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Inside the faith-based discrimination controversy

Is it right for a faith-based aid organization to accept U.S. government funding, and with it only hire like-minded believers? Passport contributor Krista Kapralos discusses her recent trip to Mali, where she investigated the hiring practices of World Vision, which receives $250 million a US foreign aid grants.

Indonesian students sing a song during a trauma healing exercise organized by World Vision at their earthquake damaged school in West Sumatra, Oct. 6, 2009. For decades, World Vision has fought poverty and famine. Critics fault the organization for refusing to hire non-Christians to staff its $250 million in annual programs funded by U.S. taxpayers. (Dadang Tri/Reuters)



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Passport: Good afternoon and welcome everyone! It's Thursday Jan. 21, I'm David Case, Editor of GlobalPost Passport, in our Bosotn newsroom. Is it right for faith-based aid organizations to accept U.S. government funding and will it descriminate against people from other religions? That's the question that religion reporter Krista Kapralos explored on a recent reporting trip to Mali. As a candidate, Barack Obama addressed the issue. He promised to end such exclusionary hiring practices when using federal funds. As President, he has quietly allowed the organizations, like World Vision, which receives about a quarter of a billion dollars a year in taxpayer funding, to continue giving preferential treatment to Christians. A religion reporter with degrees in journalism and biblical studies, Krista has covered refugees, immigrants, and American Indians and she recently returned from Mali for GlobalPost where she looked into this question and World Vision's hiring practices.

Before we begin, please let me remind you that the call is being recorded and will be posted on Passport's website. As usual, I'm going to lead a Q and A that will last about 20 minutes. As the Q and A proceeds, if you'd like to ask a follow-up question to the topic that we're discussing, please feel free to jump in, we'd encourage you to do so, the calls are meant to be informal and your participation is welcomed and encouraged. Your lines are muted currently. To un-mute yourself before you speak, press *6. We ask that you identify yourself and be mindful of the time. We also have five or ten minutes at the end for unrelated questions.

Krista, your article addresses the question of whether an aid organization receiving U.S. taxpayer funding should be able to hire only people who share their religious faith, is that correct?

Kapralos: Yes, I traveled to Mali on a fellowship that I did through the internationcal center for journalists, who investigate this particular issue.

Passport: Ok, great. And in your lede to the article, to illustrate the issue, you used the case of a Muslim water engineer working on a World Vision project in Mali, in West Africa. Tell us about that, please.

Kapralos: Well, Bara Kassambara, who is the main main guy, who showed up in the lede of the story, is a Malian man, born and raised there, as far as my understanding, he's got years of development and aid experience, including working for World Vision for about a year and a half. He's a Muslim, he took a job with World Vision in order to work on a project called The West Africa Water Initiative, which was a multi-year project to improve water conditions in West Africa. So there were a lot of different agencies involved. Bara, like most Malians, knew that World Vision is a Christian organization. That wasn't an issue for him when he took the job. He really prides himself, he told me, on being open to learning about other faiths and really encourages camaraderie among people of different faiths. Once he began working for World Vision, he saw first hand how vital Christianity is to World Vision's culture. He told me that World Vision employees prayed together, held bible studies, talked about Jesus in the office on a regular basis, it was just part of the regular day in the office for Christianity to really be a focus. Bara told me that the Christian environment was one that would likely be uncomfortable for many Malian Muslims, especially those who may prefer to not be surrounded by Christianity. He told me that he never had any problems there because of his faith. And he told me that his strategy was to really focus on the water sanitation work and he also said that many World Vision workers even assumed that he was a Christian. So he left his position with World Vision towards the end of the Water Initiative project. He said he knew that his position with World Vision wouldn't necessarily be permanent. The agency conducts employee reviews that included questions about faith, he told me. And according to Bara, World Vision employees aren't likely to keep their jobs if they don't report that they're Christians.

Passport: So World Vision officials said that if people weren't Christian, that would affect their future with the company.

Kaplaros: Yeah, World Vision's Mali national director said that it was very important that - let me think about putting this correctly - he said that the agency really tries to hire Christians, that being a Christian is a very integral part of being an employee there.

Passport: How did you become interested in this story?

Kapralos: Well, I knew that World Vision and other faith-based agencies preferred to hire Christians, but I didn't really know to what extent until I began reporting for this story. I sort of had a hunch that in impoverished countries like Mali jobs with aid agencies would really be considered like hitting it big, that was really obvious, and I really wanted to explore how that works in a Muslim country.

Passport: And World Vision actually explicitly says on their website that they hire only Christians.

Kapralos: Well, it says that they really want people to sign a statement of faith or the Apostle's Creed when they're hired. So they say that they do hire non-Christians, but their preference is to hire Christians, according to Mali National Director Fabiano Franz. One thing that he said really clearly to me is, there's no hope for a long-term career at World Vision; if you're not a Christian, you're not necessarily going to move up the ladder.

Passport: Why did you choose to report the story from Mali?

Kapralos: Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, its a Muslim country, its a moderately Muslim country that relies heavily on foreign aid, and it welcomes every kind of aid, as will be outlined in another story that's due to run on GlobalPost sometime soon (just a little pitch there). I was really curious as to whether issues of faith and hiring were really topics of discussion on the ground in a place that historically is very rooted in religion, where religion is really integrated in daily life, and as a place that really desperately needs outside help. And, yet is historically tied to non-Christian tradition.

Passport: How big is the Christian community in Mali?

Kapralos: I think that official estimates are that Christians make up about 5 percent of Mali, less than 5 percent, somewhere right around there, the estimates are different depending on what you're looking at.

Passport: And why did you single out World Vision? Aren't there other organizations that also hire members of their own faiths?

Kapralos: There are. There are a number of organizations that do this exact thing, but I really focused on World Vision for a couple of reasons. Number one, I was a reporter in the Seattle area for the past four or so years, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, so I'm very familiar with the sort of media blitz that World Vision engages in to get more donations, child sponsors. Being in the Pacific Northwest, it was sort of always there. So it was the close proximity of the agency, I was living in the Pacific Northwest at the time that I pitched the story, which included the ability for me to really visit World Vision's headquarters in Federal Way, which is outside Seattle. And so I was really fascinated with World Vision because the Pacific Northwest is famously non-religious and although I'm not sure that's a label that quite fits entirely anymore, I was really quite fascinated by the compliments of a somewhat non-religious culture supporting an agency that really prides itself on being Evangelist Christian. The other reason is that World Vision is in many ways a leader in faith-based international aid. World Vision's President, Richard Stern, is on Obama's council for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. And some of the critics of World Vision's hiring practices say that the agency has lead the efforts, among faith-based agencies to find every possible way to retain federal funding levels while still adhering to their religious standards. So I really felt that by looking at World Vision, it would provide a good snapshot of the issue.

Passport: Ok, and we'll talk about Obama's policy on this and also what critics say about this a little bit later. But, you mentioned earlier that Christianity is integral to World Vision's culture. Is that the reason why they want to hire Christians? Or are there bigger reasons? Or are they involved in prosthletisation?

Kapralos: Well, World Vision is completely open about being a Christian organization, I mean all you have to do is go to their website and it's all over the place. They're very open about that and they're completely open about wanting to, as they put it, spread the word of Jesus Christ. So that's an integral piece of their work. I've had some World Vision officials say "we want to spread the love of Christ in word, deed, and sign" and they've also said that they like to quote, I think, St. Francis of Assisi who says something to the effect of "spread the gospel, use words if necessary," so that's very much their primary goal and they say that they can't continue with that goal unless they have a primarily Christian staff.

Passport: And we should point out that they're considered to be a highly effective organization as well.

Kapralos: Yes. Well, they got four stars from I think it was

Passport: Guidestar?

Kapralos: Guidestar or Charity Navigator... generally speaking, they're considered to be a very effective non-profit agency.

Passport: Were they open to your reporting?

Kapralos: Yeah, somewhat. I visited World Vision's offices in Federal Way, way back in the summer. World Vision's press people were friendly, when they were talking with me at the time, but it was difficult to get in touch with the appropriate people in Mali through World Vision's press team. I visited their offices back in July or August, and it wasn't until a week before I left that I finally had some names of people that I could speak with in Mali. I know it was a hectic time for people in their offices. They said they were working on their annual reports. I wasn't quite sure if would be able to speak with World Vision people on the ground there in Mali, I kept really submitting requests and towards the very end of my trip, I was able to go out and meet some World Vision workers in a village in a very remote area of Mali where they called me back and said, hey, if you want to go see a remote village in Mali where we work, go here. And it was literally way out in the middle of nowhere and it took me more than two days to get there and I had just been in that area previously, so I came all the way back from Bamako, the capital city, and I got this phone call. And I got this phone call and then I had to take this three-day trip to back near the border of Burkina Faso. And once I arrived there in that village, they were very open to showing me the work that they had done, building wells and things like that in that particular village. So I was also able to, two days before I left the country, a thirty minute interview with World Vision's Mali National Director.

Passport: Fabiano Franz.

Kapralos: Fabiano Franz, yes.

Passport: Ok, great. How was your trip to the border of Burkina Faso? Was it interesting? Is it a beautiful country?

Kapralos: Yeah, it was absolutely just gorgeous, but also heartbreaking. There's so much poverty there and so many very, very hungry people. And that's what really struck me: the work that World Vision had done there, building those wells, it made a massive difference. Massive difference to the people in those villages.

Passport: Great. I want to drill down on the controversy a little bit, but first I'd like to invite anyone who'd like to ask a question or make a comment concerning what we've already discussed to please go ahead and do so. You need to press *6 so that we can hear you. If anyone wants to jump in now... No takers so far? Well, then I'll continue. Tell me, is there anything illegal about what World Vision is doing? Taking federal funds and trying to hire only Christians with it?

Kapralos: Well, in terms of their hiring policy, World Vision practices are within the law. World Vision officials point to the 1964 civil rights act that guarantees their right to hire people of their own faith and there are a number of other legal policies that factor into that. World Vision critics don't really have a problem with World Vision hiring people of their faith, but they do have a problem with it if World Vision is using federal dollars. So what's happening today is the same thing that you said at the beginning of this conversation, that World Vision receives more than $250 million a year, has been for the past couple years, from the federal government to provide for humanitarian aid and development around the world. So it's this sort of very complicated legal tangle that's created. So after the 1964 civil rights act, things really began to heat up during the Clinton administration, with the provision known as Charitable Choice, which allowed moderately faith-based agencies to apply for federal social service acts. President Bush, when he came into office, renewed restrictions that kept overtly faith-based agencies from applying for and receiving such grants. By 2007, his office of legal counsel issued a memo that stated that religious organizations could not be discriminated against in terms of grant money. And that memo was specifically issued to address the situation in which World Vision wanted a $1.5 million grant for a juvenile justice program. So that's one reason critics say that World Vision really is a ringleader in this issue. But the interesting thing is that World Vision has relied on federal dollars for a long time, so I was asking people who were critics of them getting federal dollars now, and a lot of the critics, the ACLU, Americans United for Separation for Church and State, places like that said what they think has happened is that for a long time nobody knew if that was legal, or illegal, and so its sort of now just becoming that President Bush put it in the lime light with his faith-based initiatives, it brought to light these long-held practices that some of these critics say should have been questioned a long time ago.

Passport: So how does World Vision defend its practice of, would you call discriminating against, we had a long discussion here at GlobalPost about whether its discrimination or not to not hire people of a different faith? First address that, what do you think? Is discrimination the right word to use?

Kapralos: That’s a really tough one. If there’s a job opening at a local mosque, is it discrimination if they say, we want to hire a Muslim for this job? There are so many examples, so to some extent, what sort of world would we have if you’re not able to adhere to your faith by hiring people who also follow it. So I think what the critics are saying is that its discrimination because there are federal funds involved. They say that its clearly discrimination because going back to the first amendment, it says the government should not be respecting any particular religions. That’s why our country was founded.

Passport: Right. And to repeat, at the risk of redundancy, nobody is arguing with the right of a religious organization, a mosque to hire Muslims, a church to hire Christians or Catholics or a synagogue to hire Jews for its staff, the issue here is federal funding. And how does World Vision defend the practice?

Kapralos: World Vision says that its employees do not proselytize, meaning that they do not discriminate when distributing aid. They say that if they were to proselytize, that would then render them ineligible for federal funds. So they point to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, assuring them that the right to hire based on religion, as long as they don’t use federal dollars to distribute aid based upon religion. So what they’re basically say is, we can hire whoever we want, but we’re not going to tell someone that they can’t receive aid, we’re not going to give them food, that we’re not going to build a well in their village because they’re not a Christian. So that’s their defense.

Passport: As a candidate, Barack Obama said, and I’m going to quote from his speech here, “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people…” You know, I can’t say this as well as Barack Obama said it. I’ll try again. “If you get a federal grant, you can’t use that grant money to proselytize to the people and you can’t discriminate against them or against the people you hire on the basis of their religion.” So he says that you can’t discriminate against the people you hire on the basis of their religion. What has he done about this so far?

Kapralos: Well, he hasn’t done anything to change policies to ensure that federal funding doesn’t go into agencies that base their hiring upon a religion. In fact, critics of this practice were really troubled in February of last year, when Obama announced his Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership Council, which included World Vision’s U.S. President, Richard Stern. You know I think it’s really important to point out that Barack Obama has said numerous times that these faith-based agencies are very important to the work that’s being done, both at home and abroad. He has never once suggested that these agencies should stop doing the work that they’re doing, or that these agencies should be prohibited from doing the work that they’re doing. All he’s say is, just don’t… and he did use the word “discriminate” at one point. He said, just don’t discriminate in your hiring practice.

Passport: Does World Vision actually force people to attend Christian activities?

Kapralos: Officially, no one is forced to attend any kind of Christian activity at World Vision; it’s clear that Christianity, like we said before, in the form of prayer meetings, bible studies and other events, are really commonplace in World Vision offices. I don’t know for sure if it’s a scheduled event every day, but it certainly is very commonplace. I’ve also been told by numerous people that World Vision’s employee reviews include questions about faith. Fabiano Franz, World Vision’s Mali Director, said quite plainly that the best non-Christians can expect is a temporary job with World Vision. So officially, and a lot of people have told me this, officially, no one’s forced to pray, no one’s forced to convert to Christianity, but it’s also very clear that it’s a Christian agency and if you want a long-term job there, you will be a Christian and you will be praying.

Passport: So it’s plainly implicit, rather than explicit. There’s not really explicit pressure, they don’t say, come on, it’s time to go to the prayer meeting. I think that’s clear. And you mentioned that they do serve non-Christians in their activities.

Kapralos: They do, yeah. Actually, the village I visited near the border of Burkina Faso didn’t even have a church anywhere in it, which was unusual. I mean, I visited a lot of villages in Mali, and Mali is officially, you know 5 percent, or less than 5 percent of all Malians are Christian, but I also spoke with some people who say Christianity is really growing there. And in most villages that I visited, there was some kind of Christianity, and this village near the border of Burkina Faso, there was no sign of Christianity, no church whatsoever; there were several mosques. And World Vision had done an awful lot of work there.

Passport: So they were well-received in that village. Did you hear any negative comments at all about World Vision?

Kapralos: I didn’t hear any negative comments. I mean, I heard people who were maybe concerned about getting a job, there were lots of people who wanted to get a job with World Vision, but I think the general sense among most of the Malians that I interviewed, they said, well, why would they hire a non-Christian? They acknowledged, I probably wouldn’t get a job there because I’m not a Christian, I’m a Muslim, or I’m an Animist, or whatever it is, but that’s their prerogative. And one thing that a number of people have explained is that in countries like Mali, religion is really integral to daily life, so there’s not a sense of church and state separation there, as there really is here. And even some village elders in some tiny, tiny Muslim villages that I visited, I asked them, “How would you feel about World Vision coming to work here? Are you worried it might weaken Islam, that it might promote Christianity?” And almost all the time their answer was the facts of the matter are, we’re hungry, we need water, we need food, and everyone I spoke with seems to really agree with that sentiment. They know that World Vision does a lot of good work.

Passport: Can you talk just briefly about the type of Islam you found in Mali? Is it a very conservative country?

Kapralos: It’s not a highly conservative country. You don’t see many women in the hijabs… it’s not conservative. It’s an extremely joyful country, people there are extremely exuberant. It’s really fun. So when they express their religion, it’s a very exuberant way. It’s not tampered down in any way at all. The other thing is that Islam has been there for a very long time, so many of the mosques are these very old, mud-built mosques and a lot of the Muslims that I spoke to really seem to appreciate the culture of those traditions. So it’s not a place, for the most part, where Christians are persecuted, although I have heard that that is happening in some areas in the North. But for the most part, it’s a very open country.

Passport: Can you talk about other conditions? I like this idea that Mali is very poor, but it’s jubilant. What’s jubilant about it? Is it a place where family values are very strong? Where people are most interested in other people more than making money? Or how would you describe it?

Kapralos: When you’re walking down the street in Bamako, I felt safer in Bamako than literally anyplace that I’d ever been.

Passport: Even Washington D.C.?

Kapralos: Even Washington D.C. Yeah, it’s a very safe place. People are very friendly. If you’re walking down the street, people will run up to you and ask you, “What are you looking for? What do you need?” I can’t imagine going to a village in Mali and not having someone invite you to sit down with them. And there’s music everywhere! And I know that I sound like I may be exaggerating, but I’m really not! It’s just extremely jubilant, it’s extremely joyful. And people seem to really value relationships. Relationships are highly, highly valued there. And so if you have a choice to invest in a relationship, or head off to an office, I think a lot of Malians would choose to invest in a relationship.

Passport: And one last question before I open the floor up, we’re running a little bit late. It’s also a very poor country. Can you tell how that manifests itself? How is it on the streets?

Kapralos: I’ve traveled, somewhat, around the world, and I’ve been to poor countries, but I have never in my life seen a situation like the situation that I saw in Mali. Its consistently ranked one of the poorest countries in the world. I guess my mind just keeps wandering back to the people that I saw who looked, not just hungry, but also extremely malnourished and very brittle. The life expectancy is around 50 years old, give or take, for both men and women, the country has the second-highest fertility rate in the world, with 7.29 children born to one woman, as they only last 7.75 children per woman, and only about half of all Malian men can read and write and a little more than a third of Malian women can read or write. Other estimates say that 70 percent of the total adult population is illiterate. So there’s so much poverty and in certain areas of Mali, where you go to, it’s as though time hasn’t moved since ancient times. There’s a certain area of Mali in which people travel by donkey and that’s it. I was really astounded by the poverty that I saw.

Passport: Wow. And you’ve actually been a teacher in India as well. So you’ve been to places like this before.

Kapralos: Yeah, I taught English in some very, very poor areas of India. I know that there’s a lot of poverty everywhere in the world, and I know the poverty looks different, so I know you can’t necessarily make that judgment call based on what you see, you know, visually, but from my experience, I was struck by poverty in Mali in a way that I’ve never been struck before.

Passport: Ok, let’s open up the floor. If you will, to questions, if anyone wants to jump in, just press *6 and whoever speaks first gets to ask a question.

Caller 1: Hello?

Passport: Hello, can you identify yourself please?

Caller 1: Yes, my name is Suzi Schaum. I wanted to ask if World Vision and these other agencies, are they effective? Do they get the job done?

Kapralos: You know, I can’t necessarily speak for other agencies. I really focused very heavily on World Vision, so I don’t necessarily want to get into other agencies, but World Vision is considered to be an extremely effective aid agency. I know that a lot of organizations that track the efficiency of aid agencies really have a lot of respect for World Vision and even from what I saw, personally, when World Vision comes to town, a village is revitalized in a way that no other agency could do. So I think it’s considered to be extremely effective. They definitely do get the job done.

Caller 1: Do they do grand, large programs? I ask this because when you watch the disaster in Haiti, and I have been following a lot of Haitian blogs, people that have been there for 20, 30 years with water this and water that and I’m thinking someone needs to go in there and build a really long road, followed by a really big bus, and a gas station here and there. But you never see the grand, big thing happening.

Kapralos: Uh-huh. Well, I think one of the challenges that World Vision and so many other aid agencies face is, I mean even USAID, is that you have to remember, you’re still working under the purview of a government there, so when World Vision is working in Mali, they’re working with Mali as it is and there’s so little infrastructure in Mali that the type of large project you’re talking about, would just be extremely mammoth, extremely expensive, number one. And number two, I think that unless World Vision and other aid agencies typically say, we’re going to put all of our resources into this one massive project, and that’s all we’re going to do, and we’re going to stay there for the next 50 years to make sure that that infrastructure does not erode, that’s really the only way. I had heard some stories and I cannot necessarily vouch for this, but sort of anecdotally, I had heard about aid agencies going up into northern Mali and creating some water projects, they were putting some piping in for some agriculture and they spent all of this money working on these projects and once the project was completed, they left, and when they came back, a few years later to check on the progress, or maybe it was a year later, it wasn’t being used. Because people there simply don’t have the money to keep up with that infrastructure.

Passport: Yeah, these infrastructure projects are extremely difficult. If I could jump in. I know the U.S. government has been trying to build a road down the coast of Oche in Indonesia, that was destroyed by the tsunami, and it was supposed to be a quarter-billion dollar project and what has it been now? Six years, five years, since the tsunami, and they are having the hardest time. They’re being extorted by local politicians, they know the United States is a wealthy country and they know U.S. officials are under a lot of pressure to get this project done, so there’s extortion, there’s corruption in getting materials to the site, and then there’s, as you mentioned Krista, there are these incredible challenges with the infrastructure and so forth. I think that you have a good point, these big projects are needed, but for aid organizations, they’re really, really hard to implement.

Caller 1: These places don’t have any central government, but they have all these little tiny, petty despots here and there.

Passport: I can’t speak for Mali, but that’s the way it is in Indonesia, yeah.

Caller 1: Yeah, yeah… thank you.

Passport: I guess we have time for one last question. Any takers?

Kapralos: If there’s no takers, I just want to mention, with the issue of corruption, very briefly, if that’s ok…

Passport: Go ahead.

Kapralos: That it is so true. I couldn’t even drive down a road in Mali without being stopped numerous times, having to pay a fee. And my funders, I had a grant from the International Center for Journalism and when I gave them my grant report, I had sort of totaled up everything that I put for bribes and I put it as “Bribe,” underneath in my report. And they called me back and they said, are you sure that it was a bribe? (Laughs) Maybe I shouldn’t have said that, actually. (Laughs) Anyway, it shows how overwhelming the corruption is.
Passport: (Laughs) Yeah, hopefully you’re not going to hear from the Department of Treasury for an infraction against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. I imagine the amounts were too small, but nevertheless… No, but I don’t think there’s a journalist who’s worked in the developing world who hasn’t experienced that. There I go implicating myself. Anyway! Krista, I want to thank you very much, both for doing this, this type of reporting isn’t something that we see a lot of these days and it takes a lot of work and we really appreciate you doing the story for us and thanks a million for talking to us today.

Kapralos: Well, thank you, I enjoyed it.

Passport: And thanks to all the Passport members for joining us. Bye bye!