Understanding Faith-based Organisations in Pakistan

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Nida KirmaniNida Kirmani is a research fellow in the Religions and Development Research Programme.  Her primary research interests are related to religion, gender and development in South Asia. This article outlines current research into the characteristics and activities of faith-based organisations in Karachi, Pakistan, carried out as one component of the Religions and Development Research Programme.  More findings will be presented at the research programme’s international conference in Birmingham from 21 to 23 July 2010.

‘Faith-based organisations’ (FBOs) have attracted a great deal of positive and negative attention of late amongst scholars of development studies, practitioners, policy makers and donors.  Some sing the praises of FBOs as being more sincere, cost-effective, and in touch with the poor than secular NGOs.  Others are fearful that such organisations are by definition exclusionary, divisive, and promote a conservative agenda.  However, very little is actually known about FBOs, especially in the context of developing countries.  It is for this reason that the Religions and Development Research Programme has embarked on a study of faith-based organisations in order to understand what, if anything, makes these organisations distinctive from their secular counterparts and what contribution they are making to meeting development-related goals.

Mosque in Karachi

The issue of faith is especially fraught in the Pakistani context, where religion has been closely intertwined with politics since the country’s inception, so the research had to be approached with great sensitivity.  The research team focused on Karachi, which is the largest and most diverse city in the country and which has received multiple waves of migration from across the subcontinent.  Karachi also hosts a vibrant civil society which includes many organisations engaged in various forms of development work, ranging from large, international NGOs to countless small, local charities. This diversity made Karachi an ideal site in which to conduct the study.

The research demonstrated the problematic nature of the term ‘faith-based organisation’.  The term is not commonly used in Pakistan, but that does not mean that religion plays no role in development.  In fact, religion is intimately intertwined with notions of charity and social welfare.  For example, thousands of organisations, including several of those included in our study, depend on Islamic sources of charity such as zakat as their main source of funding and use this money to provide basic health and education to millions who may otherwise fall through the cracks of the system.  In this way, religiously motivated organisations are an intrinsic part of the country’s social safety net.

Rather than a clear distinction between ‘faith-based’ and ‘secular’ organisations, the research team found that in Karachi there is a broad difference between local charities that rely on individual donations and focus on meeting people’s immediate needs, and professional development organisations that are funded by institutional donors and prioritise long-term development and community empowerment.  It was often difficult to disentangle religion from the work of local charities, as so much of their funding is tied to religious forms of charity.  In contrast, religion has little or no place in the work of professional development organisations, many of which see religion as either personal or potentially divisive.  Hence, while the importance of religion cannot be denied, especially when it comes to the provision of social welfare, an organisation’s funding base and location within national and international networks has a stronger influence on its approach to development.

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