Opinion: Do faith-based charities just care more?

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

Tomorrow evening there is a wonderful choice of education and entertainment available for those in the voluntary sector, all within minutes and metres of each other, when the London School of Economics is the venue for two major discussions on the past and future of charities.

In the Graham Wallace Room of the LSE's Old Building, the Voluntary Action History Society relaunches itself by examining voluntary activity in London between 1874 and 1914. And in the Old Theatre the Centre for Civil Society stages a debate asking the question "Faith-based agencies: promoters of development or part of the problem?".

Apart from that coincidence of venue and date, there is a clear connection, for religion has been vital in charity development, whether through the worldwide networks of faith-inspired aid agencies or the pre-welfare state provision of assistance, notably by the great Quaker family foundations, from Cadbury to Rowntree.

But it can be hard to determine what is special about faith-based charities.

Beyond goodwill to others, what is so Christian about Christian Aid, or Islamic about Islamic Relief? Today, no well-run faith-based charity will be found proselytising or denying assistance to non-believers, and they are alongside many others in promoting transparency and accountability to their beneficiaries.

An honest answer could be that religion is a trusted brand, offering essential reassurance to donors, staff and clients as well as a convenient channel for giving. But is a well-known name enough when the crucial question is not what people believe but what they achieve: do faith-based charities get better results than their secular rivals?

It needs to be asked if there is a qualitative advantage in belief, however irrational or irrelevant others might perceive it to be. And here we confront the obvious but often ignored truth that charity is political - from who gets help to how money is spent; in short, whose side is your charity on?

For some secular charities, there is a strong sense of solidarity with those in need, echoing the traditions of the political left. But faith seems to go further and can become intensely political, be it Latin American liberation theology demanding land rights for peasants or the believers who sacrifice themselves in suicide bombings.

I wonder if tomorrow's debate should really be asking if faith-based charities simply care more than those that have no faith at all?

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