For decades, religion was effectively ignored by practitioners and researchers concerned with development and humanitarian aid – secularist biases in conceptualising development combined with essentialist conceptions of religion as inherently conservative and reactionary left no room for religion. In fact, religion was, according to the sociologist Kurt Alan ver Beek (2000), ‘a development taboo’. He had scanned three of the most prominent journals on development and humanitarian aid in the period 1982 to 1998, finding only few references to the topic and no single articles in which religion was the main topic. In the same study, he also reviewed the policies of a number of major development agencies and NGOs, concluding that none of them had any policies on religion or spirituality.[1]

However, in recent years, the taboo has been broken. In fact, some would even say that religion has become fashionable.[2] Religion is on the agenda of several major donors and NGOs, just like an increasing number of researchers have taken an interest in the topic, witnessed by a wide range of conferences, seminars, articles, reports and books dealing with the topic. There are a number of reasons for this ‘religious turn’ among scholars and practitioners dealing with development and humanitarian aid.[3]

First, events and phenomena testifying to the continued importance of religion in public life have questioned both the secularisation thesis as well as the modernisation theory often laying the ground for these assumptions.[4] Religion has not disappeared; instead it has become even more visible, witnessed in e.g. the 1979 Iranian revolution, the emergence of the Evangelical right as a political force in the United States, the role of the Catholic church in the democratic transitions in Eastern Europe, and the growth of the Pentecostal movement in Latin America, and finally, 9.11. and the emergence of militant Islamism, to mention only a few examples.

Second, there has been a dramatic increase in the number and visibility of religious organizations involved in development and humanitarian aid, or faith-based organizations (FBOs) as they are often called. Naturally, religious organizations are not a new invention; throughout history, Catholic hospitals, Islamic foundations and Buddhist monasteries, among many others, have provided aid to the poor.[5] However, in recent years, contemporary religious organizations such as NGOs, charities and community associations seem to have achieved particular prominence. In the US, for instance, government funding for FBOs has almost doubled from 10.5 percent in 2001 to 19.9 percent in 2005.[6] Likewise, some of the largest international NGOs are religious (World Vision alone has an annual budget of 1.6 billion US dollars), Muslim NGOs are on the rise,[7] and locally, religious associations and community organizations are often some of the most important service providers. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, the World Bank estimates that as much as fifty percent of all health and education services are provided by FBOs.[8]

Third, the failures of the structural adjustment programmes in the 1980s and 1990s prompted a surge of criticism from NGOs, grassroots movements and religious organizations, accusing the World Bank and other major actors for promoting a narrow economic conception of development. This resulted in a shift away from state and market-led approaches to a broader and more holistic conception of development, focusing on ‘civil society’, ‘human development’ and ‘participation’. This ‘opening of the development space’ facilitated the inclusion not only of mainstream NGOs, but also religious organizations as legitimate actors in the field of development and humanitarian aid.[9] Later, the World Bank’s own study Voices of the Poor (2000) further cemented the importance of religious organizations by concluding that many poor people had more confidence in religious organizations than in government or secular organizations.[10]

These, as well as other, trends and events have prompted a reconceptualisation of aid discourses and practices, encompassing, among other things, a greater recognition of religion and religious organizations as important and indispensable factors in development and humanitarian aid. As noted above, the increasing interest in the role of religion in development and humanitarian aid has shown in the establishment of various initiatives to strengthen cooperation with religious organizations, including e.g. the Dutch Knowledge Forum for Religion and Development Policy, established in collaboration between NGOs, researchers and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the World Bank’s Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics; and the UK Department for International Development’s recent seminar series Faith and Development, hosted in cooperation with the Tony Blair Foundation, Islamic Relief, World Vision and Oxfam.[11]

Parallel to such practitioner-oriented initiatives, among scholars studying development and humanitarian aid a new strand of research is emerging, focusing on religious organizations and their role in processes of development and humanitarian aid. Birmingham University in Britain, for instance, recently finalized a five-year research programme titled Religions and Development, financed by DFID. Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs also hosts a research programme on Religion and Global Development, headed by Katherine Marshall, one of the pioneers of the field and heavily involved in the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which was established in the 1998 by then World Bank President James Wolfensohn and then Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, and is now a part of the research programme.[12] Some of the studies of religious organizations are highly normative, presenting them as tools to deconstruct and criticise current development discourses. Based on selected case studies, scholars argue that religious organizations can – and should – play a vital role in development and humanitarian aid, presenting alternative visions of solidarity, justice and social change and guaranteeing a more holistic, people-centered kind of development than the kind promoted by dominant neo-liberal approaches.[13] Other studies attempt to take a more theoretically grounded approach, presenting general discussions of the relationship between religious organizations and development and humanitarian aid. Scholars in this vein typically focus on the elaboration of theoretical frameworks for approaching religious organizations;[14] typologies for classifying religious NGOs;[15] or discussions of the (in)compatibility between religious theologies and theories of development and humanitarian aid.[16] Finally, a number of analyses explore the relationship between religious organizations and development through case studies of individual organizations. The majority of these studies are anthropological analyses of organizations involved in development and humanitarian aid, exploring the role of religion in organizational discourses, practices and structures.[17] Others are more sociologically oriented, investigating the actions and relations of religious organizations in society.[18]

Thus, religious organizations have become the object of a burgeoning literature, shedding light on a variety of different topics related to religious organizations and their involvement in development and humanitarian aid activities. However, there are still large gaps in this literature. Most importantly, research tends to focus on individual religious organizations and their involvement in processes of development and humanitarian aid – whether as selective evidence to support normative claims of the superiority of religious organizations, as anecdotal illustrations to theoretical frameworks on religion and development, or (in a few cases) as anthropological and sociological case studies. There is very little knowledge about the religious organizations as a group: What distinguishes them from other organizations? What characterises them as a group? And does it even make sense to consider them as a group? These questions lie at the heart of the study of religious organizations, providing the foundation upon which this field of inquiry rests. Thus, there is a need for more systematic, broad-based surveys of religious NGOs, providing empirical data and giving an overview of the field of religious organizations.[19]

The present article attempts to contribute to filling this gap in the existing literature by providing a survey of a particular kind of religious organizations, namely international NGOs engaged in development and humanitarian aid. Based on systematic investigations of a large number of international religious NGOs, the analysis explores different dimensions of this group of organizations, asking questions such as: Who are these organizations? What are their goals? How do they organise? What do they do? Who do they cooperate with? And, most importantly, what role does their religious identity play in this?

International religious NGOs in the UN system

According to the Union of International Associations, there are approx. 33,500 international NGOs in the world.[20] Of these, the majority are involved in activities related to development and humanitarian aid, broadly understood as including education, microfinance, relief, environmental issues, and human rights. Many NGOs involved in development and humanitarian aid have applied for and been granted consultative status at the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in the United Nations (UN). Article 71 of UN’s Charter gives the council authority to ”make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence”,[21] i.e. matters related to international economic and social development. Consultative status grants the organizations the possibility to participate in a range of UN meetings and conferences as well as to publish written (and in some cases oral) statements during these meetings and conferences, thus functioning as a way for organizations to gain influence at the UN.[22]

Of the 3,183 NGOs with consultative status at ECOSOC, 320 can be characterised as religious (see below for a definition of what it means to be religious). It is this group of organizations that make up the object of study of the present analysis. The fact that they have been granted consultative status at ECOSOC means that these organizations are in one way or another engaged in activities related to development and humanitarian aid, and as such can be considered international development and humanitarian NGOs. Furthermore, as a major actor in international development and humanitarian aid, the UN must be assumed to attract a broad range of development NGOs, thus ensuring some degree of scope and variation in the analysis. However, this choice of focus naturally presents some limitations. Some NGOs chose not to work with the UN for ideological reasons, while others simply do not have the economic or human resources required to apply for consultative status and actively participate in the activities of ECOSOC. There is, in other words, a risk that UN-critical and resource-less NGOs are excluded from the analysis. The analysis of the religious NGOs with consultative status at ECOSOC should therefore not be seen as a general analysis of all religious NGOs involved in international development, representative of the entire field, but rather as an analysis of a specific (albeit rather large) sub-group of religious NGOs within the group of international religious NGOs.

Analysis of religious NGOs

My analysis of the religious NGOs at the UN is structured on a basic model for analysis of NGOs (table 1). Unlike many other approaches to the analysis of NGOs, the model reflects a multidimensional understanding of NGOs, simultaneously emphasising substance and function, internal self-understanding and external descriptions, organization and context. The model divides the analysis into four parts, each shedding light on different dimensions of the organization. The orientation dimension takes its point of departure in the NGO’s self-understanding, describing the goals, motivation and methods of the organization. The purpose of this part of the analysis is to understand which goals the NGO has, what motivates the organization to pursue these goals and how it plans to achieve them – in other words, how the NGO understands its own function. The organization dimension, on the other hand, focuses on the substantial characteristics of the NGO, including aspects such as age, size and origin. In this part of the analysis, point of departure is the factual, external description of the NGO’s organizational features. The third dimension – the positioning dimension – deals with the relational aspects of the NGO’s work and identity. Based on both external and internal descriptions, the analysis explores the positioning of the NGO in relation to other actors, including the state, market institutions and other actors in civil society, thus shifting focus from the organization itself to the context in which it works. Finally, the fourth dimension – religiosity – includes at once factual information regarding the organization’s religious affiliation, as well as more intangible questions regarding the role and significance of the organization’s religiosity, understood to be potentially relevant not only to specific aspects of the NGOs’ work and identity, but to all aspects. The model’s division of the religious dimension into two reflects these two differing meanings of religiosity; in the vertical column, the organization’s religious affiliation; and in the horisontal row, the potential influence of the religious dimension on the remaining dimensions. In the following, this model will provide the structuring guidelines for the analysis of religious NGOs with consultative status at ECOSOC. Due to lack of access, however, the analysis will not include systematic considerations as to the financial aspect of the organizations.

Table 1: Model for analysis of religious NGOs

Religiosity The influence of religion on other dimensions

Religious affiliation







Spread, size and origin


Target group, membership, representation



Relations to state institutions

Relations to market institutions

Relations to other NGOs and civil society organizations

Relations to other relevant actors

The analysis presented here builds on a detailed study of the 320 organizations, based on a survey of material written by and about the different religious NGOs, including the organizations’ own websites, brochures, text books, articles and books about the organizations and, in a few cases, personal correspondence with representatives from the organizations. Rather than minutely repeating all findings of this study, the present analysis is an attempt at sketching selected tendencies and characteristics within the group and proposing directions for future research.


As mentioned above, in the model for analysis, organizational religiosity refers to two different aspects – namely the examination of the NGOs’ religious affiliation, and the exploration of the influence of the organization’s religiosity on other aspects the organization. Whereas the latter requires more qualitative considerations throughout the whole analysis, the former can be answered through quantitative, factual investigations.

Building on organizational self-understanding, the analysis defines religious NGOs as NGOs that describe and understand themselves as religious, referring in their name, activities, mission statements or elsewhere to religious traditions, values and ideas. Based on this definition, a survey of all NGOs with consultative status at ECOSOC shows that of a total of 3,183 organizations, 320, or 10.1 per cent, consider themselves religious. As is indicated in table 2, Christian NGOs make up the majority of organizations, while both Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist NGOs are grossly underrepresented compared to the number of adherents to Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism worldwide.

Table 2: Religious affiliation

Religious affiliation Number of organizations Percentage of all religious NGOs
Christian 187 58.4 %
Muslim 52 16.3 %
Jewish 22 6.9 %
Buddhist 14 4.4 %
Hindu 3 0.9 %
Spiritual 25 7.8 %
Multireligious 11 3.4 %
Other religions[23] 6 1.9 %
Total 320 100 %


As noted above, the orientation dimension refers to aspects such as the goals, work areas, motivation and methods of the organizations, describing the ways in which they understand their own purpose and function.

Mission and motivation</h2

For most of the religious NGOs, religion plays an important role as motivating factor, often expressed in their mission statements, outlining the overall purpose of the NGOs and describing the underlying values and principles. Thus, a survey of the 320 organizations’ mission statements shows that the vast majority mentions religion as a source of motivation and inspiration. The Christian NGO World Vision is a good example of this: “World Vision is an international partnership of Christians whose mission is to follow our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God.”[24] Focus on the Family is another: ”[Our mission is] to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in disseminating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many people as possible, and, specifically, to accomplish that objective by helping to preserve traditional values and the institution of the family.”[25] Non-Christian NGOs display similar traits in their mission statements. Many Muslim NGOs refer to quotes from the Qur’an as well as sayings and stories of the Prophet Muhammad, expressing the religious duty to help people in need. For instance, on its website, the Kuwaiti organization International Islamic Charitable Organization states that it has “the desire to implement the message of Islamic brotherhood as referred to in the Prophet’s hadith, ‘The relationship of the believer with another believer is like (the bricks of) a building, each strengthens the other.’”[26] Likewise, most Buddhist, Hindu and Jewish NGOs mention religious values and ideas in their mission statements. Thus, whereas non-religious NGOs tend to find their motivation in rights-oriented conceptions of justice, religious NGOs are often motivated by conceptions of a divine justice and man’s duty to work for the realisation of this. Religious discourses have, through the articulation of absolute moral structures and a positioning of the NGO within these structures, a great potential for functioning precisely as a motivating factor for collective actors.

This religiously grounded motivation does not necessarily result in religiously defined fields of work or goals. The United Methodist Church, for instance, argues for the establishment of an international criminal court from a religiously based conception of justice. The church explains its participation in such activities through a biblical motivation, as expressed in a resolution formulated by the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society: ”You shall not render an unjust judgement; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbour (Leviticus, 19:15)”.[27]

Goals and fields of work

As organizations involved in issues of social and economic development, most of the religious NGOs formulate their goals within fields of work such as environmental protection, social justice, humanitarian aid, education and culture. However, by virtue of their religiosity, they also introduce a new field of work – namely religious promotion, understood here as a broad range of activities related to strengthening or promotion of religion (most often one’s own, but sometimes religion more generally). For the sake of argument we might therefore, although somewhat simplistically, divide the goals and fields of work of the religious NGOs into two, namely secular and religious. That environmental protection, social justice, humanitarian aid, education, culture and similar fields of work are characterised as secular does not mean that one cannot take a religious approach to working in these fields, but merely that they are not in and of themselves necessarily religious.

Among the religious NGOs, the largest group of NGOs (47 per cent) focuses solely on secular fields of work and goals, while few (almost 14 per cent) focus solely on religious promotion. A substantial number of organizations (almost 39 per cent), however, focuses on both secular fields and goals and on religious promotion (see table below). Some maintain a strict division between the two kinds of work, such as Conference of European Churches that divides its work into different programmes – theological dialogue belongs to one programme, women’s rights to another. For others, religious and secular goals are not mutually excluding, but closely connected. Thus, the promotion of Buddhist values and ideas may for some NGOs be intimately related to working for environmental changes, just like the building of mosques for others simultaneously serves to strengthen local community and spread the message of Islam.

Table 3: Goals and fields of work

Goals and fields of work Percentage of all religious NGOs
Culture and recreation, education, health, social services, environment, development and infrastructure, law, defense and politics 47.3 %
Religious promotion 13.9 %
Both categories 38.8 %
Total 100.0 %

Within the group of NGOs focusing simultaneously on religious promotion and secular fields of work and goals, Christian organizations are slightly overrepresented (75 per cent), while they are underrepresented in the group of organizations solely focusing on religious promotion (50 per cent). In this group, on the other hand, the spiritual organizations are slightly overrepresented (10 per cent), thus reflecting a tendency among these organizations to focus on otherworldly issues.


Just like the goals and fields of work, the concrete methods that religious NGOs use to achieve these goals can be divided into secular and religious; secular methods referring here to methods such as implementation of projects, research, conferences, lobbying, and advocacy, and religious methods to prayer, mission, religious education and theological studies. Again, it is important to underline that secular methods can be used to obtain religious goals, just like religious methods can be used to obtain secular goals. Thus, the distinction does not refer to the ultimate purpose of these methods, but merely to their design.

On an overall level, there seems to be no difference between NGOs from different religious affiliations – it is, for instance, not possible to distinguish between the methods used by Christian NGOs and the methods used by Muslim NGOs. Two-thirds of the organizations do not make use of religious methods at all. The majority of these are organizations that do not focus on religious goals or fields of work, e.g. Catholic Relief Services and Christian Children’s Fund. Among the organizations that focus on both religious and secular goals and fields of work, however, a relatively large part of the NGOs use religious methods. It is hardly a surprise that organizations focused on religious promotion would use religious methods to further this goal. But there are also some organizations that use religious methods to achieve secularly formulated goals. An example is Jubilee Debt Campaign, a movement consisting in non-religious as well as religious NGOs and with a so-called secular goal, namely global debt relief to the world’s poor countries. In 2003, Jubilee Debt Campaign introduced the World Debt Day, which has been celebrated every year since then. One of the initiatives related to this event has been the development of material to be used in religious ceremonies on the day, and on the movement’s website, one can find Christian, Muslim, and Jewish suggestions as to prayers and other worship activities. One of the prayers sounded like this:

Let us pray for rulers and heads of governments and of all international organizations, that they might strive ever more for a worldwide solidarity which assures the dignity due to people and peoples, attacking the very roots of injustice and suffering; and that they might implement effective measures to lighten the crushing debt of poorer nations.[28]

The prayer is here seen as a legitimate method for achieving a secularly formulated goal – a good example of how religious NGOs do not necessarily see any contrast between religious methods and non-religious goals.


While the orientation dimension focused on the functional aspects of the NGOs, the organization dimension turns on their substantial characteristics, based on factual, external descriptions and including aspects such as age, size and origin.


Introduced in the 1940s, the NGO concept as such is relatively young, and many therefore assume that the organizations it refers to are also young. And for non-religious NGOs this might in fact be true. Thus, e.g. Scholte points to the fact that less than 10 per cent of international organizations are established before 1960.[29] An examination of the age of religious NGOs, however, shows a different picture: Almost 50 per cent of the religious NGOs are established before 1950, the majority of these (25 per cent) in the period between 1926 and 1950. Most of the oldest NGOs are Christian, a large part of these established before 1900, while the Jewish NGOs are established in the period 1901-1950, and almost all Muslim NGOs after 1976. It is thus mainly due to the Christian NGOs that we find the great difference in age between non-religious and religious NGOs, while Muslim and to a certain degree Jewish NGOs reflect the same tendencies as non-religious NGOs.

Spread, size and origins

Most international NGOs have their origin and headquarters in Western Europe and North America, a tendency which is reflected among the religious NGOs at the UN. An examination of their origin shows that 75 per cent of the NGOs are from the North, while only 23 per cent are from the South. At the same time, measured by their age and geographical spread, the Northern NGOs are the largest and most well-established NGOs. While the group of NGOs from the South presents an overweight of regional NGOs, the group of Northern NGOs is dominated by more international NGOs. This situation is no different from the general NGO situation; far the most NGOs, whether they are religious or non-religious, are from the North. Thus, with regard to geographic spread and origin, there is nothing that separates religious and non-religious NGOs. There are, however, great internal differences between the different religious organizations. Whereas the Christian and Jewish NGOs are often found within the group of international NGOs from the North, the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu NGOs are typically more regionally oriented NGOs from the South.


As has been hinted at above, there is nothing that indicates that religious NGOs take a particular organizational form or shape. On the contrary, they – like NGOs in general – come in all kinds of shapes and forms, including more than 50 different kinds of organizational types.[30] Internally among the religious NGOs, the differences in structure sometimes cut across religious divides. Thus, while the Protestant NGOs are often decentrally organised, the Catholic NGOs are often based on hierarchical structures, centering the authority in one person. However, as pointed out by Hall (2001:81), the Catholic Church is a complex system, at once containing a variety of different structures. Thus, for instance the Catholic orders are much more decentrally organised than other Catholic organizations, and share similarities with many Jewish NGOs, often based on what Berger describes as a loose central coordinating structure.[31]

These differences in structure in the group of religious NGOs mirror the differences found among non-religious NGOs, and as such, it is not possible to distinguish religious NGOs from other kinds of NGOs. However, there is one structural aspect that presents potential differences between the two groups, namely that of formal attachment to or affiliation with established religious structures and institutions. Within the group of Christian NGOs, for instance, 25 per cent are in some way or another formally attached to religious structures or institutions.[32] An example of this is the NGO Adventist Development and Relief Agency, established by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and as such considered an integrated part of the church. Another example is the World Council of Churches, an umbrella organization for more than 340 churches in over 100 countries.

Members and target groups

In relation to members and donors, the religious identity of the organizations plays an important role. Many organizations define their membership base in religious terms – the Baptist World Alliance, for instance, talks of ‘member churches’.[33] Other organizations are not membership-based, but find their donors primarily among a religiously defined constituency. Thus, on their websites, many Muslim organizations advertise for the possibility of paying the Islamic tax, zakat, through their organization, just like they use religious quotes to encourage people to donate, thereby implicitly addressing a religious audience. However, when it comes to target groups, or beneficiaries as they are often called, the majority of NGOs promote a much more universalist and inclusive approach, claiming to provide aid without regard to religious affiliation, often justifying this approach in religious terms. An example is the British NGO Islamic Relief, on its website stating that the organization is dedicated to alleviating the poverty and suffering of the world’s poorest people, regardless of race, religion or gender, and supplementing this statement with a quote from the Qur’an (5:32): “Whoever saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind.”[34] A few organizations are more exclusivist and particularistic, focusing primarily or solely on religiously defined constituencies. An example of this is the International Islamic Charitable Organization, another Muslim NGO. On its website, the organization states that “IICO was founded to meet the increasing urgent needs of poor societies especially in Moslem (sic) countries where poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, diseases, famine, and other difficult situations are persisting.”[35] In this aspect, there does not seem to be any major differences between the various religious groups – universalist and particularist approaches can be found among all kinds of religious NGOs. Instead, Hall suggests that the difference lies elsewhere; namely in the theology of the organization.[36] According to him, theologically conservative NGOs tend to be exclusivist, while theologically progressive organizations are more inclusivist in their definition of target groups.

Regardless of whether they direct their work exclusively at religiously defined beneficiaries or take a more universalist approach, religious NGOs tend to focus more on religious groups, communities and individuals than non-religious NGOs do, paying more attention to problems related to religion, such as the persecution of religious minorities and other violations of the freedom of religion. For instance, when comparing the statements produced by religious NGOs and non-religious NGOs to four different ECOSOC sessions, we find that 38 per cent of the statements brought up by religious NGOs are related to religion, while only 16 per cent of statements by non-religious NGOs are.[37] At the same time, however, there are certain conflicts that some religious NGOs do not see – either because they cannot or because they do not want to see them. For instance, many religious NGOs seem to view gender-related problems as at best irrelevant, at worst a threat to their religious integrity, often choosing to either ignore such problems or to directly oppose their solution, something we will take a closer look at in the following section.


Whereas the two previous dimensions focused on aspects such as structure, organization, functions and purpose, the third dimension, that of positioning, centres on the NGOs in their context, exploring the relations they enter into with other actors. Here it is particularly relevant to study their relations to the UN; to the member states of the UN, and to other NGOs, be they religious or non-religious.

Relations to the United Nations

The NGOs’ relations to the UN are expressed through a range of different activities, including lobbying, implementation of projects and monitoring. Some activities, such as lobbying, often take place at a global level, in relation to the UN headquarters and global conferences, while implementation of projects and monitoring are activities that take place at a national level, often as individual partnerships between specific NGOs and UN organs such as UNICEF, UNDP and UNHCR. Such national level partnerships are pragmatic by nature and often characterised by a high degree of consensus and a will to cooperate on both sides. This is true for religious as well as non-religious NGOs, but there are certain aspects of the religious NGOs that mean that these can present certain strengths for this particular type of partnership. For instance, as some of the oldest international NGOs, the religious NGOs often have a thorough historical knowledge of the areas in which they work and they are solidly anchored in the local population, partly due to their connections to established religious structures.

On the global level, however, the religious connection can result in great tensions between the UN and religious NGOs. Here, it is about principled and political discussions rather than practical consensus-seeking, and as representatives of ‘absolute truths’ religious NGOs have great potential for being difficult partners in negotiations. Whereas at national level the different UN organs are free to choose their partners according to the degree of consensus encountered, at the global level the institution is compelled to include also strongly critical NGOs. Especially right-wing Christian NGOs from USA are critical of the UN, but a few Muslim and Jewish NGOs support this criticism, as expressed by a Muslim NGO in the following:

The Saudi-based Muslim World League was the only Muslim organization to send a delegation to the Beijing Conference to set forth clear Islamic opposition to voluntary abortion and coercive family-planning programmes, and to challenge the secular, materialist premises upon which the [UN] initiative and its working document are based.[38]

Many of these religious NGOs do not feel that they have good possibilities for cooperation with the UN system. Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, points out that whereas progressive NGOs have good possibilities for influencing the system due to overlapping attitudes with many UN organs and staff, it is more difficult for conservative NGOs: ”We find that most of our friends are in the developing world within the General Assembly, and we have very few friends in the UN bureaucracy”.[39] This suggests a conflict, not only between the UN and certain religious NGOs, but between these NGOs and other NGOs whose attitudes to a higher degree match those of the UN organs and staff.

Relations to states

Many of the NGOs that are critical towards the UN find their partners among states supporting their views, just like NGOs generally seek to establish partnerships with states that are ready to fight for specific causes. These partnerships do not always follow national categories – some NGOs have close cooperation with the states of their origin, while others are in open conflict with ‘their’ state. In relation specifically to religious NGOs, an interesting topic is the relation between religious NGOs and states that in one way or another also express a strong religious connection, in particular Israel, the Vatican State and some Muslim-majority states. Do religious NGOs prefer cooperation with such states over more secularly oriented states?

The relation between Israel and the Jewish NGOs within the UN system has to be seen in the context of the UN’s relations with Israel. Despite the determining role of the UN in the creation of Israel, the relationship has been marked by conflicts. Not until 2000 was Israel (provisionally) included in one of the UN regional groupings, a precondition for membership of the Security Council and other major UN organs. Also, the state has been subject to more investigations than any other member state. Finally, the 1975 resolution declaring Zionism a form of racism has been a source for continuous controversy. The resolution was annulled in 1991, but the equation between Zionism and racism continues to be a topic of heated discussion within the UN system.[40] While some Jewish NGOs are ambivalent in their relation to the Israeli state and its politics, most do seem to express some degree of sympathy, formulated partly as a support to the country’s Palestine policy, partly as a critique of the UN treatment of Israel. Even the most progressive Jewish NGOs do not directly oppose or criticise the Israeli state. However, primarily conservative NGOs have entered into cooperation with Israel.

The relation to the Vatican State is even more deeply marked by internal division. Many religious NGOs support the Vatican State as the sole authentic voice of Catholicism. In addition to this, a great number of Catholic NGOs also have a formal relation to the Vatican State, since they have been officially recognised by the Vatican. But other Christian NGOs also cooperate with the Vatican State and consider its presence at the UN as a guarantee for the upholding of religious values. Austin Ruse, for instance, says that ”[t]he Holy See provides a kind of moral leadership that, really, nobody else has at the United Nations”.[41] Likewise, many Muslim countries and NGOs have cooperated with the Vatican State in relation to specific topics such as abortion, women’s rights and homosexuals’ rights. An example of this is the rejection of the resolution on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, introduced by Brazil in March 2004. Opposition from the Vatican State and the OIC was massive and they succeed in convincing the 53 members of the Human Rights Commission to vote against it. There were even rumours that the OIC had threatened to mobilise trade sanctions.[42] At the same time, however, a large group of Catholic NGOs are highly critical towards the Vatican State’s special status at the UN and its pronounced conservative attitude towards women’s rights. As a consequence, a group consisting of more than 800 NGOs, lead by Catholics for a Free Choice, has launched the campaign See Change with the purpose of substituting the Vatican State’s current status as ‘non-member state with permanent observer status’ with a more humble status as NGO. As stated on the website of the campaign:

NGO status would allow the Holy See to continue to advocate for its positions, but without the benefit of a special platform for its views. Seeking NGO status for the Holy See is not anti-Catholic – indeed, it would protect the rights of all religions at the UN and the right of the institutional Catholic Church to be heard and appreciated as a religious body, not as a quasi-governmental entity.[43]

Neither support to Israel nor to the Vatican State seems to be determined by religious affiliation, but rather by political attitudes towards women’s rights and Palestine.

The relationship between Muslim states, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and Muslim NGOs is somewhat harder to characterise since the Muslim states do not make up a homogenous group. Some NGOs have close cooperation with certain Muslim states, whereas others are in conflict with these. There are a number of NGOs who have formal or informal connections to Muslim states. Often, Muslim NGOs will cooperate informally with Muslim states on specific issues, including e.g. Palestine, women’s rights or freedom of speech, as was seen recently in relation to Durban II. An example of more formal NGO-state cooperation is the partnership between the interstate organization, Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and a number of Muslim NGOs, including the Kuwaiti International Islamic Charitable Organization, enjoying observer status at the OIC and receiving occasional funding from the organization’s various funds. Likewise, the Saudi Arabian International Islamic Relief Organization is part of the semi-governmental umbrella organization Muslim World League, and as such, must be expected to be closely related to the Saudi government. A final, far more problematic, example of NGO-state relations is the NGO World Islamic Call Society, which by many has been accused of being a so-called front organization for the leader of Libya, Muammar Ghadaffi. Naturally, such close relations between state and NGOs is not a unique Muslim phenomenon – examples hereof can be found among Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Hindu organizations as well among non-religious organizations.

Relations to other NGOs

While there is very little established cooperation between religious NGOs from the same religious group, there are quite a few examples of cross-religious cooperation and partnerships, often including non-religious NGOs. Thus, cooperation seems to cut across the divides between religious and non-religious NGOs as well as between different religious groups. Instead, the divides between so-called progressive and conservative organizations seems to be a defining factor in structuring the relations between NGOs.

An illustrative example of this divide is the UN conference on women, Beijing + Five, in 2000, which was marked by severe conflicts between on the one side right-wing Christian NGOs from USA, often in cooperation with politically conservative Catholic and Muslim NGOs; and on the other side politically left-wing, or progressive, NGOs, non-religious as well as religious. The progressive wing was organised in, among others, the NGO network WomenAction 2000, consisting in both non-religious and religious NGOs. Of religious NGOs in this network can be mentioned Catholics for a Free Choice and Ecumenical Women 2000+. The conservative wing was dominated by four North American NGOs, the World Family Policy Center, the Howard Center, the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute and the Family Research Center, all conservative evangelicals. But certain Muslim and Catholic NGOs also played an important role. Thus, asked who had been the strongest ally of the coalition in the UN, Austin Ruse answered: “The Muslims have been true blue. They are undivided and strong enough stand up to the pressure of the U.S. and UN. We have also gotten good support from Latin America but some Latin countries have fought us all the way. The only consistent support has come from the Muslims.”[44]

The turning point for the conflict was the question of women’s and homosexuals’ rights – by the conservative wing understood as a direct attack on a God given traditional family structure and therefore ungodly, and by the progressive wing understood as (possibly god given) human rights. Even during preparations to the Beijing Plus Five conference, there were tensions between the conservative and progressive NGOs. In December 1999, Austin Ruse sent a letter to members of the conservative pro-family network through the news bulletin Friday Fax. In this he strongly condemns the so-called ’radical feminists’ and their attempts to promote abortion and other anti-family values such as rights of homosexuals and reproductive rights in general. The letter ends with an almost Messianic call to like-minded NGOs to participate in the conference with the purpose to fight these progressive forces:[45]

We must rise to this challenge! You personally are needed in New York, even if you have never done this before / We will accredit you / We will train you / We will give you assignments in many different areas, like directly lobbying diplomats / This will be the experience of a lifetime / You will work alongside Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslim, Mormons. We are the children of Abraham arising to fight for faith and family / You are being called right now!

The tensions increased during the conference. The network WomenAction 2000 published during the conference daily newsletters with information on different activities. In one of these newsletters is mentioned that “On Tuesday the lesbian caucus facilitated a panel discussion on sexuality and human rights […] The tension was tangible as many people noticed men in robes, women and men holding bibles and wearing ambiguous buttons. After days of reports of intimidation, people were unsure of what to expect.”[46] Other articles refer to problems of surveillance, conscious misquoting of statements in the right-wing newsletter Vivant as well as ”harassing phone calls”.[47] Furthermore, the progressive NGOs accused the conservative NGOs for signing up an excessive number of representatives from each organization in attempts to surpass the progressive wing if not in the number of participating NGOs then in the number of participating individuals. Seven conservative anti-feminist groups had thus signed up more than 350 individuals to the conference, among these 30 from the organization Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.[48] The conservative NGOs also tell of discriminating behaviour from the opponents:

During a meeting of the Linkage Caucus at Beijing+5 40 pro-lifers attended out of more than 200. Maria Giovine explains that ’every time one of us tried to speak we were shouted down. They would begin chanting that we were bought and sold by the Vatican’. At the same meeting Maurice McBride, a conservative lawyer from Virginia, tried to speak and was also drowned out. A witness said the radical feminists ’laughed at him and booed.’[49]

Or as Peter Smith, UN lobbyist for International Right to Life Federation, says: “The other side believes the UN is their own private playground. They have never wanted us here and will do practically anything to keep us out, including using lies and physical intimidation. The fact is that we are outnumbered and outspent here. We have no choice but to follow all the rules and be as polite as we can be.”[50] However, despite this alleged discrimination of conservative NGOs, they – and their allies among conservative Muslim and Catholic states – won what they considered to be great victories during the conference. The final document did not contain any references to homosexuals’ rights or abortion, and progressive states and NGOs had to fight to even maintain the language from the original 1995 Beijing document.

Conclusions and suggestions for future research

The main purpose of the present analysis was to give a systematic, empirically based overview of a group of religious organizations involved in development activities, thereby contributing to a more nuanced understanding of religious organizations. Focusing religious NGOs in the UN system as the objects of my analysis, I have sought to provide a thorough description of these actors, discussing various dimensions of their work and identity. This included the orientation of the NGOs, their organization, their positioning within the context in which they act, and finally the significance of their religious connection to these other dimensions. As such, the analysis has first and foremost provided us with empirical examples of a group of religious NGOs. At the same time, however, it has directed attention towards a range of conditions particular to this group of actors, opening up for new research fields. One issue encouraging further research is the fact that Muslim NGOs are severely underrepresented within the group of religious NGOs with consultative status at the UN (and among international religious NGOs in general). This raises a number of questions, relevant to our understanding of international NGOs and the role of religion in these organizations. Is the apparent lack of international Muslim NGOs a sign that Muslims tend to organise in other ways than Western-style NGOs? Or does it have to do with the fact that many Muslims live under highly authoritarian regimes, making it difficult for them to organise freely? Or do international Muslim NGOs exist, but avoid cooperation with the UN, finding alternative venues for international cooperation?

Another interesting topic for future research is the divide between progressive and conservative religious NGOs. As the analysis has shown, this divide often seems to be of greater importance to the NGOs’ positioning within global civil society than the divide between religious and non-religious NGOs. A way of approaching this topic could be to analyse religious NGOs’ attitudes towards a range of global problems such as the international criminal court, women’s rights, homosexuals’ rights, and human rights in general. Such an analysis might furthermore contribute to a deconstruction of the conception of religious actors as immanently conservative. As this analysis has shown, the group of religious NGOs includes so-called progressives as well as conservatives.

Apart from presenting new research fields, the analysis has provided us with an idea of what role religion plays for the religious NGOs, and it has sketched important differences internally among these organizations as well as between religious and non-religious NGOs. The analysis has demonstrated that the religious NGOs are a heterogeneous group of conservatives and progressives, international and regional, small and big, old and young. Some religious NGOs focus solely on non-religiously defined work areas, whereas others see religious promotion as their most important work area. Some are eager supporters of the values of the UN and work hard to promote these; others see the Declaration of Human Rights as blasphemy and do what they can to change it. Some direct their work solely towards religiously defined members and target groups, while others include non-religious people and people of other religions in their work. These groupings do not always follow religious divides but go across these and each other.

This does not mean that there are no differences between religious and non-religious NGOs, however. Based on their religiosity, religious NGOs sometimes introduce alternative ways of orienting, organising and positioning themselves. They can be manifested in a myriad of different ways, and nothing indicates that they can be interpreted as solely positive or negative for development. The question of thematic focus illustrates this ambivalence. On one hand, their religiosity often means that these NGOs pay special attention to religiously related problems which are often overlooked by non-religious NGOs. On the other hand, it is precisely their religiosity that means that some NGOs are unwilling to deal with certain sensitive problems, in particular problems related to gender equality and women’s rights. Another example is the importance of religion as motivating factor. We know that for almost all religious NGOs, religiosity plays a crucial role as motivation, but we cannot generalise about the ways in which this motivation is put in use. Finally, the long history of many of these organizations and their connections to religious institutions might on one hand facilitate and strengthen their relationship to local communities, giving them a unique knowledge of the context and providing them with possibilities for building on already established relationships of trust. On the other hand, such pre-established sympathies might make it difficult for religious NGOs to enter local communities in an open and un-biased manner, and to avoid being part of local conflicts between different religious groups.

In other words, the religious aspect is indeed significant but it is a significance that is continuously expressed in widely differing ways and with widely differing consequences. In itself, religiosity is not necessarily a characteristic that tells us anything about the person or organization possessing it. If we want to understand religious organizations we cannot merely characterise them as religious, based on a prejudiced conception of the significance of religion, and leave it at that. Instead we have to examine how, when and why these actors are religious. As Knox rightly puts it: “Religion at the UN will be what religious groups and the UN make of it. In other words, religion at the UN is no different from religion anywhere else in the world.”[51]

Marie Juul Petersen is a PhD student in sociology of religion at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Her current research focuses on international Muslim NGOs and their ideologies of aid.


[1] Kurt Alan Ver Beek, ’Spirituality: a development taboo’, Development in Practice, vol. 10, no. 1 (2000), p. 31.

[2] Emil de Kadt, ’Should God play a role in development’, Journal of International Development, vol. 21, no. 6 (2009).

[3] See Ben Jones and Marie Juul Petersen, ’Religion and Development: A Review of the Literature’, forthcoming, for a discussion of the research field of religion and development as well as the reasons for its emergence.

[4] See José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994)

[5] See e.g. Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton (eds.), Altruism in the World’s Religions (Washington D.C: Georgetown University Press, 2005)

[6] Rick James, ‘What is Distinctive about FBOs?’, INTRAC, Praxis Paper no. 22 (2009), p.5

[7] See e.g. Marie Juul Petersen, ’Islamizing Aid: Transnational Muslim NGOs After 9.11.’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Non-Profit Organizations, forthcoming (2011).

[8] James, ‘What is Distinctive about FBOs?’, p. 7.

[9] Duncan McDuie-Ra and John A. Rees (2008), ‘Religious actors, civil society and the development agenda: the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion’, Arts Papers and Journal Articles, University of Notre Dame Australia, p. 2

[10] See Deepa Narayan et al, Voices of the Poor (Washington D.C: World Bank, 2000).

[11] For further information about the Dutch Knowledge Forum for Religion and Development Policy, see For the Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics,; and for the seminar series Faith and Development,

[12] See for information on the Birmingham research programme; and for information on Berkley’s programme and on the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

[13] E.g. Katherine Marshall and Lucy Keough, Mind, Heart, and Soul in the Fight against Poverty (Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 2004) and Wendy Tyndale, Visions of Development. Faith-Based Initiatives (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006).

[14] E.g. Severine Deneulin and Masooda Bano, Religion in Development. Rewriting the Secular Script (London: Zed Books 2009); Jeffrey Haynes, Religion and Development. Conflict or Cooperation? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2007); Jenny Lunn, ‘The Role of Religion, Spirituality and Faith in Development. A critical theory approach’, Third World Quarterly vol. 30, no. 5 (2009); Leah Selinger, ‘The Forgotten Factor: The Uneasy Relationship between Religion and Development’, Social Compass vol. 51, no. 4 (2004).

[15] E.g. Gerard Clarke, ‘Faith Matters. Faith-Based Organisations, Civil Society and International Development’, Journal of International Development vol. 18 (2006); Gerard Clarke and Michael Jennings Development, Civil Society and Faith-Based Organizations (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2008); Ronald J. Sider and Heidi Rolland Unruh, ‘Typology of Religious Characteristics of Social Service and Educational Organizations and Programs’, Voluntary Sector Quarterly vol. 33 no. 1 (2004).

[16] E.g. Stephen J. Plant, ‘International Development and Belief in Progress’, Journal of International Development vol. 21 (2009); Emma Tomalin, ‘Religion and a Rights-Based Approach to Development’, Progress in Development Studies vol. 6, no. 2 (2006).

[17] E.g. Erica Bornstein, The Spirit of Development. Protestant NGOs, Morality, and Economics in Zimbabwe (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2005); Tamsin Bradley, ‘Does Compassion Bring Results? A critical Perspective on Faith and Development’, Culture and Religion, vol. 6, no. 3 (2005)

[18] E.g. Christopher Candland, ‘Faith as Social Capital: Religion and Community Development in Southern Asia’, Policy Sciences vol. 33, no. 3 (2001); Janine Clark, Islam, Charity, and Activism. Middle-Class Networks and Social Welfare in Egypt, Jordan, and Yemen (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 2004); Mayke Kaag, ‘Transnational Islamic NGOs in Chad: Islamic Solidarity in the Age of Neoliberalism’, Africa Today vol. 54, no. 3 (2009).

[19] Exceptions are Julia Berger, ‘Religious Non-governmental Organizations: An Exploratory Analysis’, Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, vol.14, no. 1 (2003) and John Boli and David V. Brewington, ‘Religious Organizations’ in Peter Beyer and Lori Beaman, eds., Religion, Globalization and Culture (Leiden and Boston: Brill 2007), pp.203-231. However, while both provide in-depth descriptions of organizational and structural aspects of religious NGOs, they deal only sporadically with the role of religion in this.

[20] Boli and Brewington, ‘Religious Organizations’, p. 207.

[21] United Nations Charter, chapter X, Article 71, available at: (accessed May 2010)

[22] For discussions of the role of NGOs in the UN system, see Peter Willetts, ed., The Conscience of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organizations in the UN System (Hurst & Company, London 1996).

[23] The category ’other religions’ includes, among others, Baha’i, Shinto religion, Zoroastrian religion and indigenous peoples’ religions.

[24] World Vision International, (accessed December 2009).

[25] Focus on the Family, (accessed December 2009)

[26] International Islamic Charitable Organization, (accessed November 2010).

[27] Faith and Ethics Caucus for an International Criminal Court, Information Packet for Faith-Based Organizations (American NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court 2002), p. 9, available at: (accessed December 2004)

[28] Jubilee Debt Campaign, (accessed December 2009).

[29] Jan Aart Scholte, ‘Global Civil Society: Changing the World?’, Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, Working Paper No. 31/99, (1999), p. 13, available at: (accessed December 2004).

[30] Berger, ‘Religious Non-governmental Organizations: An Exploratory Analysis’, p. 27.

[31] Ibid. p. 28.

[32] Organizations with formal relations to religious structures are often some of the oldest NGOs.

[33] Baptist World Alliance, (accessed October 2009).

[34] Islamic Relief, (accessed October 2009).

[35] International Islamic Charitable Organization, (accessed October 2009).

[36] Peter Dobkin Hall, ‘Historical Perspectives on Religion, Government and Social Welfare in America’, in Andrew Walsh, ed., Can Charitable Choice Work? Covering Religion’s Impact on Urban Affairs and Social Services (Hartford: Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College 2001), p. 82.

[37] This analysis was based on statements produced in relation to annual sessions in the Human Rights Commission, the Sub Commission for Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the Commission for Social Development and the Commission for the Status of Women, 2001-2003.

[38] Anisa Abd el Fattah, ‘UN Family Planning Agency launches another war front in Central Asia region’, Muslimedia International (2002), available at: (accessed December 2004).

[39] Cf.Geoffrey Knox, ed., Religion and Public Policy at the UN (Illinois: Park Ridge Center 2002), p. 28.

[40] Ibid., p. 20.

[41] Ibid., p. 24.

[42] Betsy Pisik, ‘Homosexual rights resolution withdrawn at United Nations’, Washington Times, 30.03. (2004), available at: (accessed December 2004).

[43] See Change, (accessed November 2009).

[44] Clare MacDonnell, ‘A Catholic Voice in the Wilderness of the UN’, interview with Austin Ruse, Catholic Herald (2000), available at: (accessed December 2004).

[45] Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Friday Fax, vol. 3, no. 07.04. (2000), available at: (accessed December 2004).

[46] WomenAction, Daily Newsletter, no. 13 (2000) (accessed December 2004).

[47] Ibid.

[48] Knox, Religion and Public Policy at the UN, p. 9.

[49] Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Friday Fax, vol. 3, no.16.06. (2000), available at: (accessed December 2004).

[50] Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, Friday Fax, vol. 3, no. 07.04. (2000), available at: (accessed December 2004).

[51] Knox, Religion and Public Policy at the UN, p. 50)

2 Responses to International Religious NGOs at The United Nations: A Study of a Group of Religious Organizations

  1. Mrs K. Rahaman says:

    It is very essential to extend the developmental co-operation among the world wide Muslims in the fields of education,health, general awareness, global political situation, etc. in the better interest of the Islamic world for survival and sustainable growth.

  2. Ginger Eclipse says:

    As a Christian religious educational non profit org, we are considering joining the UN ECOSOC NGO. Do you have a listing of specific Christian NGO’s that you can forward to me so that I can call them to learn more about their functions and fields of work as it may closely resemble our organization?
    Thank you for your help.