Freeman, “Tearfund and the Quest for Faith-Based Development”

Freeman, Dena. 2019. Tearfund and the Quest for Faith-Based Development. New York and Oxford: Routledge.

Reviewed by Catherine Whittle (London School of Economics and Political Science)

“Thousands of people needlessly suffer and die every day because of poverty. But that’s not God’s plan for the world. And God is calling you – all of us – to reach out to people in greatest need. We partner with local churches and organisations who have a crucial role to play in the places worst affected by poverty.” (Tearfund, 2021) Thus reads Tearfund’s website, unabashed in their Christian identity. They are not just nice people who care about others; they are Christians, pursuing their divine calling.

To offer a comparison, Oxfam self-describes as “a global movement of millions of people who share the belief that, in a world rich in resources, poverty isn’t inevitable” (Oxfam, 2021). Not a faith-based organisation (FBO), Oxfam makes no mention of religious conviction. We can already see there are parallels, however: both argue that poverty is not predetermined, and both imply that ending it is something anyone and everyone should be engaged in. What, then, is the difference between a secular aid and development charity and an FBO? Is it simply a case of having staff members who believe in and talk about God? Or does an FBO carry out its work in a fundamentally different way to other organisations?

Surely one wouldn’t need much time with staff from this organisation to answer these questions nicely, we might think. What became clear to Dena Freeman in the course of her research, however, was that rather than having clear answers to such questions, these are the very concerns – we might call them anxieties – that have animated Tearfund’s work throughout its 53-year history.

Freeman’s text is less an ethnography and more an ethnographically informed history of Tearfund, the UK evangelical aid and development NGO, relying primarily on archival work and interviews. Elucidating the organisation’s links to the evangelical alliance – Tearfund was once ‘The Evangelical Alliance Relief Fund, or TEAR Fund – Freeman traces its emergence in 1968 through to the present day. The book is structured into an opening section discussing the historical context of Tearfund’s inception, three main sections covering consecutive historical periods (up to roughly 1990, from 1990-2005, and 2005-2018), and a short conclusion bringing together the book’s arguments.

Following the introduction, chapter 2 gives a comprehensive yet concise historical account of the emergence of the development sector and the shifting role of religious actors in providing aid, discussing both Christian and secular humanitarianism. The chapter is an important one for understanding the context in which Tearfund was birthed, including its distinction from Christian Aid, which had a home in the liberal wing of the Church of England, leaving a space for the evangelical wing to found its own organisation.

With this helpful background, chapter 3 details Tearfund’s emergence as a ‘new kind of missionary organisation’ through its early period and up to 1990. Whilst it may not be thought of in these terms today, Tearfund has been sending people from the UK overseas since 1971, which Freeman identifies as a time when young Christians’ interest in short term mission was beginning to grow. In this respect, Tearfund was always “sat in between two different worlds – the evangelical missionary world and the new world of ‘international development'” (Freeman 2019: 41). The result was that separate offices existed for aid and for evangelism, rather than these two areas of work being seen as one and the same. By the 1980s, however, staff were uncomfortable with what they perceived as the dichotomy created between the two – shouldn’t Christian aid work also be evangelistic? Overall, there was a concern that Tearfund was importing secular practices and finding biblical supports for those, rather than taking a distinctively Christian approach to development. All these concerns were airing at a time in which evangelicals were thinking more about the theology of social action. Notably, the World Evangelical Fellowship’s Wheaton Statement of 1983 offered a new theology of development, centring ‘transformation’ in a ‘kingdom theology’ framing – stressing the importance of transformation in the here and now, which is to see God’s kingdom come on Earth. Development as a term, and older premillenial dispensationalist theology, were left by the wayside. These theological efforts set the stage for Tearfund’s ceaseless exploration of what Christian distinctiveness in development work might be.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 explore the ways in which Tearfund’s work evolved in the period between 1990 and 2005 as the organisation grew and joined the mainstream development sector. The 1990s saw the rise of the NGO model, with development organisations arguing for the comparative advantage of their grassroots approach over and above top-down state development projects. This era saw Tearfund transition away from grant giving and sending overseas personnel (as per the missionary model) and into professionalising its development work.  After initially arguing that the causes of poverty are in fact the consequences of sin and receiving criticisms from overseas partners, Tearfund later began to acknowledge structural causes of poverty and engage in advocacy work, positioning campaigning as part of a ‘whole life’ approach to Christian witness and worship. Freeman names them as the first NGO to campaign on climate change, for example, and highlights their success in mobilising large numbers of supporters and donations through faith networks. And yet whilst most organisations were shifting towards a rights-based approach to development through this period, Tearfund was working out how to develop ‘integral mission’ as a distinctively Christian way of working.

Decentralising Tearfund’s work through in-country teams was contentious because of how this changed relationships with partners, and whilst operationalising disaster relief work saw a ten-fold increase in institutional income, there was a debate over whether this was ‘sinful money’ because Tearfund could not work in distinctively Christian ways in such contexts. Newly ratified international standards for NGOs requiring a separation between religious and aid activities were unproblematic for mainline protestant and catholic organisations – these organisations were in fact involved in drafting the guidelines – but more controversial for Tearfund staff. Where is the line between being upfront about the faith motivation of the organisation and ‘imposing’ religion, prohibited under the new NGO standards? And how far could Tearfund’s work be said to be Christian when they had no option but to employ Muslims in Muslim-majority countries with limited religious freedom? Despite the theological work being done through this period to work out an ‘integral mission theology’ across their aid, development and advocacy work, overall, Freeman observes that Tearfund never truly escaped the evangelism-development dichotomy.

Chapters 7 and 8 cover the period from 2005 to 2018 in which Tearfund clarified its identity as a faith-based organisation (FBO). Freeman recounts the history of the late 1990s to early 2000s as the era that acknowledged the failure of the secularisation thesis and saw increasing religious influence in the public sphere. The World Bank kick-started the discussion on the role of religion in development, and state actors began to engage more pro-actively with religion in the wake of 9/11 and the war on terror. FBOs became normalised, both as a term and as important actors in the sector. The state funding awarded to FBOs, especially evangelical ones, increased dramatically. This was the backdrop against which a change in leadership in 2006 precipitated greater investment in the organisation’s Christian identity. To explore how Tearfund tried to develop its distinctive faith-based approach, Freeman presents a number of case studies in chapter 7: Church and Community Mobilisation (CCM) in Kenya; CCM in a Hindu context; church-based disaster response in Colombia; working with faith leaders to respond to Ebola in Liberia; human rights advocacy in Peru; a humanitarian response in Iraq. Understanding how successful this faith-based approach would be required some thinking around measuring impact, and so in chapter 8 we hear about the ‘Light Wheel’ impact model developed for CCM, an approach which mobilised local networks through partner churches, as the name suggests. Freeman acknowledges that this impact model was innovative in considering relational flourishing and emotional/mental wellbeing in development contexts; many secular organisations do not take such a holistic approach to development. Nonetheless, the journey the organisation hopes for in beneficiary communities, which involves developing ‘living faith’, remains controversial given their projects help non-Christians as well as Christians. Again, Freeman notes that attempts to mainstream CCM as a distinctive development approach had some but limited impact, and that Tearfund’s work on the ground has remained indistinguishable in many ways from that of secular NGOs.

This shapes Freeman’s conclusion that many development activities are fundamentally secular. “This rather calls into question several assumptions in the academic literature about FBDOs [faith-based development organisations], specifically that they inherently offer alternative visions of development or that they carry out development in a different, specifically faith-based way… even though Tearfund put considerable time and effort into developing specifically faith-based ‘transformationalist’ approaches, it found it difficult to implement these approaches in its work in other than relatively few areas.” (2019: 140) Her concluding chapter sets out the following paradoxes:

  1. FBOs claim to be distinctive and therefore have comparative advantage, but most of their work is secular.
  2. When a faith-based approach is achieved, it is an effort to combine evangelism and development rather than a fundamentally different understanding of development.
  3. FBOs don’t think about the role of religion in development as much as we might assume.

Freeman’s contribution clearly targets scholarship on religion and development which argues for comparative advantage and faith-based distinctiveness, challenging these as incorrect assumptions. Doing so has potential implications for public understandings of the role of FBOs in the sector and funding allocations, though Freeman doesn’t go so far as arguing if and how development should change in that regard. Her findings resonated with my own experience of a six-month research period with a faith-based conservation NGO in Kenya: I was surprised that their faith basis wasn’t made more explicit in the organisation’s work. Time was made for Bible study and worship in staff meetings, and work with local churches on creation care was offered, but when it came to community projects, the rationale for conservation addressed poverty alleviation and boosting tourism rather than distinctively Christian ideas about the living world and our place in it. At a minimum, Freeman’s work challenges evangelical organisations’ self-understanding; if taken to its logical conclusion, it questions whether FBOs should continue to enjoy their current privileged status in receiving grants given the fact that their work doesn’t fundamentally differ from that of their secular counterparts. I would add that the critique here is not without balance – Freeman in various places acknowledges Tearfund’s strengths and achievements, highlighting their journey from a small organisation stuck in between the missionary and development worlds to a professional success enjoying respect across both. Further, in a previous (2018) article, Freeman has positioned herself in between FBO advocates and critics, inviting more nuanced explorations of faith-based work instead. (For a recent example of the comparative advantage argument from practitioners, see Hirata, Peach & Tobing (2021); for a critical analysis, see Atia (2012).)

Building on Freeman’s insights, students and scholars of the anthropology of Christianity will feel provoked to consider other questions after reading this book. Whilst the focus is on Tearfund and its evangelical identity, we hear enough from Freeman about the place that other Christian development organisations occupy in the sector to know that the anxieties described over how far faith is shaping practice are particular to Tearfund. This invites further enquiries as to the particularity of the evangelical approach: what more can we say about the differences between the understandings of the role of faith in development work between Tearfund and, say, Christian Aid? Assuming that a key factor is the evangelical stress on the centrality of the Great Commission of Matthew 28 to go into all the world and make disciples, how far might this be said to undermine the transformationalist paradigm that recognises no separation between the sacred and secular? After all, if everything is sacred, why wouldn’t Oxfam’s work be just as sacred as Tearfund’s? Whilst these questions pose themselves, Freeman’s work also manages to avoid reducing evangelicalism to a single set of characteristics – the history she sets out highlights the debates between the ‘mainstreamers’ and ‘transformationalists’ within Tearfund, demonstrating the scope for varying opinions and forms of political action even within a single evangelical organisation.

Given the methodology used for this project, ethnographers are likely to feel unsatiated curiosities about day-to-day life at Tearfund. We are told that Freeman joined staff spiritual reflection days, but we don’t hear about these experiences, which came as a disappointment. This may offer a fruitful area for further study; ethnographic explorations of the themes of (for example) belonging, sincerity and publicity in Christian organisations have the potential to complement Freeman’s more critical approach to development practice, illuminating what makes an FBO tick. One of my enduring memories of the conservation FBO mentioned above is hearing from the oldest staff member that his appreciation for his workplace lies in the fact they “have the word of God” there. The youngest staff member nodded in agreement, adding that at other workplaces, “You work, and then you leave. That’s it.” Their organisation offered them something more. None of this contradicts Freeman’s central thesis, but it offers other avenues for enquiry as to what’s at stake for those working for, or supporting, FBOs. Tearfund’s work with supporter churches in the UK is another area of interest, addressed only in an appendix. Freeman acknowledges this would require another book for a full exploration.

An important contribution for an unimposing title, ‘Tearfund and the Quest for Faith-Based Development’ should be read by those interested in religion in public life as well as those in the development field. Chapter 7 and the conclusion could make useful reading for courses in the anthropology or sociology of contemporary religion due to the combination of an historical perspective on social change and concrete examples of Tearfund’s work. Students in particular, and many readers besides, will be grateful for Freeman’s characteristic accessible writing style and the clear and concise summaries of the story so far that open each chapter. She also refreshingly avoids using too many scare quotes, making comfortable use of her informants’ own language. The volume would be generatively read alongside David P. King’s (2019) book on World Vision and Hilary Kaell’s (2020) volume on child sponsorship in the US, making this contribution part of a growing corpus of research on Christianity and transnational aid and development work.

References

Atia, M. 2012. “A Way to Paradise”: Pious Neoliberalism, Islam, and Faith-Based Development. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(4), pp. 808-827 (available online: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23275509).

Freeman, D. 2018. From ‘Christians doing development’ to ‘doing Christian development’: the changing role of religion in the international work of Tearfund. Development in Practice, 28(2), pp. 280-291 (available online: https://doi.org/10.1080/09614524.2018.1418837).

Hirata E, Peach M, Tobing S. 2021. The faith-based advantage: A case study on the Adventist Development & Relief Agency’s response to humanitarian impacts of COVID-19 as a faith-based organization. Christian Journal of Global Health. 8(1): pp. 24-33 (available online: https://doi.org/10.15566/cjgh.v8i1.541).

Kaell, H. 2020. Christian Globalism at Home: Child Sponsorship in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

King, D. P. 2019. God’s Internationalists: World Vision and the Age of Evangelical Humanitarianism. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Oxfam. 2021. ‘About Us’ webpage (available online: https://www.oxfam.org.uk/about-us/, accessed 23 September 2021).

Tearfund. 2021. ‘About Us’ webpage, (available online: https://www.tearfund.org/about-us, accessed 23rd Sept 2021).