A Discussion with Robert W. Radtke, President of Episcopal Relief & Development

With: Robert W. Radtke Berkley Center Profile

March 24, 2015

Background: Robert Radtke participated in the March 4, 2015 day-long conference on the issue of proselytizing and development organized by the Berkley Center. As the leader of a mid-sized and active American faith-inspired organization, he has encountered the concerns about mixing development work with promotion of religious beliefs that the conference addressed. He argues for care and above all self-policing in navigating a complex set of lines separating freedom of speech from inappropriate pressures linked to development work. Wisdom is needed when engaging with people and communities with different beliefs. In this discussion with Katherine Marshall, he reflects on his experience and views, especially in the territory beyond commonly accepted norms of best practice. Issues tend to be very context specific and are most problematic in conflict-ridden situations. He also describes the focus of Episcopal Relief & Development’s work, its response to the Ebola crisis, and the ways in which concerns about climate change affect and do not affect the organization. In relation to the Ebola crisis, he sees the charism of the church as centered on a long-term view linked to community resilience and mobilizing its capacity to respond to changing circumstances.
How often, and where, have you, in your work, encountered concerns around the boundaries between proselytizing and development work?

Let me first provide some context. Episcopal Relief & Development has signed up to the InterAction standards. We are part of the international NGO community that believes in these standards and accepts that they encapsulate best practice for international NGOs in this area. We make it very clear that religious observance cannot be a pre-condition for delivery of services in our programs. Our delivery system is primarily linked to local faith groups on the ground, primarily the Anglican presence wherever we are doing our work. We write into the agreements with our partners that they need to follow the same standards that apply to the organization overall. And by and large they do so. I am sure there are places where these standards are less rigorously followed than I would be comfortable with. However, most bishops and other church leaders view the programs involved—malaria net distribution, fighting sexual or gender-based violence, or sustainable agriculture—as good for the community in which they are embedded. The programs also raise their visibility and open new ways to talk about their church.

We are also very careful that everything be done on an interfaith and ecumenical basis. That means that with something like malaria prevention programs there needs to be training for the local imams, traditional spiritual healers and leaders, or whoever is present on the ground. Everything needs to be done on a very careful, ecumenical basis that involves the whole panoply of groups in the community. So for the most part I can be confident that we along with our partners follow both the spirit and the letter of the agreements and standards in this area.

We, that is the Episcopal Church, are not in general a proselytizing church, nor are we hugely evangelical. Broadly speaking, we are less likely to engage in the kinds of activities that are of concern to observers who are critical of the practice of faith groups. We are less likely to do things that get bad a rap in the international NGO community, like handing out bibles with relief supplies or organizing or even requiring bible studies as part of a microfinance scheme.

But, that said, in the communities and context where we are working religion is a deep and profound way in which people find meaning. It has important leverage. It is effective to have the priest stand up and talk to his congregation (and it is almost always his) in a biblical way about the importance of not abusing your wife, for example. Thus what we need is to find ways to walk down these boundaries and know when you are putting your foot over the line. But also to know when in some situations it might be useful to put your foot over the boundary because you can call upon a rich tradition that can reinforce best practice for better development outcomes.

I listen to the NGO community, and, particularly where we are, near the United Nations, they take the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as almost a sacred text. They can be just as evangelical about that as any of the Christian or other faith groups.

So it can be murky and grey and I am not certain that we can really have any greater clarity on it at a deeper level. I don’t think it can be an either/or. It has to be a both/and if you are going to have sustainable change. It takes people of good faith working through these problems as they arise, looking at them in the right context.

Are there instances where you have seen problems arise, and how have they been addressed?

There are instances where it can be problematic and especially complex. The case of South Sudan is one example, where you have a huge Muslim-Christian divide. The church there will tell you that they are under pressure and tell you that they need schools and clinics to fight back Muslim incursions in Christian communities. Those situations are a much more difficult space to negotiate and to navigate. I don’t have a clear answer. As high visibility as those situations are, however, I think of them more as outliers than as representing the majority of situations.

Where do you encounter such tensions? Nigeria?

We are not working in Nigeria. At one time, we had some malaria programs there managed by another implementing partner, but the funding is finished and we no longer operate in the country. Sudan is the example I think of most. We are working in northern Ghana where there is a large Muslim population but I am not hearing about problems from our Anglican partners. There is a lot of cooperation with Muslim leaders there on development programs. There is not the kind of anxiety among bishops in Ghana that I hear in South Sudan. It is very context specific.

In Pakistan, of course, there is a lot of violence, with bombings just in the last week, involving both Anglican and Catholic churches. But this is a different situation. The concerns are most acute and most obvious in conflict-ridden situations. And I agree with you that the issues come up often in relation to vulnerable groups, like orphans, or in education. This is an area where churches in the Anglican Church are deeply involved but Episcopal Relief & Development is not.

Were you involved, or was Episcopal Relief & Development, in the World Council of Churches-led effort to agree on a code of conduct on proselytizing? Its focus, in the final version agreed upon in 2011, is largely respect for different communities and tolerance.

Not to my knowledge. There may have been some participation at the level of Lambeth Palace or the Anglican Communion, but not at our level.

Your earlier work was with the Asia Society. How much continuity have you found between your different roles?

I was with the Asia Society for about ten years and have found more links between the two very different organizations than you might think. In my deep past, I was a China scholar, so I did US-China relations. The mission of the Asia Society centered on building understanding of Asia here in the United States, so my job was to advocate for that and to be a spokesperson. At Episcopal Relief & Development, the role of the president is to be educator-in-chief for the Episcopal Church around development issues, so I spend around 80 percent of my time traveling around the church, meeting with people and talking about the importance of this work. I always frame it in the context of our Baptismal Covenant; it states in the Episcopal Church Baptismal Covenant that we should respect the dignity of every human being. I see this work as being a fundamental piece of that responsibility.

In geographical and substantive terms it has meant quite a big shift. We are working currently in close to 40 countries, about half in Africa. Africa is not a place I knew well when I came to Episcopal Relief & Development. I knew Asia better but our Asia program is not huge, and I was not familiar with Latin America at all. So I had a fairly steep learning curve. But the skills that you learn in an organization like the Asia Society, navigating diplomatic and government hierarchies in the different worlds, are not dissimilar, between the Chinese government and the Anglican Communion. There is a chain of command and some protocol that goes along with the different levels of that chain so some of the skills are transferable.

Has Episcopal Relief & Development been much affected by the Ebola crisis?

Yes. Liberia, of course, is a major focus for Ebola, and the Episcopal Church of Liberia has been very much involved in the response. The main engagement has been with public education and community mobilization, trying to make sure that people understood how the disease was transmitted, the proper protocols to follow if someone got sick, and the dangers involved in burials. We had hoped that the epidemic was over, but it does not appear to be in Liberia. The church seems to be coming out of its defensive posture, where it was trying to cope with all the issues raised by Ebola.

We are now starting to work, and have been planning to do so for some time, on trying to educate communities around SGBV (sexual and gender-based violence). So we are beginning to ramp that up now, as it appears that Ebola has ebbed.

How far do you think that there will be a serious stock taking on lessons to be drawn from the Ebola crisis and specifically how far the international response took the religious networks into account?

We are involved in the Joint Learning Initiative that Jean Duff is leading. There have been some conversations around that, and some frustration. My sense is the international response wanted to involve the faith communities but could not quite figure out how to engage them. We are, after all, a rather diverse and disorganized bunch. There is no way to call 1-800-religious org and have someone take command and get all of us in line. Is there even a list of the faith-based organizations that were responding to Ebola? I would be surprised. And when a crisis does strike there is chaos. Figuring out what to do among the faith communities alone can be time consuming and difficult and that is frustrating for an international response. I get that. It is hard enough to figure out who we should be cooperating with in general, and through our partners, we are insiders in the communities. If you are an outsider it would be tremendously difficult, especially if you have to work fast.

As a general rule, faith communities do not tend to work fast. This is a huge generalization, but because we are embedded in communities, we tend to take the long view. And in fact we take the long view on Ebola. Most people tend to think Ebola is over. And while it may be over in the sense that infection rates have slowed down drastically, the real and immediate problem coming up is starvation. Crops were not planted and other things like that. So we can take the view that we kept our powder dry. We see the responses that we can muster and mobilize as lasting much longer than the headlines. Now we are focused on helping families and communities as they rebuild their lives.

That is the true charism of the faith community. Because it is their community, they do not race around in crisis mode in the same way that outsiders might. We are in the communities before disaster strikes and we are there for the long haul. The three Ebola affected countries are now looking at rehabilitation programs.

Are you invited to engage in that kind of thinking ahead?

I am not, but that does not mean that it is not happening. I am not in daily contact on the Ebola crisis any more. That kind of reflection would be focused at the country and local levels.

How far is Episcopal Relief & Development involved in issues of climate change?

The Episcopal Church itself is very much involved, and our Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori is herself a scientist. She made a major statement recently, calling climate change a major moral challenge. It is a huge issue from an advocacy point of view. But Episcopal Relief & Development does not engage in advocacy. Part of our arrangement with the Episcopal Church is that we leave that to the church itself. Advocacy is thus handled by the Washington office of the Episcopal Church.

Obviously we, as an organization, are very concerned about the impact of climate change because we see its impact in the communities where we are working. We support primarily mitigation programs, for example in the Solomon Islands, where we are involved in introducing crops that can respond to salinization of soils. “Climate Smart Agriculture” is an area of focus. In short, we are more in the mitigation space and not in the advocacy space.

How do you coordinate with other organizations in the Anglican Communion?

We are a founding member of the Anglican Alliance on development, relief, and advocacy, which grew out of the 2008 Lambeth Conference. It is an Anglican Communion-wide assembly that looks at best practices in development, relief, and advocacy. I sit on the board and am very involved with the Anglican Alliance. I participate in the round tables that they organize that have various regional and thematic foci. They are very important to us. We are the largest Anglican agency and so we are often the lead. An example is in South Sudan where we are the focal point. There is a coordinated response on behalf of the Anglican Communion in helping South Sudan deal with the issues it faces. We have a staff member whose time is partly seconded to that effort. In addition, I have very close cooperative, collegial relationships with the Canadian Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund and the Australian Board of Mission. I work very closely with those two agencies that are the other two large agencies of the communion. We work at it quite intentionally, and it has developed quite nicely since 2008. We are building much more of a culture of professionalism in the area of development, relief, and advocacy which is, I think, important for the Anglican Communion if we want to be taken seriously in this space.

What kinds of issues do you find are addressed in these discussions?

The most recent round table was in Nairobi, and we launched a curriculum called “Pastors and Disasters,” which is helping church leaders address disaster risk reduction in their communities. There have round tables on microfinance. There have been workshops on sexual and gender-based violence, which is a high priority for the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. It tends to be framed in the context of modern day slavery and sex trafficking, which is a narrow slice of the issue of SGBV. We are involved in a campaign, which is a big priority for Archbishop Welby. There is good cooperation on this between the Catholic Church and Lambeth. There is a lot of work in that area that we are very supportive of. Those are the most recent issues that come to mind.

Have issues of aid harmonization and coordination come up in this context?

We are very grassroots driven so we let our partners throughout the Anglican Communion surface what their concerns are and that drives our agenda. If you go to the Anglican Alliance website you can get a fuller picture, an inventory of the issues that are being discussed.

You have highlighted the work you do on sexual and gender-based violence. How long has that been central for the Anglican Communion? Is it associated particularly with Archbishop Justin Welby?

The concerns about sexual violence predate Archbishop Welby. I remember speaking on the topic at a major conference about two years ago. Rowan Williams, Archbishop Welby’s predecessor, and the Archbishop of Burundi along with another bishop endorsed the campaign. Archbishop Welby picked up the issue and ran with it. He was there when the Pope organized a conference on the slavery issue. Rachel Carnegie is his representative on that topic. The Rome event that the Pope convened gave it another gust of momentum. It was a huge, impressive ecumenical gathering, a great group of people. That gave it more energy.

Are there other big issues on your mind and your agenda in this area?

 My comment to my friends in the UN world is, “Don’t judge the faith community by the bad actors.” Sure, there will be bad actors. But that does not represent the vast majority of good work that goes on. That can be hard because everyone has got an anecdote, that this shipment of relief goods contained bibles or other actions that clearly violate the rules. There can be a willfulness with some members of the evangelical movement that damages the brand and the real good work that faith organizations do. We need to find ways to police ourselves.

How do you wrestle with the boundaries between religious freedom and caution and wisdom in working in sensitive situations? The issue of proselytism seems to be a bigger issue than we had imagined.

My personal take is that we are motivated to do this work for service. When you do this work for service you cannot stand up and try to claim free speech as a rationale for trying to do something that undermines the service that you are trying to provide. God, he or she, is asking us to be of service to these communities and to respect the dignity of all communities, and you cannot use the fig leaf of free speech to do anything that undermines that sense of service.

How do you encounter sensitivities in working in Muslim communities?

You have to get down to what is the motive for this work. If it is really to expand the boundaries of your religious domain, that is proselytism. If it is to relieve human suffering, that is different. People know in their hearts what they are doing and why. You cannot dress it up as service when that is not the primary motivation. It is fine to have missionaries, but they should not be repurposed for development work. It could create a risk for development work. It could undermine that work which is, after all, motivated by faith.
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