Attaching Strings in Faith-based Humanitarian Work

Argument over aid comes with "strings attached"

There is argument over whether aid comes with “strings attached”. Source: and

A lot of humanitarian organisations claim to provide aid with “no strings attached.”

What are the “strings” that could have been “attached”? They must be bad, right?

Is it even possible to have “no strings attached”?

I’ll attempt to answer those questions from a biblical Christian perspective.

What are “strings”?

It’s a loose term – “no strings attached.” Nevertheless it carries well-understood meaning. Many faith-based and secular humanitarian NGOs have signed up to the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. It states that in disaster response: “Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.” This Code has gained popularity as a guide for all humanitarian programs – whether development or disaster relief.

“Strings attached” carries with it the connotation of selfishly motivated coercion. “Furthering a religious standpoint” is a little more neutral. But the choice of words “religious” and “standpoint” still make it sound “old school.” And probably also more polemical than if it was, say, “furthering spiritual wellbeing.” That would probably be acceptable in today’s mainstream culture.

Let’s test this language out with concrete examples.

Thirst No More

A US aid group, Thirst No More, was thrown out of South Sudan’s Darfur region for stockpiling Bibles without providing justification to the Muslim rulership. The abovementioned Code of Conduct was not followed, and the aid work was forced to end prematurely.


Ten IAM medical workers were killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2010 for no more than being part of a Christian NGO. They did not proselytize. Some of those murdered were more humanist than Christian, yet suspicions were raised simply because of the name of their organization. The above Code was followed, but the outcome was still disastrous.

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa is widely regarded as one of the great humanitarians of the 20th century. Her tireless work for the poor of Calcutta was recognized with no less than a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the leader of a Hindu organization in India stirred national controversy when he said of her work: “It’s good to work for a cause with selfless intentions. But Mother Teresa’s work had an ulterior motive, which was to convert the person who was being served to Christianity.”

This was not the only criticism of Mother Teresa and her work. Prominent atheist Christopher Hitchens concluded that Mother Teresa was “less interested in helping the poor than in using them as an indefatigable source of wretchedness on which to fuel the expansion of her fundamentalist Roman Catholic beliefs.” Mother Teresa is reported to have had a reputation for proselytizing.

Mother Teresa apparently did not follow the Code, but the outcome of her lifework was largely positive in the eyes of most observers.

Policy statements of humanitarian organisations

A number of faith-based humanitarian organisations and donors expressly prohibit proselytisation, which is defined as:

“Activities undertaken with the intention of converting individuals or groups from one faith and/or denominational affiliation to another” (ACFID Code of Conduct Section F).

Prohibitions against proselytisation or even evangelism are variously justified along lines which appear to take a moral high ground, such as:

We believe that love, as embodied in Jesus and which is the motive for our work, is unconditional.. People have inherent dignity and basic rights and so they should be supported without an eye for their potential for conversion. It is important to us that we serve communities for their sake, not our own. The distinction of proselytising and development helps us as churches to be more true to God’s unconditional love embodied in Jesus. Our action is meaningful in itself as service to our neighbour. It doesn’t need to be justified by other reasons, and must never be reduced to becoming an instrument for other purposes. (Australian Church Agency Network Statement on Proselytisation and Poverty, Feb 2014)

This reasoning looks sound but it actually introduces profound cognitive dissonance for the Christian.

Jesus’ Example and Instruction

Let’s see how Jesus approached His humanitarian ministry:

His instructions to His disciples in Matthew 10:7-23:

“And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.

“Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet….

“And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.”

In Matthew 11:5 He gave this report of His work:

“The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.”

Jesus’ instructions for ministry merge religious persuasion with humanitarian intervention. Even to the point of moving to another group of people when the proposed ‘religious standpoint’ is rejected.

Note that Jesus’ instructions were not specifically for disaster relief. This is an important distinction, as I’m not necessarily questioning the Red Cross Code of Conduct itself so much as the apparent overreach in its general application across a broad range of humanitarian work.

What did Jesus actually do Himself? Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well as documented in John 4. The woman’s felt need was humanitarian. She needed water, but was marginalized so came at an odd time of day. Instead of helping her draw water, Jesus asked her for a drink. He then offered her living water. Jesus went straight to her spiritual need and offered eternal life.

She presented with a physical need, but Jesus offered a spiritual solution.

If the Red Cross and Red Crescent Code existed two thousand years ago, we would probably have to conclude that Jesus didn’t follow it either. He regularly got into trouble for failing to keep quiet on the religious front. He didn’t just heal the paralytic, for example, but ruffled feathers of the religious establishment when He offered forgiveness of sins.

Rick Warren

Rick Warren is the pastor of one of the biggest megachurch congregations in the world – Saddleback. They work with aid agencies all over the world tackling a range of issues including health care and AIDS in Africa. Warren’s perspective on “attaching strings” is instructive:

“All compassion should be without strings. If it is not unconditional, then it’s not compassion… I don’t believe in coercion, but I do believe in persuasion. Everybody is trying to persuade everybody else — but it has to be fair.”


Rick Warren comes the closest to resolving our original questions from a Christian perspective. For me he comes closer than the Australian Church Agency Network’s resolution.

The Church Agency Network’s statements seem to do more to appease those who would be offended by the gospel of Jesus than they do to honour the God who commanded us to share the gospel of His kingdom.

Rick Warren highlighted an important distinction. “Strings attached” are never acceptable where coercion is involved. But persuasion is an entirely different matter, particularly when the subject is the good news of eternal life in Jesus.

You may have noticed the flawed logic in a couple of the above examples. The Hindu leader insinuated that Mother Teresa’s motives in proclaiming the good news of Christianity necessarily involved selfish ulterior motives. The criticism of Hitchens and the Hindu leader is actually hypocritical in that they also advocated for converts to their respective belief systems.

And is it fair – or even logical – to assume selfless motives for humanitarian aid for the poor, but selfish motives for sharing with them the gift of eternal life?

Donor countries often choose where to give depending on their own interests. Sources: and

If I was to generalize, I would assume the exact opposite. And with good support. There is a good argument that humanitarian aid always has strings attached. For example, distribution of non-food items such as torches or stoves after a disaster has the “attached string” of increasing the likely ongoing demand for batteries and fuel supplies. In fact many development and relief programs are laden with Western liberal capitalist values. This need not be coercive. In fact I am an active supporter and contributor to many of these programs. But, to be fair, the perception of attaching strings is warranted.

Further, since when is God’s desire for humanity’s conversion to Christianity selfish or coercive? I understand that evangelism may be perceived as “attaching strings.” I’ll happily take the risk of being accused, along with Mother Teresa, of having a hidden motive to convert everyone to Christianity. That’s a criticism worth wearing in following the gospel commission. In fact it’s a risk Jesus thought was worth taking too. But Jesus’ motive for sharing the gift of eternal life, rather than being coercive and selfish, is literally self-sacrificing love.

Cognitive Dissonance for the Christian

A lot of statements against mixing proselytism and development insinuate that evangelism is somehow selfish, coercive and exploitative. Sure, evangelism has been done that way. Evangelism done that way is wrong from every angle!

But Jesus commands us to evangelise, and to do so on the basis of love and liberation. My argument is that true evangelism has no strings attached. If it has strings attached, it’s not the good news of Jesus Christ.

However evangelism and proselytism are very much a dirty words in development circles.

Yet Jesus did it. So was Jesus dirty?

Are Christian development professionals who are argue against evangelism actually personally grateful for the gospel? Yet apparently don’t wish to share the greatest gift ever (forgiveness and eternal life) because they believe it’s fundamentally coercive? That’s a profound piece of cognitive dissonance that I’ve never been able to resolve. Because I don’t think it can be resolved – it’s logically inconsistent and unsustainable.

I think a fundamental rethink and rewrite of key policy statements is required, to remove what appear to me to be damaging, un-Christian insinuations. Of course I’m sure they’re not intended to be so, but yet that’s still the way the come across when compared with Jesus life and teachings.

A Reaction to the Atheist’s Cognitive Dissonance

This cognitive dissonance has been made easy to live with, accept, ignore, and even miss because:

  • The secular atheist West (in Europe and Australia in particular) believes all evangelism (and all religion for that matter) is coercive, so Christians have unwittingly taken that feedback on board in order to deal with their cognitive dissonance.
  • Donor government funding and the approval of recipient governments are streamlined if faith-based agencies distance themselves from their faith’s call to proclamation.
  • There has been so much said, written, felt, experienced, thought, acted, voted, etc, along the lines of separating development and evangelism that it has become second nature to Christian development workers to keep them separate.

If someone tries to tell me that evangelism necessarily is attaching strings, then I would respond that if that’s what the Christian gospel commission is by definition, then I reject Christianity. I want to be something else that isn’t coercive. That’s the only way I can solve the cognitive dissonance for myself.

I’m hoping that through this conversation people within faith-based agencies begin to realise the presence of this cognitive dissonance that’s arisen because they’ve patched over the cognitive dissonance of the atheist in a way that isn’t, in my opinion, biblical or Christian.

Burning Townships

Imagine you live near the townships of Kinglake and Marysville northeast of Melbourne. The year is 2009 – just before the Black Saturday bushfires. Your neighbourhood is safe from the fires. But just a few kilometres away, people’s houses and very lives are at risk. You can think of two options:

  1. Go to Kinglake with a carload of wet towels and barrels of water to help people prepare their houses for the coming bushfires.
  2. Go to Kinglake with the same carload and offer, but in addition, when you’ve unloaded everything, offer to take as many people as you can back to your own house to save their lives.

The second option is no more coercive – it attaches no more strings – than offering people eternal salvation from sin and death through Jesus. That’s assuming the Christian gospel and worldview is actually believed.


It is definitely true that evangelism can be done in a coercive and selfish way. Unfortunately it has been done that way. Often. But sharing the good news of eternal life in Jesus should be the most selfless and loving thing possible.

It is sad that many Christians now feel that the better model for humanitarian work is to keep it separate from evangelism. They do great humanitarian work for the poor and marginalised. But much more could be done for their eternal and spiritual wellbeing. Of course great care needs to be taken to find the most appropriate and sensitive way to do this, but that’s another question for another time.

Jesus kept humanitarian work and evangelism very much together, and encourages us to do the same. Out of selfless love, not coercion.

I am very much encouraged to observe that Christian humanitarian organisations are already starting to reexamine their orientation toward mission in a way that is returning more toward a biblical Christian perspective. May that continue until the Christian’s cognitive dissonance is completely resolved.

Not because I’m partisan to the Christian club and want to knock the atheist, earn brownie points, or make my club bigger. God forbid! Rather, I believe in the love and freedom that comes from knowing God.

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