A Discussion with Rob Kilpatrick, Director of Spirtual Engagement, World Vision Australia
November 25, 2009
Background: This discussion took place as part of preparations for a consultation on faith and development in Southeast Asia, held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia December 14-15, 2009. The consultation, an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation and the University of Cambodia, took stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith. It also explored policy implications that emerged from their interactions with development organizations. The interview was by telephone, between Rob Kilpatrick and Michael Bodakowski. In this interview, Mr. Kilpatrick reflects on how his spiritual journey has shaped his approaches to development work. He addresses Australia's role in the region and, within Australia's development approaches, the role of faith-inspired organizations. He focuses on the challenges posed by concerns about proselytizing, the impact of climate change, governance issues, the nature and focus of peace-building work, and the challenge of evaluating the impact of faith on development processes. He emphasizes the interconnectivity of faith with peoples' daily lives in many parts of the world, and the importance of engaging faith-inspired organizations in the development policy process.
How did you come to your present position? What inspires you in your work?
I came to this job originally starting as a teacher of physics and chemistry at secondary school in New Zealand. I then went into the Baptist ministry, and was a minister for a number of years. I also taught as principal of the Christian leadership college in Fiji for four years during the interesting times in 1987-88 when the country experienced a number of coups. The chairperson of my board was actually quite closely associated with that! The issue of social justice in a context that has been severely contaminated by colonial experience was something that began to impress itself upon me.
I returned to New Zealand at that point, and continued my studies at Auckland University, where I was an assistant lecturer in social anthropology. I spent ten years working as the CEO of the New Zealand Baptist Ministry Society. I was involved in a wide range of initiatives in that capacity, including setting up an alternative education program for people in the sex industry in Calcutta, as one example.
At the end of that period, I looked around New Zealand and realized it was too small to interest me, and would not take me to the next stage in my career. I spoke to Tim Costello and joined World Vision Australia as director of spiritual engagement.
In term of my theological journey, I, like a good number of Protestant people, was brought up to believe that what Jesus and the Prophets were talking about was why we should go to church and read our bibles, etc. I began to ask different questions when I was 19 or 20 years old. I began a journey that took me in a different direction. The journey involved looking at the chunks of the Bible that talk about social justice, equity, mutual respect, and a wider sense of the kingdom of God, and thinking about what that means to the way we relate economically and socially, and also how we relate to people that think differently than us. That was an important part of my journey and it has brought me to this point.
I would describe myself as a committed Protestant/evangelical, but I have a much broader view than many might expect given that background, and what the implications of my beliefs are. One reason I work with World Vision is that they share my broad perspective of what it means to do good in the world and be a follower of Jesus. This perspective includes looking for justice, equity, working on peace-building, among many others. That is how I come to be where I am today.
Can you give us a brief overview of the work that you do with World Vision Australia. How and why do you focus on those specific areas of work?
I am director of spiritual engagement. About 70 percent of my time is spent working on our overseas programs, trying to figure out how to be most effective in terms of our spiritual engagement with people; including our work in peace building and community building. The rest of my time is spent in Australia, working on our devotional program which encourages staff to reflect spiritually on the work we do, and to consider ways how their faith can be worked into what we are doing. I am responsible in part for helping maintain our Christian identity, keeping a focus on what that means in terms of our core and our focus, saying “this is who we are, and this is the implication.” We are looking at what our faith means, both here and overseas in terms of: social justice, working humbly, giving to the poor, sharing what we give, and using God’s gifts to work for the poor in an effective manner.
In addition, I am working on a research program to empirically measure the effect of faith on development. The research is trying to ascertain what specific elements of faith positively contribute to development, and conversely, which ones do not. We recently completed a series of evaluations in Eastern Europe looking at how faith and development work contributes to the overall development progress in those countries. We looked for specific elements of faith that contribute positively to development, asking: what are they, what is the most meaningful way to measure them, and what method of evaluation is most effective.
As you can imagine, there are many ways in which faith does not contribute to development. In Africa for example, the church’s stance and attitude on HIV/AIDS, including the stigma associated with it and societal judgment, is very unhelpful. But if you have a peace building/justice equity approach (also a faith-inspired approach), you can have incredible transformation in these communities. Faith can affect development in both directions, and I am trying to find out what these factors are and how to measure them.
What challenges do you encounter working to integrate faith and development work?
That is a very good question. World Vision has an inherent tension within itself. We are an organization that started as an evangelical organization, since became ecumenical, and now is a leader in interfaith dialogue. Such a transformation 50 years ago would have been unheard of! We have a very strong policy on proselytizing. We do not proselytize. By proselytizing we mean: to use inducement, manipulation, or other forms to persuade people to change religion.
Because of the really good work that we do, and the genuine love that we express to people of all faiths, we try to find and work with the most vulnerable groups. That often means working with communities that are not Christian, because they are often the most vulnerable and the poorest. When we display genuine love towards people, it often provokes the question, why do you do this? World Vision responds openly and honestly as to what its motivating factors are. At one end we have a policy of non- proselytization, but on the other hand we do not hide our Christian faith, the motivating factor for our work.
That being said, the vast majority of our staff generally try to fit within those parameters, but of course there are always people that will act differently and give the organization a bad reputation. Given that we have 40,000 staff globally, it only takes a few individuals to stray from our policies for the media to pick up on it.
What are the challenges you face with World Vision, being a Christian organization, doing development work abroad, especially in the many non-Christian countries in which you work?
When the tsunami struck, we responded to the extreme need in Aceh. We were very careful to work with local institutions. If you are going to achieve change you have to work with local institutions, and the local institutions in Aceh are the mosques. World Vision does have a policy that we will not support the promotion of other world religions, but at the same time, we will work closely with them. We will not denigrate any religion and will always open dialogue to achieve common aims.
We have a number of people who work on the Peace Initiative Network at World Vision. The Peace Initiative Network consists of two programs that focus on 1) Building local capacity to work towards peace and 2) Analyzing conflict situations and the main actors to increase effectiveness in peacebuilding.
We are very aware of the need to work cooperatively with other faiths. We have an expert on Islam who has done a lot of work to educate our staff on how to work with Muslims and how to develop an open attitude to working in their environment. In Afghanistan for example, over 90 percent of our staff are Muslim. We work effectively to encourage them in their spiritual journey, as it also promotes constructive relationships with Christians and people of other religions.
Can you speak about World Vision Australia’s work in Asia, specifically in Southeast Asia?
We do a lot of work on peace initiatives in Burma; however, it is a challenge to reach the poorest of the poor. Access to the regions where the very poor live is usually restricted by the army. We do have programs in education and health which we implement through local temples, wats and Buddhist monks. Using local institutions as a conduit to the local population has proven to be very effective, bypassing restrictions that are imposed on us as an international organization. We have worked with interfaith groups to build peace in Cambodia as well.
In Indonesia, our Islam expert manages programs dealing with Muslim issues. We have other focus areas that work on interfaith understanding. One example from our interfaith work in Europe exemplifies the sort of work we do: in Bosnia we produced a book through an interfaith council that briefly outlines the faith texts and practices of all the main religions in that area (Orthodox Christianity, Catholic, Muslim, and Judaism). All of the faith communities have approved the publication as a good explanation of what they believe and how they practice. The aim is to build a generation of people that understand and respect each other.
In our leadership training program as well, we have whole areas dedicated to interfaith understanding and peace building activities for leaders. This is a global program, with trainings in both South and Southeast Asia.
Can you speak more broadly now about the role of Australia in development in the Asia/Pacific region? What is Australia’s role in the region, and how are faith-inspired organizations part of that strategy?
I can give you a general idea. In terms of economic impact, Australia is the biggest player in the region. World Vision and others have worked extensively with the government to improve the percentage of GDP going towards aid and development. The percentage of funds that are directed to faith-inspired organizations is still fairly small. World Vision is the largest NGO actor by a factor of four in terms of funding and size.
World Vision has a high brand awareness in the region as well. We therefore feel a responsibility on behalf of all charitable intuitions, both faith-inspired and non-faith-inspired alike, to advocate for government policy and funding. We have done lots of work with the Australian government on governance issues around the Pacific. We have also worked on anti-corruption and anti-bribery, and how to spend money effectively on development. World Vision and other institutions help formulate government policy on trafficking as well.
As part of the NGO sector, we have good links to government. We run an extensive program of advocacy aimed at igniting a social movement here in Australia. With respect to climate change, we are a leader both in World Vision partnerships, and also with other organizations. At the moment in the Australian government opposition party, there is a high level of climate change skepticism. We are working very hard at changing those perceptions on the basis of justice for the poor. We recognize that climate change has huge implications for the poor in Southeast Asia in terms of flooding and human displacement. Some of the conflicts in Africa are already being fueled by climate change. Climate change is not something that will arrive in a few years time; it is already upon us.
The government has overall been very responsive. In the last economic crisis, the percentage of government funding to development aid did not go down, and that was because of intense lobbying done by NGOs and other organizations, including World Vision. Our CEO has a good relationship with the prime minister, and the arguments we put forth for continuing aid were coherent and compelling.
As an interesting anecdote: two years ago the Australian chief of federal police said the biggest issue that Australia faces is not terrorism, but climate refugees. I think he is right. Australia is one of the top polluters per capita on the planet, partly because we continue to use brown coal. Australia is an opinion leader on climate change in the region, and we have to get it right. World Vision and others are working diligently to advance the police chief’s argument.
Faith is often a topic that is not on the official agenda of development organizations, yet it is a crucial factor that should be given ample consideration, especially in Asia. What, from your view, is missing on the development agenda with regards to faith, and what should be added?
You are quite right, and our code of conduct, along with the code of conduct of most of Europe, Canada, the UK, and to some extent the US, says that development assistance cannot be used to promote any particular religious agenda. This is fine in itself; however it unfortunately does not take account of how the vast majority of the world views life. The truth is that faith and daily life are integrated for the majority of the world’s population. An absence of recognition of the importance of spirituality and faith in development is probably the key missing component.
My guess is that the World Bank initiated many conversations with world faith leaders in 1998-99 on the basis that, we have been doing development work for fifty years, but no matter how much money we invest in infrastructure, health, education, etc, if we do not change the beliefs and worldview of people, not much actually changes. A recognition of integrated faith and spirituality is lacking in government policy. The West has managed to dichotomize spirituality and material life, and I think that needs to change.
I do think what policy is trying to do is to prevent particular religious groups from proselytizing. Nonetheless, faith and development are issues that are not considered often enough in designing our development agenda.
Looking forwards 20 years, what do you see as the largest development imperatives in Asia, and what will be the role of religion and faith?
The most obvious one is climate change, along with what I would call creation stewardship, that is, how we view our relationship with the environment. The environment is a huge religion and faith issue, not only economic. We must rethink how we view our planet and how we exploit its resources and its natural gifts.
In terms of other imperatives, interfaith conflict situations (eg. In Indonesia between Muslims and Christians and in Thailand between Muslims and Buddhists) will continue to be a large issue for development in the future.
Gender violence will unfortunately continue to be an issue, as will gender equity and faith effect development programming, especially in Asia and the South Pacific.