Note: The following article was initially published by The Philos Project on April 22, 2014.
In 1948, Tena Hoelkeboer, a Dutch Reform missionary working at an orphanage in China, confronted Evangelical Protestant Robert Pierce of Southern California with a challenge. She brought him a young child who had been beaten by her father for converting to Christianity. After hearing Pierce speak at a girls’ school, the child had told her father that she was following Jesus Christ. Like he did at most of his talks, Pierce had challenged his listeners to return home and tell their families that they were now Christians. The little girl did what Pierce called on her to do, and she suffered the consequences. Hoekelboer was infuriated.
Recounting the story in her biography of her father, Man of Vision (Authentic Media, 2005), Marilee Pierce Dunker said that Hoelkeboer had thrust the child into Robert Pierce’s arms. “This little girl did what you told her to do and now she has lost everything,” she said. “So what are you going to do about it?”
The reality of the girl’s suffering – precipitated by his preaching – knocked Pierce back on his heels. “I had never been accountable for any consequences of my message,” he reported later, adding that he asked himself, “Is there any responsibility involved? Believe me, you do some thinking at a moment like that.” Pierce dug into his pocket, gave the woman $5 to take care of the girl, and promised to send more in the years ahead.
Pierce made good on his promise. In 1950, he established World Vision, an organization that furthered the Christian faith by training pastors in Asia and by helping children in poor countries throughout the world.
Pierce promoted World Vision’s work at Evangelical Protestant churches throughout the United States by showing films that highlighted the evils of Communism. The story that Pierce told through these films was of children suffering under the lash of Communist dictatorships throughout the world, especially Asia. The question he presented to Evangelical Protestant audiences in the U.S. was the one directed at him by Tena Hoelkeboer in 1948: “What are you going to do about it?”
American Evangelicals responded to Pierce’s challenge in a big way. They opened their wallets and set the stage for his organization to become one of the largest Christian charities in the world. In the 1970s, Pierce left World Vision to establish another charity called Samaritan’s Purse, which is currently led by Billy Graham’s son Franklin.
In the years after Pierce’s departure, World Vision drew attention to the “Boat People,” refugees who fled Vietnam after U.S. troops left Saigon for good in 1973. It played a significant, if ambiguous role, in fighting famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s. Critics condemned World Vision and other organizations for obscuring the role the Ethiopian government played in creating the famine and for using images of sick and dying children to raise money for their work. “Icky baby shots,” they were called.
The organization became a big business, with offices in countries throughout the world. World Vision became a truly international charity, no longer solely depending on Evangelical Protestants in the United States for its support. As its donor base became more diverse, World Vision’s emphasis on evangelization diminished and was replaced by human rights advocacy.
The change was formalized in the 1970s when World Vision brought people from donor and recipient countries outside the United States into its governance process and established World Vision International with international headquarters in California and an office in Switzerland. WVI now serves as an umbrella agency for World Vision USA and national affiliates throughout the world. WVI used to file tax documents as a 501(c)3 organization, but in 2007 it declared itself a church and as such, is no longer required to submit its financials to the Internal Revenue Service. It does, however, issue audited annual reports of its finances that can be found on its website.
World Vision USA, with headquarters located in Washington state, is by far the biggest source of funds for the umbrella organization, generating approximately $1 billion in annual revenue from American donors. World Vision USA also has a significant presence in Washington, D.C., where its advocates seek to influence American policy regarding aid and development and to maintain contacts with the U.S. government, which provides the organization with millions of dollars in taxpayer funds. World Vision officials sometimes testify before Congress.
The various entities that comprise World Vision have become what Christianity Today, a magazine that serves Evangelical Protestants in the U.S., accurately called a “colossus.” The organization is no longer the force for Evangelism it once was, but it does provide a lot of humanitarian aid in the name of Christ to people in poor countries throughout the world. Overall, the various arms of the organization gather more than $2 billion in income. Logistically, the organization can work wonders, bringing food, medical and humanitarian supplies to crisis points throughout the world.
World Vision works logistical miracles. It was one of the first humanitarian organizations on the scene when a category five storm hit Vanuatu, an island in the South Pacific, on March 13, 2015. World Vision staffers distributed food, medical goods and temporary shelters for the victims of the storm in Vanuatu, where the organization had already been working to improve water supply through the construction of rain catchments and gravity-fed wells. This is consonant with the group’s efforts to improve water quality throughout the world.
World Vision also provides assistance to children through its popular child-sponsorship program in which donors give on a regular basis to help specific children with whom they can correspond.
But all is not well with World Vision. All too often, staffers and leaders of the organization have used an anti-Israel narrative to raise funds and generate publicity for World Vision’s work. Just as troublingly, anti-Zionism has become an important plank in World Vision’s advocacy in the Middle East, especially in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Its staffers have been intensely critical of the Jewish State and its leaders, but have been much more reluctant to hold Palestinian leaders (and other Arab and Muslim leaders) accountable for their misdeeds.
Consequently, the organization, its funds, its staffers and its beneficiaries in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have become pawns in an ongoing campaign to delegitimize the Jewish State.
This is bad enough, but there is more. Not only has World Vision enlisted in the propaganda war against the Jewish State, it has prolonged the suffering on both sides of the conflict, especially in Palestine.
Under international law, local leaders and governments are ultimately responsible for the welfare of the populations they control or govern, but groups like Hamas often shift this responsibility onto relief organizations like World Vision, with pernicious results. Hamas
has engineered numerous humanitarian crises in the Gaza Strip by starting wars it cannot win with a state that cannot afford to lose. When suffering inevitably results, Hamas points the finger of blame at Israel. World Vision irresponsibly assists in this campaign through its advocacy and fundraising efforts when instead it should be highlighting Hamas’ responsibility for the suffering it has caused.
The suffering of the Gazan people will not end until the world gets honest about the role Hamas has played in their suffering. World Vision hinders this process by echoing Hamas’ propaganda campaign, short-circuiting the discussion about who is ultimately responsible for the suffering in the Gaza Strip, a discussion that must take place if Hamas is to be held accountable. Through these actions, World Vision has become complicit in the demonization of Israel and the continued oppression of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
These are hard words to level at an organization that has done a huge amount of good throughout the world, but it’s not the first time World Vision has been criticized in this manner. World Vision came under intense scrutiny and criticism in the 1980s and 90s after researchers concluded that humanitarian non-government organizations such as World Vision, Oxfam and CARE comprised an industry that needed to be scrutinized just like any other institution that wields power and influence over peoples’ lives.
After looking closely at how World Vision and other organizations operated, journalists and researchers concluded that the officials who ran humanitarian organizations had incentive to mischaracterize and overstate the problems they were trying to fix and to exaggerate their ability to fix them. They learned that charities who told the most harrowing stories about human suffering got the most and best media coverage and, as a result, solicited the most money from donors in Europe and North America.
Researchers came to these realizations during the 1980s and 90s after examining the idea that nonprofits were making Africa’s humanitarian problems worse. Not only did they help broadcast misinformation that served the interests of officials running an oppressive dictatorship in Ethiopia and mass murderers fleeing from Rwanda, they provided material support to both groups.
It also became apparent that officials from humanitarian organizations had an interest in obscuring the political causes of the crises they were trying to address. It was all about the money. Once donors began to realize that the famines and refugee crises that were shocking their consciences were the intended consequences of policies implemented by African leaders, they started to question the wisdom of sending assistance to areas controlled by these leaders. They were uncomfortable with sending aid into an area afflicted by a man-made disaster when there was a good chance that the people responsible for the disaster were also taking advantage of the aid and of the people who provided it. Since charitable organizations rely on the leaders of political movements or government officials to get access to the people they are trying to help, they often have an incentive to stay quiet about the human rights abuses perpetrated by these people.
In responding to the Ethiopian famine and other catastrophes, Alex de Waal, one of the researchers who struggled the hardest against the taboo of criticizing aid organizations, concluded that humanitarian organizations did more harm than good. “Throughout the world, relief aid delivered by international agencies has become integrated into processes of violence and oppression,” he wrote in 1994, adding that there was a “synergy between relief and violence.”
The Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s was a crisis manufactured by the Mengistu Regime as part of its war against two rebel insurgencies that were trying to topple the communist dictatorship. Mengistu Haile Mariam imposed policies that set the stage for the famine and then used the supplies sent from governments and aid organizations in the West to feed its own troops and to forcibly relocate the Ethiopian population from rebel-held areas. This criminal behavior was aided, abetted and obscured by humanitarian organizations including World Vision.
In addition to providing Mengistu with the food he needed to force people into feeding centers away from their homes, groups like World Vision told supporters in the West that the famine was a natural and not manmade disaster. Journalists helped humanitarian organizations obscure the root causes of the Ethiopian Famine in part because these were the only institutions in the country that could ferry the reporters to the story and get them images they needed to tell the story. But there was more to it. Journalists also went along with this strategy because they did not want to discourage people from making donations to the aid organizations. Dispite their good intentions, they misled their audiences.
There was a corrupting relationship between aid organizations and news outlets that helped undermine journalistic objectivity. World Vision co-sponsored the production of a BBC news segment on the famine and expressed anger when it did not portray the organization in as positive a light as it expected. And in 1986, a staffer from World Vision’s affiliate in the United Kingdom condemned researchers who had publicized the role Mengistu played in creating the famine, saying it was “immoral” to do such a thing.
Word about the true causes of the famine eventually got out and donations decreased. After the war finally came to an end (with Mengistu’s ouster), rebel leaders reported that foreign aid extended the war by a year. Foreign aid prolonged the suffering it was intended to end.
Sadly, the organizations that had made such a hash of things in Ethiopia made similar, if not worse, mistakes during the Rwandan genocide a decade later. De Waal reported that Oxfam inadvertently assisted the Hutu militias who fled to Zaire and Tanzania in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide by putting them charge of refugee camps in these countries.
A few months before they fled Rwanda, Oxfam told the world about the genocide these Hutu leaders were perpetrating. But once they fled the country (and dragged thousands of other Hutus with them) into Zaire and Tanzania, aid organizations, including Oxfam, described them as refugees who badly needed assistance. Organizations raised money, set up camps and started handing out food, with disastrous results.
Hutu militias used these camps as a base of operations to terrorize Tutsis in Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), helping to destabilize that country. Fugitives from justice – who were planning to use their new place of residence as a jumping off point for future attacks on Rwanda – ended up as recipients of foreign aid, and in some instances, ended up as employees of the organizations that gave them the aid. Inside Rwanda, Oxfam correctly branded these people as killers, but once they crossed the border, Oxfam put them on the payroll.
De Waal wrotethat aid organizations “felt they had no moral choice but to respond to massive human suffering, even though it meant supporting the extremists’ strategy. The humanitarian Gresham’s Law meant that the more complexities were hidden away and a simple charitab
le imperative (Give!) was presented through the media.”
It worked, de Waal reported. “Tens of millions of dollars were raised and spent in a few weeks. Dozens of private agencies arrived in a blitz of publicity. They then cultivated that publicity, stationing press officers at Goma airport to seize on visiting journalists and emblazoning their logos in every prominent position,” he wrote in his 1997 book Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Story in Africa (Indiana University Press, 1997).
It might have been better if the organizations had stayed away altogether, but the “pressures to ‘be there’ were overwhelming for all agencies,” de Wall wrote. One official from the United Kingdom’s branch of Save the Children admitted it was a problem. “If you stand back not far from a crisis like Rwanda, it is clear that NGOs behave like rabble. In a concentration of NGOs such as Goma there is such an imperative to establish a trademark and territory, and all technical standards go to the wall.”
One standard that gets ignored is the stated commitment to human rights espoused by aid agencies, de Waal reported. Organizations are so intent on achieving access to target populations that they remain quiet about the abuses they see perpetrated by authorities that let them into areas where people are suffering.
In addition to highlighting how humanitarian groups inadvertently (but knowingly) gave material aid and propagandistic cover to killers in Africa, de Waal also wrote about how these groups ultimately diminished the ability of locals Africans to take “ownership” and responsibility for the problems they face.
When relief organizations clamored for access to vulnerable populations in Africa during times of conflict, they helped create an environment in which local African leaders could abandon their obligation to provide for their citizens. Writing about famine relief efforts in Sudan, de Waal reported that “For military commanders on the ground, the right of humanitarian access appears to mean that responsibility for assisting needy populations has been removed from them and placed on the international community.”
In his writings, de Waal implored African citizens and politicians to take responsibility for the problems they faced, arguing that the “internationalization of responsibility for fighting famine is not a positive development” because it has taken power and responsibility away from Africans and given it to “institutions that are remote and unaccountable.”
In light of the evidence he gathered, de Waal asked if humanitarian organizations shouldeven operate in conflict zones.
People who are familiar with what is going on in the Gaza Strip are probably shaking their heads in dismay after reading about what happened in Ethiopia and Rwanda, because a similar process is taking place in the area today, under Hamas’ control. Of course there is not a one-to-one isomorphism between what happened in Africa during the 1980s and 90s and World Vision’s behavior in the Middle East during the past decade or so, but after reading about the mistakes made by humanitarian organizations in Africa during the 1980s and 90s, it is hard to deny the similarities.
World Vision staffers obscure the causes of the suffering they purport to be trying to help, they manipulate the media into downplaying the role of oppressive and corrupt leaders in Gaza and the West Bank play in causing the anguish of their people and they ultimately undermine the Palestinians’ ability to come to grips with the problems they face as a people by “internationalizing” the responsibility for their hurt, which is Hamas’ fault and Palestinian leaders’ responsibility to end.
World Vision’s role in obscuring the true agents of suffering in the Gaza Strip became particularly evident during the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014. One egregious example was provided by the organization’s affiliate in Ireland, which produced a radio ad declaring that “children should never be targeted. But right now, children are suffering in Gaza.” The implication of the ad, which aired in August 2014, was that Israel was targeting children in the Gaza Strip. If that were true, those actions would be a war crime. Israel has actually made substantial efforts to avoid targeting children during its fights with Hamas. The ad prompted outrage in Ireland, prompting World Vison to apologize for the “offense” it caused – but not for its content.
Corrupting Influence on Media Coverage
World Vision has also had a corrupting influence on media coverage of the conflict. This became evident on Aug. 1, 2014, when World Vision USA’s Senior Director of Advocacy and Outreach Mae Cannon appeared on CNN to speak about the suffering of Children in Gaza and of WV’s efforts to help. During the interview, which was conducted by Jake Tapper, Israel was portrayed as largely responsible for the deaths of five World Vision-sponsored children. Cannon said that World Vision’s efforts to help these children were brought to a tragic end by Israeli bombs and missiles. During the interview, Tapper reported that Israel blamed Hamas for these deaths because it embedded its fighters in the civilian population, but at the end of the segment, he said, “Whomever you hold responsible, international aid workers are finding it close to impossible to help any of these children until there’s a cease-fire that features people actually ceasing fire.”
What made Tapper’s reporting so remarkable is that a few weeks earlier, on July 10, 2014, he clearly said that he understood the role Hamas played in the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in the Gaza Strip. He asked Diana Bhuttu, a former PLO spokesperson, “Why is Hamas launching rockets into Israeli population centers and are any other Palestinians trying to stop them from doing so?” He hammered away at Hamas’ use of human shields and asked Bhuttu whether or not she found those actions reprehensible (for her part, Bhuttu tried to deny Hamas did anything wrong).
If you were a Hamas leader, who would you rather have Tapper interview again about the suffering of children in the Gaza Strip – Bhuttu or Cannon? Cannon of course, because when she was being interviewed, Tapper spoke as if there was a moral equivalence between the IDF, which tries to avoid civilian casualties, and Hamas, a terrorist organization that promotes the hatred of Jews, seeks Israel’s destruction, uses human shields and targets civilians.
Tapper probably had good intentions, just like the reporters who downplayed the role Mengistu had in causing the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. He likely wanted folks to give money to World Vision, supports its work in the Gaza Strip and understood that if he emphasized Hamas’ role in causing the deaths of the children getting help from World Vision, he would raise questions in the viewers’ minds about whether or not it was even a good idea to send aid to the Gaza Strip.
Cannon is not responsible for Tapper’s downplaying of Hamas’ misdeeds during the interview, but she has (in other contexts) downplayed Palestinian hostility toward Israel and Palestinian culpability for the current situation. For that, she is responsible.
In 2010, she spoke at the “Impact Holy Land Conference”
in Philadelphia. During the event, which was organized by Evangelicals for Social Action, she told a story about a 15-year-old Palestinian boy who was imprisoned for merely throwing a tire at the security barrier in the West Bank. “I don’t quite know how you do that, but that was the accusation,” she said. “And this was seen as a sign of resistance.”
With that last sentence, Cannon attempted to downplay the crime and accuse Israel of treating the boy with undue harshness, but given what happens at other such “protests,” it seems reasonable to ask if the tire in questionwas actually set on fire and if the 15-year-old was part of a larger crowd of protesters throwing rocks and firebombs at Israeli soldiers.
Rioting crowds of young Palestinian teenagers – who present real dangers to Israeli soldiers by throwing rocks, firebombs and burning tires at them – are a persistent part of life in the West Bank. As Edwin Black reported in his book Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terrorism in Israel (Dialog Press, 2013), the Palestinian Authority encourages acts of violence against Israelis by paying the families of lawbreaking Palestinians’ family members a stipend while they are in jail. The amount increases according to the severity of the charges.
Was this 15-year-old boy going to be compensated for his act of aggression? Cannon did not say, but she did speak movingly about the suffering endured by the boy’s mother during the trial. “Do something,” she pleaded. “Do something right now.”
By the end of her talk, Cannon had depicted Israel as an all-powerful monster that put Palestinian boys in jail for innocent acts of resistance, while the reality was actually a lot more complex.
During the same talk, Cannon described World Vision as a development organization, but can it really be effective, given its refusal to talk honestly about the problems in Palestinian society that hinder its development and its ability to make peace?
Cannon reported that World Vision works with the Palestinians because of the economic differential between the Palestinians who have a per capita yearly income of $1,750 and the Israelis, who enjoy a per capita yearly income of $17,500. She added that since Israel has the third most powerful military in the world (a clear exaggeration), it is unreasonable to look for balance when discussing the conflict. She instead argued that Christians should pursue a holistic understanding of events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But how “holistic” can Cannon and World Vision be if they are unable and unwilling to address the role Palestinian leaders play in impoverishing their own people? Listen to Cannon’s talk and you will hear an acknowledgment of both Palestinian and Israeli suffering, but when it comes to assigning culpability and responsibility, it is all heaped on Israel. To her credit, Cannon has acknowledged that antisemitism is a problem in the Middle East – but what has World Vision done to combat it?
In sum, there is no mention of the corruption of the PA, nor is there any condemnation of Hamas’ policy of starting wars it cannot win with a state that cannot afford to lose, every few years, just like clockwork. While Cannon has acknowledged the problem of antisemitism in global terms in the Middle East, she has made no mention of the hateful anti-Israel propaganda that has been broadcast on Palestinian TV in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a problem that has only gotten worse since the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 1990s. Palestinian leaders are teaching children to hate and no responsible advocate for child welfare can remain silent about it.
But World Vision does.
These are injustices. They are sins. They are real problems that responsible Christians simply cannot ignore. In order for the Palestinians to make peace with Israel so children in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip can have any kind of future, “something must be done about what has gone wrong” (to borrow a phrase from Fr. Richard John Neuhaus). “Things must be set to right.”
But if things can be set to right, somebody must point out what has gone wrong. That is something that World Vision, which describes itself as an “advocacy organization,” should be doing, but doesn’t. Instead, it pretends that these problems do not exist, or would not exist if it was not for Israel’s creation in 1948.
Why is there such a dichotomy between World Vision’s treatment of Israel and that of the rest of the Middle East? The simplest explanation is that it is safer to condemn the Jewish State than it is to condemn Muslim governments and political movements. World Vision is a Christian organization, and Islamic radicals are attacking Christians and Christian churches on a regular basis in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Christian organizations that operate in Muslim-majority environments have every reason to fear for their safety even if they refrain from criticizing local leaders. According to a security manual issued by the organization in the 1990s, to keep themselves safe, World Vision staffers “should always avoid statements concerning the host government, local authorities, and the political or military situation.” To do otherwise, staffers could give the false perception that they have become parties to a local conflict.
World Vision staff members do not follow this rule in reference to Israel, but they hew pretty closely to it in Muslim-majority environments, as seen on the fundraising materials and advocacy reports posted on World Vision websites about violence in Iraq and Syria. Families are driven from their homes, schools are destroyed and people are threatened with violence by individuals that World Vision allows to remain nameless. An article World Visonpublished in March 2013 about Palestinians who fled to Lebanon from a refugee camp in Yarmouk, Syria provides telling details about children living in fear as a result of nightly bombardments and of unexploded bombs in school yards, but no information is given about the actors in the Syrian civil war who dropped these bombs.
Compare that with an article about the suffering of children in the Gaza Strip that was posted on World Vision International’s website in 2012: “Israel’s recent military operation in the Gaza Strip, ‘Operation Pillar of Defense,’ resulted in the death of 163 Palestinians, between 29 and 32 of which are estimated to be children, and injuring over 1,000 more people.” No doubt about who did what to whom!
World Vision’s distorted narrative about child welfare in the Middle East, compiled by its tendency to single out Israel for condemnation and to remain silent about other countries and political movements in the region, is a disgrace. Not only does the organization legitimize anti-Zionism, and ultimately, antisemitism, by assisting in the campaign to demonize Israel and by remaining silent about Hamas’ patently evil policies, World Vision makes it harder to have a discussion about the changes that
need to take place in the Gaza Strip.
One of the best sermons I ever heard came from a pastor who warned against trying to claim the victory of the cross without going through the boneyard – without acknowledging the crucifixion. If we Christians believe that Christ’s crucifixion is part of the master narrative, we must discern the meaning and pattern of human history. We cannot ignore or evade the suffering that precedes redemption and we cannot bypass the crucifixion that preceded the empty tomb and ascension. The human tendency to tell a story of liberation without detailing the injustices and sins that made liberation necessary manifests itself full force in World Vision’s method of addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict and ultimately the unrest in the whole Middle East.
The question facing World Vision leaders, staffers and donors is the same question Tena Hoelkeboer presented to Robert Pierce in 1948:
“So what are you going to do about it?”