremental changes for worker health, safety and better access to labour rights and working conditions across the board.

GB: This was really inspiring. Thank you very much, Dr Shih, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

CS: Thank you, Elena.

ES: Thank you so much to both of you, and for all of your hard work. And I can’t wait to hear the rest of the series.

GB: Thank you Elena.

Citation Info: Shih, Elena, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Christian Evangelical Organisations in Global Anti-trafficking Networks”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 27 November 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 17 November 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/christian-evangelical-organisations-in-global-anti-trafficking-networks/

All transcriptions for THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT are currently produced by volunteers. If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with these efforts, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial- NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The views expressed in podcasts are the views of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of THE RELIGIOUS STUDIES PROJECT or the British Association for the Study of Religions.

Buddhists and the future of democratic space in Myanmar

A response to Melissa Crouch on “Muslims, NGOs, and the future of democratic space in Myanmar”

By Paul Fuller

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Tangential Thinking about “Faith-Based Organizations”

A Response to Erica Bornstein on “Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organizations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective”

By Chika Watanabe

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Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organizations’: Religion and NGOs in comparative perspective

Produced by R. Michael Feener

Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organization, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already fraught policy environment in which NGOs operate.While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake and aim to govern practice, the way this takes place in context is an empirical question. In this interview, we talk with Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in India and Africa, and what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of ‘Faith-Based Organizations’ across diverse religious contexts.

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both academics and policy makers in the effects that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of ‘religious NGOs’ or ‘Faith-Based Organisations’ (FBOs) has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for The Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices, and institutional forms of both religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs intersect, and how these engagements result in changes in our understanding of both ‘religion’ and ‘development’. These interviews with leading scholars working on the topic across diverse contexts in Asia (and beyond) have been conducted by Dr. Catherine Scheer & Dr. Giuseppe Bolotta of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute. Our work on this has been generously supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Athlete’s foot powder, hot sauce, and more.

A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective

Podcast with Erica Bornstein (16 October 2017).

Interviewed by Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Transcript available at: Bornstein_-_Beyond__Faith-Based_Organisations__1.1

 

Catherine Scheer (CS): Welcome to the Religious Studies Project. We are Catherine Scheer

Giuseppe Bolotta (GB): And Giuseppe Bolotta

CS: And this is the second instalment of our series on religion and NGOS. A few words on this series: Since the turn of the twenty-first century there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics into the effect that religion has on international aid and development. Within this broad field, the work of religious NGOS or so-called faith-based organisations has garnered considerable attention. This series of podcasts for the Religious Studies Project seeks to explore how the discourses, practices and institutional forms – both of religious actors and purportedly secular NGOs – intersect, and how theses engagements result in changes in our understanding of both religion and development.

GB: Religious NGOs play significant roles in service delivery, community organisation, advocacy and mediating flows of information and resources across the globe. Their religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and  complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. While policy frameworks influence the kinds of activities that religious NGOs are able to undertake, they rarely dictate practice. In this interview we talk with Professor Erica Bornstein about her studies of religious giving and social activism in South Asia and Africa,and about what the results of her research contribute to our understanding of the complex configurations of faith-based organisations across diverse religious contexts. So, before formally introducing our guest for today’s interview, we would like to thank the Arias Foundation for supporting our research into this topic and the production of this series. Now, speaking with us today about religion and NGOs is Professor Erica Bornstein. She’s an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her research critically examines non-profits, non-government organisations and groups working in the voluntary sector. She has written several books on humanitarianism, philanthropy and economic development, including the monograph The Spirit of Development: Protestant NGOS, Morality and Economics in Zimbabwe, first published by Routledge in 2003 and later reprinted by Stanford University Press in 2005; and more recently Disquieting Gifts: Humanitarianism in New Delhi, published by Stanford University Press in 2012. She’s one of the major experts on intersections between religion, economy and politics in humanitarian fields and we are greatly looking forward to speaking with her today. Thank you very much for being here with us at the Religious Studies Project, Erica.

Erica Bornstein (EB): My pleasure.

GB: So, Catherine will start with our first questions.

CS: Sure, thank you. Your book, The Spirit of Development was a groundbreaking ethnography exploring the intersections between religion and development in  Zimbabwe. You have since gone on to author Disquieting Gifts and also added to a collection of chapters titled Forces of Compassion, which includes some rich essays analysing the entanglements between religion and humanitarianism. How did you first become interested in this field?

EB: I originally wanted to study the relationship between religion and politics and I was looking for an ethnographic site to think through a series of questions. More broadly, I’m interested in what motivates people to make social change, to change someone’s religion – as in evangelical organisations – or to change someone’s beliefs. In the case of faith-based organisations, like World Vision Zimbabwe, I wanted to understand what motivates people to want to change people’s lives economically and spiritually. For religious people, economics can’t be disaggregated from cosmological understanding. The distinction between material and spiritual realms doesn’t make sense in many parts of the world. I’ve been fascinated by the conviction it takes to want to change someone’s religion. Personally, I never understood it until I conducted my fieldwork in Zimbabwe, and I’d actually been rather afraid of it: the extreme force of the conviction. One finds similar conviction in other realms: humanitarianism and social activism. It has this utter urgency.

GB: At first sight,  a religious NGO might look like a strange hybrid between faith and socio-political activism within an apparently secular policy framework. These organisations with religious inflections can both enhance the effective reach of particular projects and complicate the already flawed policy environment in which NGOs operate. Now, if we consider the development scenario in Zimbabwe in the nineties, compared to the very different humanitarian context of contemporary India, how do you see global, national and local policy frameworks shape the form taken up by religious NGOS and the projects they engage in?

EB: Well, the world was really a different place in the mid 1990s, especially for NGOS. It was a hopeful time and a growth period in both Zimbabwe and India. Zimbabwe achieved its independence much later than India, but both countries were former British colonies, both had periods of socialism that later shifted to rapidly liberalising economies. And NGOS were considered hopeful forces in the liberalisation process. They multiplied in both settings. In Zimbabwe and in India, religious NGOs were involved in development education and healthcare etc. I can’t say much about what’s happening in contemporary Zimbabwe as I’m not in touch with the NGO community there any more. But in India – and in other parts of the world that have strong states and strong civil society traditions such as Russia, Egypt and Turkey – the state has become very suspicious of the non-profit sector. And the non-profit sector has come to signify an arena of potential dissent. Of course, this varies according to the religious orientation of the state, or if it’s secular. There are laws protecting non-profits in each context. So global policy frameworks are less influential these days than national ones, which can restrict funding that crosses borders. And this is a really big change since the 1990s, because NGOS can’t survive without donor support. They’re donor-dependent.

GB: Right

CS: In your work on Christian NGOs in Zimbabwe, and humanitarianism in India, you shed light on different intersections of religion and development, by examining how different cultures of charitable giving operate within specific policy frameworks, institutional arrangements and socio-economic contexts. Religious NGOS emerge as important brokers of these intersections. How would you describe the nature, of these organisations, their specific position within global humanitarianism and the impact of the intervention in the context in which you conducted your research?

EB: Transnational NGOs like World Vision are very powerful because they move across contexts. They’re a lot like corporations. And, increasingly, such types of institutions are structured like corporations with international boards and national offices. At times the national office has to be incorporated as a local organisation in each country, thus World Vision Zimbabwe will look and operate very differently than World Vision India. It will have a local board, it will be staffed by local people. It will also abide by national laws. And this isn’t any different from non-religious or secular NGOs like Oxfam or MSF.

GB: Right.

EB: But what might be different is the way that faith and faith-based activities can be carried out in each national setting. And for anthropologists like me this makes a lot of sense. Because context really matters. It poses specific and careful questions for anthropologists. If one studies a faith-based organisation one must ask what that means in each particular context.

GB: Thank you so much, Erica. Another question for you. You have problematised the tension between global religious humanitarianism and the business of everyday life. The concepts of a “liberal altruism” and “relational empathy” you introduced in your book, on humanitarianism in India, seem to echo this tension. Do religious NGOs position themselves in a specific way within this tension?

EB: So, based on my last answer to the question about context, I’m reluctant to make huge generalisations. But if I must try, I’d say that religious organisations operate within a framework within a community of believers, and in this sense they’re relational. However, we have to be attentive to minor differences. Some religions, like Christianity, are congregational. Relationality could be in terms of the congregation, and organisations like World Vision raise their money through church  congregations  for their child sponsorship programmes. Hinduism is not a congregational religion. Nonetheless, I would say that the language of belonging and kinship can be extended to relationships in Hinduism as well – perhaps with deities, for example. Now liberal altruism, the way I’ve conceived of it, privileges institutions over people, and individual or cause over known relationships. It’s more abstract. In this sense, it could be a motivating force for Christian philanthropy as well. So these are empirical questions that have to be explored in context. When we understand patterns of motivation and social action it’s easy to see larger social processes at work. So it’s an empirical question: what’s motivating for people to help others. Liberal altruism might motivate someone to give to a cause or volunteer millions of miles away. I venture to say that more local practices of humanitarianism are almost always guided by relational empathy.

CS: Well, this was a fascinating introduction into how you got to your initial book. Now it would be interesting to understand how you moved from this ethnography, this pioneering ethnography of Protestant NGOS in Zimbabwe, to the broader topic of . . .  giving in the Indian context. How did that go?

EB: It’s a good question. As a matter of fact, in anthropology it’s not very common to change such regional areas of research. So it was, I think, either a brave or a stupid thing for me to do. But I did it because there was some unresolved issue from my first book, The Spirit of Development, that I felt I needed to explore. And  in my first book, when I was studying child sponsorship, I realised that the gift could mean something very different for the person who’s giving the gift and then for the recipient. So for example, in Zimbabwe, when a sponsor gives to a family it might displace power relationships within the family. And I know that World Vision has since changed its practices to try to avoid this, but in the mid 1990s it was a real issue. It was creating jealousies and it was really disrupting all sorts of relationships on the ground, in communities, between children. And that really fascinated me. Also there was some hesitation to start child sponsorship programmes within Zimbabwe because of people’s understandings of ancestral relationships. And, “ how could one take care of a child if one didn’t know the ancestral relationship?” So the whole sense of relationality extended out into the spirit realm as well as the local community, and that really stuck with me. And that was a part of my project, but it wasn’t the entire book. So I wanted to study giving, I knew that. And I wanted to go to a place that was radically different, that wasn’t Christian – because I ‘d thought so much about Christian ideas of giving and charity. But I knew that there were other places where people do this kind of activity and it’s very different looking. So, India: not a Christian nation, it’s majority Hindu although it has a missionary history as well. It has this British colonial history. But the gift, ideas of giving . . . some of them are radically influenced by Hindu ideas of freedom and liberation from the material realm. So it presented a completely different environment to try to test some of my questions. When I got to India I had a lot to learn. And that was good , as an ethnographer: you have to be humble, and you learn, and you realise how complicated the world can be. But what I was really struck by is how people in New Delhi, Indians – mostly Hindus that I was talking with in religious contexts like temples as well as in secular arenas like orphanages – Indians had really different ideas of what it meant to donate their time and their efforts and even their funds than the volunteers from . . .

CS: Coming from abroad?

EB: Exactly. So that became the comparative relationship. Which is kind of similar to what I was looking at in Zimbabwe, with its sponsors. But because the cultural, historical context was so radically different it really opened my mind up to think about giving differently. And humanitarianism as well.

CS: Right. Coming up from the ground?

EB: Coming up from the ground and not the ground, right? From all over the world, landing in  aeroplanes, and not knowing how to behave properly in a humanitarian context. People expecting to volunteer and NGOs not really knowing how to integrate volunteers.

CS: And channel the energies.

EB: Yes.

CS: Thank you

GB: Do you want, maybe, to tell us – because this is an interesting story – how you positioned yourself as an anthropologist, as a mother, as a wife, within the humanitarian Indian context in its plural manifestations? Because this was a very interesting introductory part of your book on humanitarianism in New Delhi.

EB: Sure, I mean that was another aspect of the fieldwork for my second book that was just very different than my first one. My first book was my dissertation, and I went all by myself to a place where I had no connections except for some scholar friends who had introduced me to people. And I was viewed by many people as a kind of oddball, right? “What kind of woman comes so far away and leaves all of their relationships to spend a year in this place, trying to understand our world?” And when I went to India I was a lot older, married, had a kid. And my partner is from India, so I had a kind of network of social relationships that I was sort of thrust into and embraced by. And those relationships taught me a lot about what it meant to participate in society as a good human being. And what it meant to give: what the duty of giving meant to family – a kin-based kind of giving which is not humanitarian – and then giving to strangers. And I think that was something that also helped me understand the distinction between the kinship of humanitarianism and more liberal ideas of giving to strangers.

CS: And I think in this book, in your concluding notes, you kind-of put into context the Western perception of giving emphasising agency, putting it in a larger context. Could you maybe say a few words on the broad picture . . .?

EB: Well the broad picture comes out of the tradition of liberal thought. And this is something that I encounter when I teach my classes on humanitarianism and human rights. And I teach the canon of these traditions. And students really understand it and it comes naturally to them. But then, when they’re forced to think about giving practices, or humanitarian caring practices, in other cultural contexts, they start to get more confused, right? And that’s the comparative relationship that I was trying to explore. I was really struck also, as I wrote this book – and writing ethnographies takes years – so I would go to the field for a year and then come back and write, and then go back and explore and come back and write . . . and teach in my job. And it was teaching students who really, really were desperate to go and volunteer somewhere, and participate in the world, and experience the world through charitable dynamics and charitable engagement that made me think about this liberal altruism as well. And some of my students had actually been on mission trips. So they come to classes on human rights or humanitarianism with their own religious-based experience of doing humanitarianism.

CS: Wow!

EB: But they’re forced to think critically about it for the first time. And it’s very exciting to see their worlds opening up. Because they’re beginning to really analyse their own experience and the experience of others.

GB: Maybe a last question, Erica. You told us before that you are working on a new exciting project, so maybe you can tell us a little bit more about this, and how this project is departing from your previous projects in both Zimbabwe and India? How these projects, if they are, are related somehow?

EB: Sure, they’re definitely related. So, if I could create a narrative arc of my books, the first one was really about NGOs, and I compared two NGOs, and I really looked at what it meant to be a religious NGO. What it meant for the people who worked for the organisation in different office locations, and for people who engaged with the organisation kind-of peripherally – as sponsors or donors – and then, also, as beneficiaries. So the NGO, as a central form, I really wanted to put on the map, with that book, and say this is important. We need to understand what these kind of institutional actors are doing in the world, because they’re doing a lot. And they’re very powerful. And World Vision at the time was the biggest Christian NGO in the world. It was the big fish. So I wanted to look at something that was good at what it did. Then I – to be honest, it’s hard to study not for profits. And I just got a little sick of it. And when I was in India I decided for my second book, Disquieting Gifts, I wanted to really explode the category of humanitarianism and giving, and not get constrained by the category of the NGO and the institution. So my fieldwork was very different. I didn’t sit down in one organisation, I went all over the place. I talked to as many people as possible. I tried to think about humanitarianism in all of its possible incarnations.

GB: Including your family circles, right?

EB: Right. Within my family circles. And they honestly were very helpful in introducing me to people who did this kind of work. It was through those networks that I could find people doing the daily practices, the ordinary practices of humanitarianism. And the Indian ideas of dān or sava – they’re not extraordinary, right? They’re ordinary. And that’s important to think about as well. But then, just like my first project where there was an unresolved question that I had to explore, I found another one for my second project, which has turned into my third one, which is: this incredible pressure by the state and by other NGOs in India, to figure out how to do their work better; how to regulate this crazy unruly dynamic diverse sector called the non-profit sector. How does one . . . ? In the non-profit sector they’re not elected, they’re not assessed in any coherent way. And that’s part of their power in that arena, is that it’s so diverse and so dynamic and so responsive to what happens. So I decided I wanted to look at that process itself. And this book I’m writing now is an ethnography of regulation. And it looks at laws. And I’ve been studying advocacy and research organisations [who are] trying to work with the government, trying to create laws that are helpful to the non-profit sector. I also have been interviewing tax accountants, civil servants and people who really try to help NGOs abide by the laws. And looking at it over time – it’s like a kind-of decade long view that I’m exploring – how did these laws change? How does the engagement with the laws affect people doing this kind of work, this kind of non-profit work?

CS: In the Indian context?

EB: In the Indian context, yes. I think civil society is changing, as I mentioned, in the world as well. So it’s part of a much larger shift that I see taking place of the relationship of non-profits in society. And religious non-profits are part of this. They’ve always been a big part of it.

GB: We are greatly looking forward to this book now!

EB: Thank you

GB: So, one could listen to Erica for hours but our time is over. So once again, thank you very much, Professor Bornstein, for joining us at the Religious Studies Project.

EB: Thanks very much for inviting me.

Citation Info: Bornstein, Erica, Giuseppe Bolotta and Catherine Scheer. 2017. “Beyond ‘Faith-Based Organisations’: Religion and NGOs in Comparative Perspective”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 16 October 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 October 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/beyond-fath-based-organisations-religion-and-ngos-in-comparative-perspective/

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