Sayonara to the president's faith-based council

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Today’s the last day for President Obama’s Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a group of 25 members of the religious and nonprofit sector who’ve served a year on six task forces that aim to form public policy around certain goals.

Mr. Obama is slated to meet with them in the Roosevelt Room to thank them for their work.

The group, which was announced in February 2009, was geared to allow ministers input into public policy decisions. Josh DuBois, the president’s point man on religious issues, was appointed to head up the group, which runs the gamut from Protestant to Catholic to Hindu and includes gay members as well. 

When Mr. Obama first envisioned the council, he described it on the campaign trail as being the “moral center” of the nation. I’m not sure it lived up to that lofty goal. Various members of this committee have expressed publicly and privately their frustrations with how slow things seem to work at the White House, the fact they have to pay their own airfare to Washington at least four times a year, and how most of their time seemed spent on listening to briefings from White House officials who were quite new to their jobs.

“I don’t think anything of great substance will come out of this; maybe some relatively innocuous policy recommendations,” Frank Page, a Southern Baptist member of the group, told religion reporters in September.

“We’re making it up as we go along,” Peg Chamberlin, another member, told us.

But yesterday I got to talk with Rich Stearns, CEO of World Vision and a member of the global poverty task force. He felt his time was not wasted and his committee had forwarded some very worthwhile recommendations to the Obama administration to follow up on.

One major suggestion is for the administration to increase drastically the percentage of foreign humanitarian assistance monies from the current 10 percent to at least 33 percent. Back 40 years ago, he said, half of America’s foreign assistance dollars went to private voluntary organizations (PVOs) ranging from CARE, Bread for the World, Habitat for Humanity, American Jewish World Service, OxFam, Mercy Corps and others. Some are religious and others are not. But that percentage has shrunk with monies instead going to the Department of Defense and for-profit contractors, neither of which, Mr. Stearns said, have much experience in humanitarian aid.

“The point we are making is this community of PVOs has decades of experience working internationally on these issues,” he said. “Together, we have hundreds of thousands employees; World Vision alone has 40,000 full-time staff. A lot of very specific knowlesege about malaria protection, orphan care, water sanitation, safe childbirth, education and microfinance is in this community. Lastly, this community has a massive infrastructure in developing countries with employees, vehicles, offices, computers, local relationships, knowledge of language and culture and politics. When the U.S. government partners with World Vision or Catholic Relief, they get all the benefit of that knowledge for the taxpayer dollar they invest.”

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have pulled humanitarian dollars into military budgets, plus USAID has had its budgets slashed repeatedly over the past two decades.

“USAID has no longer the bandwidth for a generous aid program,” Mr. Stearns said. “This was the main theme of our discussions” in task force meetings. His committee has left on the table suggestions on how the administration can partner in better ways with the PVOs who have track records overseas.

People serve on these task forces for one-year terms, so I’m expecting another group of 25 names to be announced shortly. I’ll be writing more about this in a future column, but if any readers have nominations for who should serve on this task force for rest of 2010 and into 2011, let me know. I may draw up a wish list.

— Julia Duin, religion editor

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About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times' religion editor. She has a master's degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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