Governing Gifts

In an era of increased power and influence of private actors, rather than nation-states, private charities, often-faith based institutions, are increasingly responsible for delivering humanitarian and development assistance. What governing ethics and politics inform how these organizations deliver assistance? And should we be concerned with the nature of faith-based private institutions, if they are capable of quickly mobilizing and reaching individuals outside the scope of influence of nation-state governance? Erica Caple James, Associate Professor of Medical Anthropology and Urban Studies, leads a diverse group of academics and practitioners in tracing the interconnections between religion, philanthropy, policy, and governance in Governing Gifts: Faith, Charity, and the Security State (University of New Mexico Press, 2019).

Erica James, who holds an appointment with MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and is affiliated with MIT Anthropology, is also the director of the MIT Global Health and Medical Humanities Initiative. Her work is focused on global mental health and international development; philanthropy, humanitarianism, and charity; human rights, democratization, and postconflict transition processes; climate change and agricultural development; and race, gender, and culture. In her previous book, James documented the psychosocial experiences of Haitian torture survivors targeted during the 1991-94 coup period as part of a larger project analyzing the politics of humanitarian assistance in "post-conflict" nations making the transition to democracy. As editor of Governing Gifts: Faith, Charity, and the Security State, James continues her exploration of aid, particularly the difficulty in defining the borders between faith-based and secular domains of humanitarianism, the politics of charity, and how the concepts of faith, charity, security, and governance are defined and practiced within a global perspective.

Q1. When asked to consider faith-based charities, many may conjure images of organizations such as the Red Cross. These institutions may have originated in faith-based missions, but appear to be outwardly secular. To what extent do such institutions continue to bring the legacy of the faith of their founding into the field?

James: There is wide variation on the extent to which an organization actively promotes religion or faith in the context of providing aid or if a principled mission founds its activities but may not necessarily be promoted or promulgated in practice. My own interest in these topics, for example, stemmed from observing cases in the United States in which a religious institution performed a role of detention or policing of unaccompanied refugee minors in fulfillment of a federal contract. In this case the boundary between public and private governance was blurred.

In the US, the presumed separation between “church” and “state” has been incorporated into the norms of governance and reflects a move toward secularism. Nation-states that value this kind of separation of the secular and the sacred have defined religion as a private sphere detached from public administration. But the works in this volume show that even when these spheres are conceived as distinct there has often been cooperation and even hybrid models of partnerships between institutions within these domains. The roles of religiously motivated organizations in governance highlight the indistinct boundaries of the state, as well as their role in mobilizing public sentiments on behalf of government.

For example, in the early 20th century in the United States, religious organizations spurred the public to support wartime efforts and provide relief in cases of humanitarian crises. At later points in the 20th century some faith-based institutions also engaged in management and resettlement of refugees and migrants in fulfillment of federal contracts. After the 1996 Welfare Reform Act included provisions that allowed “faith-based organizations” to receive public monies to provide social welfare—perhaps acting as an arm of the caring state—it became possible to deliver religious content alongside the management of care without being categorized as having violated the boundaries between church and state. For many organizations, however, the presence of faith in giving or in charitable action is through provision of welfare services to clients because the recipient is viewed as worthy or deserving, simply by virtue of their humanity rather than because of their religious identity.

Governing Gifts contributes to discussions of the role of “faith-based” organizations in secular statecraft by taking both a historical and cross-cultural approach that compares and contrasts concrete cases.

Q2. In an era where discussions of international aid, particularly to countries with strong religious identities, often results in rhetoric centered on the threat of foreign terrorism and the necessity of national security, is our ability to give freely being constrained?

James: The control and surveillance of gifts in response to concerns about terrorism is a phenomenon that increasingly touches on the regulation of charitable transactions, whether domestic or international, and whether at the level of individuals or institutions. Antiterrorism practices are designed to prevent, reduce, or contain any individual or corporate person’s provision of “material support” to any “designated” terrorist entity. There is global debate about how institutions or actors are included on an international governmental terrorist watch list and whether those designations occur fairly.

Leaving aside that question for the moment, the implications of such guidelines for individuals and institutions that would aid, support financially, or provide other kinds of charitable material support to an agent or agency is a stringent requirement to vet the intended aid recipient and to ensure that they are not “listed.” Increasingly the onus is placed on donors to engage in “best practices” of charitable giving to avoid the inadvertent support for terrorism. North American and Western European norms of antiterrorism financing govern global finance capital distributions; international development aid; and increasingly institutional philanthropy and smaller scale charitable giving. Legal rights advocacy organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have described the effects of antiterrorism practices as “chilling” charitable giving overall.

As such norms have been adopted globally and also trickle down to the individual level, especially in the context of Islamic charity, individual donors are encouraged to adopt practices of giving that permit the traceability of gifts to individual or corporate “persons” that have not been “designated” as posing a risk of supporting terrorism. I argue in my own work on these issues, that to some degree, the governance of gifts transfers to the state. Increasingly the capacity to give, even the “right” to give, will become a matter of legal debate.

Q3. Your next book, Wounds of Charity, will focus on the biopolitics of charity at a faith-based organization serving Haitian immigrants and refugees that is funded through Catholic Charities. This will be your second scholarly work focused on the Haitian community. What drew you to work in Haiti and with the Haitian community?

James: Haitians have had a unique history as the first and only nation in which enslaved persons mobilized a movement to overthrown the colonial state, establishing the first black republic in 1804. Throughout the 19th century, that same achievement of black liberty when much of the western world still held slaves and anticipated continued imperial expansion positioned Haitians as a threat to the “global community.” The Haitian state and nation have undergone political instability and inconsistent economic growth, in no small part due to international military interventions and the domestic dictatorships that emerged in their aftermath. Whether because of human-authored or natural disasters, their challenges with HIV/AIDS, infant and maternal mortality, and other public health crises, Haitians have remained the objects of a number of governmental and nongovernmental interventions, including faith-based missionary work, that some argue has undermined the capacity for citizens to sustain democratic institutions and economic growth. Despite these structural inequalities, I have been humbled by the warmth, fortitude, and perseverance of Haitians to continue modeling and striving for representative democracy. My hope is that my research contributes to more nuanced understandings of aid and its politics in the lives of everyday persons.