How US evangelicals are shaping development in Uganda

US evangelical groups are increasingly shaping Uganda’s development policies to suit their religious agenda.

Evangelical organisations have significantly influenced Ugandan society, writes Arinaitwe [AP]

There has been widespread criticism of the role that US evangelical groups had in influencing Uganda’s recent draconian anti-gay legislation, But what is less known is how foreign faith-based, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are shaping many aspects of my country’s development to suit their religious agenda.

I grew up in rural western Uganda where I learned the spiritual significance of my Banyankole ancestors. But the Bible translated into my mother tongue proved to be a stronger influence. It was the only book I had access to, and I read it every day as a child while tending our cows. Eventually for me, as for many of my countrymen, oral storytelling traditions were replaced by the Christian faith.

I carried that faith with me when I had the opportunity to study and work in Tallahassee, Florida. I was one of few Africans attending the local evangelical Every Nation church, and because I was deemed an “AIDS orphan”, I was often given the podium to share my story to attract donations and volunteers for church missions across Africa. While I sensed at the time that these American churchgoers had good intentions, I only gradually came to understand that the church and I were perpetuating the harmful notion that it takes westerners to “Save Africa.”

When I returned to Uganda last year after a decade away, I was taken aback by the swift spread of the evangelical movement in the country, especially as I had witnessed its diminished authority in the United States and in myself.

During a Christmas visit to my village, I went to Sunday services at the local Pentecostal church, the only permanent building among the grass-thatched huts and corrugated-iron roof shacks. The villagers welcomed the local pastor with a standing ovation. In his smart tailored suit, he symbolised the material wealth my community yearned for.

I was shocked by the pastor’s angry sermon. He preached, to a community riddled with HIV/AIDS, that immoral, irresponsible sexual behaviour caused the disease and that prayers were the cure. I walked out in frustration, knowing AIDS-related deaths like that of my father two decades before were caused in large part by institutionalised poverty and inadequate basic health services. As I left, I could still hear the pastor shouting, “Even the Lord can heal your HIV/AIDS; you just have to pray.”

Religious development

The evangelical “prosperity gospel” – which links faith in God to financial success – has a powerful attraction for poor Ugandans. Around 25 to 30 percent of the population has joined evangelical movements, a sizable chunk of the 85 percent of Ugandans who identify as Christian.

Inequality shapes their lives, with 67 percent of Ugandans vulnerable to poverty and 24.5 percent of that group living on less than $1.20 a day. Every Sunday, in shiny new amphitheatres, millions pray for an end to their daily struggles for food, school fees, and access to quality health care.

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North American evangelical missionaries arrived in Uganda in the early 1980s, building health clinics, schools and orphanages. Their operations expanded rapidly during the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1990s, and, with the support of the local born-again elite, they are now running huge social development programmes in the country.

Evangelical NGOs in Uganda are now bigger and better funded than most secular aid organisations. They account for more than one-fifth of all NGOs in the country. As of 2002, evangelical groups’ humanitarian operations in Uganda were already worth more than $2bn annually – a number which has doubtless grown – and they compete aggressively with secular NGOs to secure US government grants.

David Kuo, an evangelical Christian and former deputy director of the US government’s faith-based funding initiatives in Uganda, wrote in his 2006 book Tempting Faith, “We knew government couldn’t feed Jesus to people, but if we could get money to private religious groups – virtually all of whom were Christian – we could show them to the dining room.” 

The success of the evangelical NGOs has encouraged some powerful secular NGOs to partner with them. Many respected organisations, including TOMS Shoes and charity: water, often deliver their products and services exclusively to the select poor affiliated with church networks. They also borrow effective but unethical tactics from the evangelical NGO model, such as simplistic messaging and the much discredited one-to-one child or village sponsorship programmes that can foster dependency while undercutting organic local economic growth.

Evangelical groups’ close ties to Ugandan government leaders have cemented their influence in my country. Charismatic humanitarian pastors like Rick Warren and evangelical NGOs such as World Vision are increasingly invited to the official forums that help to shape Uganda’s development policy.

Evangelical churches are given the official right to call themselves NGOs and apply for development aid, credit schemes, tax-free status, and government funding even if they do not directly address social issues. In contrast, secular NGOs face far tougher restrictions by the Ugandan government and are prohibited from engaging in any political or advocacy-based issues.

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Most damaging, this charity model promotes the privatisation of social services for evangelical target groups over the right to health and education for all Ugandans. It strips Ugandans of dignity and bypasses the government, absolving it of responsibility. Piecemeal projects like World Vision handing out discontinued Superbowl t-shirts or Samaritan’s Purse’s shoebox gifts do nothing to strengthen or reform Uganda’s failing public institutions, but do set reinforce perceptions that NGOs provide handouts while the government does nothing

It’s important to recognise that many evangelicals mean well in their outreach to poor Ugandans. But the unintended consequences of their charity projects have perpetuated systemic inefficiencies and failed to address power dynamics that fuel inequality in my country.

If Uganda is to reduce its alarming youth unemployment rate, biting poverty, and a crumbling health care system, scarce foreign aid dollars must be targeted at NGOs that help strengthen government systems. Governments, not NGOs, are the only entities that can ultimately guarantee socioeconomic rights. I dream of a day when rural Ugandan youth no longer pin their hopes, as I once did, on evangelical rhetoric to relieve their poverty, but recognise that in order to have a fair shot at life, they need the support of strong public institutions.

James Kassaga Arinaitwe is a 2014 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute and is the school partnerships manager at Educate! Uganda. 

Follow him on Twitter: @JamesArinaitwe