UCSB Latin America/Caribbean Workshop

Question 3: What is the role of religion to Civil Society organizations?

Mary Becker

In the country of Haiti, one would conclude that both religious ideas and religious institutions have greatly helped the NGO, Fonkoze, to become the leading microfinance institution in that country.


The founder and animator of Fonkoze is Father Joseph Philippe, a Roman Catholic priest. Joseph was born into a peasant family in Haiti. He was able to go to school and became an accountant. After supporting several younger siblings, he became a priest and studied in Canada, Paris and at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, where he earned a masters degree in Liberation Theology. At some point Joseph read the works of Paolo Freire, a Brazilian educator and author. He realized that Freire's concept of popular education could be joined with the giving of small loans to provide the poor of Haiti with tools they needed to gain autonomy over their lives and circumstances. It was at that point that he began the institution, Fonkoze.


Religious institutions played a critical role in funding the establishment of Fonkoze. Most of the earliest and most faithful of those religious institutions are Catholic women's religious orders and major denominations in the US. Many of these religious orders and denominations are quite sophisticated about international grant-making and development and microfinance. Over the years, Jewish, Protestant and non-denominational religious organizations became engaged in the work. These organizations are motivated by their religious beliefs in social justice tenets, especially that of solidarity with the poor.


Fonkoze is an independent Haitian foundation, and is not a religious organization or aligned with any church. It is rigorously secular, and there is no attempt ever made to exclude anyone from its banking or education services on the basis of religious belief. However, Haiti is a very Catholic country. And Fonkoze does utilize networks of parish priests and church members to find the leaders, potential clients, and potential employees in the communities where it operates.

Fonkoze survives and thrives in Haiti because of many factors. But surely among them is the role that liberation theology played in the years that the country was organizing to overthrow the dictator, Duvalier. It was known as the “ti legliz”(little church) movement. That movement inspired Father Joseph Philippe to think beyond the current reality and to imagine a Haiti where poor people, especially poor women, could learn to exercise their basic rights.


Fonkoze's vision includes more than improving the economic situation of poor people. The literacy programs teach them how to improve their health, how to care for the environment and most importantly, how to become capable of civic leadership in a democratic country.

Kurt Frieder

Catholicism continues being the dominant religion in Latin America and only recently, with the rise of other groups and cults, greater religious tolerance became possible. The effects of inquisition that reigned during the first two centuries after Spanish and Portuguese conquered Latin America, are still felt, even nowadays, with established democratic governments and growing human rights movements.


In the region, local conservative groups still hold great power in political and institutional structures, and the catholic churches voice and opinion is almost decisive when it comes to some conflictive matters related to education, health and civil society. Governments have to deal with enormous social complexities in Latin America, and public policies are often mixed with politics in the struggle for power.  Under the need of liberalize legislations and growing democracy, the intense pressure of diverse evangelism and sects, most countries only recently changed their constitutional laws that sustained Catholicism as the StateĀ“s religion, but the influence of Spanish clerical traditions remains strong.


Social reality clashes and confronts with religious and dogmatic beliefs maintained by the church hierarchy. Local and international civil society non-governmental organizations, have taken on them the representation of minor groups whose requirements for equal access to civil and human rights confront with the conservative views held by most public officers and governments. In countries where poverty and inequalities are traditionally suffered by a vast part of their populations, cultural behavior and responses related to violence, drug use, women and children harassment, require the involvement of community-based organizations when public policies are absent or inefficiently implemented.

Issues like homosexuality, diverse sexual orientations or identities; gay marriages, adoptions and monoparental families are especially conflictive for the society and religion. But, there are other situations that relate to strict public health issues like wide condoms promotion to avoid STDĀ“s and HIV infections, and safe and legal abortions in a region where millions of interventions are performed anyway, with severe health consequences and deaths in many cases.


In a regional context of charismatic political leadership and extended corruption, civil society has the big responsibility of advocating for policies and sustainable programs related to the reduction of poverty, sexual and reproductive health, unwanted pregnancies, gender violence and HIV/ADS prevention all social issues that are burning for Latin America.

Otto Maduro

While the role of Roman Catholic institutions in supporting humanitarian activities in Latin America and the Caribbean is more or less well known, there is not a comparable public awareness of the contribution of Pentecostal/Evangelical congregations and pastors to similar endeavors in the region. It is, however, worthy of note that Pentecostal/Evangelical congregations -- many of them small and independent -- rally a growing percentage of the formerly Roman Catholic population of Latin America and the Caribbean, reaching already in some countries (notably Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and Puerto Rico) beyond 25% of the population. This growth has been accompanied by a concurrent increase in social ministries sponsored by Pentecostal/Evangelical pastors, congregations, and denominations. These include day care centers, orphanages, clinics, soup kitchens, rehab centers, legal aid offices, schools, and a wide array of other services. The development and significance of such initiatives is not to be disdained, particularly in these last three "lost decades" from the 80s on, when the ravages of "neo-liberal" economic policies -- imposed throughout the world from the North Atlantic by the IMF/WB/WTO -- have not only furthered hunger, homelessness, illiteracy, unemployment, violence and migrations in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, among other corners of the planet, but have also resulted in the dismantling of both public and private institutions, attitudes, and initiatives addressing such human tragedies. In times when Latin Americans feel increasingly left on their own individual means to survive this catastrophe, Pentecostal/Evangelical leaders and groups are increasingly daring to cross the line that defined their views of social ills as individualistic, pie-in-the-sky, apolitical and conservative. In countries like Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, the populist leaders who recently won the majority of the popular vote in democratic elections, did so with a message critical of IMF/WB/WTO/US policies, and, in most cases, with a significant support of Pentecostal/Evangelical spokespersons and churches -- alongside leftist parties, and the so-called "anti-globalization" groups. These tendencies certainly introduce new elements for responding in the 21st century our guiding question as to the positive role of religious institutions in supporting humanitarian activities in the region.