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Les ONG confessionnelles en France

What is an NGO ?

There is no clear legal definition, neither in French, nor in international law, of the concept of a non-governmental organisation (NGO). In fact, this word appeared for the first time in the Charter of the United Nations in 1945, notably in Article 71 dedicated to the action of the Economic and Social Council. Humanitarian organisations do however agree on the fact that an NGO is a national or international association independent of governments and that it represents a participative, solidarity-based approach.

In France, 98% of NGOs have “association” status regulated by the Law of 1 July 1901. The others are foundations (2%). NGOs all embody the principle of non-profit based activity.

They have become increasingly numerous since the second half of the twentieth century. NGOs are not public, but private, actors. In France, the majority of development projects carried out by NGOs are independent of governments, while in the countries of Northern Europe, the link between state and NGO forms an integral part of the process of cooperation.

Distinct types of action

Three types of action can be distinguished within NGOs :

- Social and humanitarian initiatives : this involves emergency work (helping the blind, lepers, the deaf, caring for the sick and wounded, distributing food…)
- Self-help : development targeting illiteracy, education, the promotion of arts and sciences, vocational training, the goal being to make the recipients able to earn their living or to improve their lives financially.
- Causes of public interest for groups in situations of conflict (defending human rights, assisting prisoners and those accused of crimes, defending minorities…) or work relating to environmental protection.

Religious NGOs in France

After missionary expeditions and initiatives inspired by religion since the colonial era, faith-based organisations have structured and organised themselves and today represent weighty actors in international cooperation.

Religious NGOs are characterised by their ability to lead initiatives whose principles are based on the teachings of a specific religious tradition. However, they generally assert the universal character of their approach and the causes to which they are committed.

Indeed, whether faith-based or not, NGOs generally have rather similar spheres of activities, such as to reduce poverty and infant mortality, to fight epidemics, to provide access to education or sustainable development. However, religious NGOs stand out from secular NGOs in certain aspects which they tend less to deal with, such as issues relating to equality of the sexes or to contraception….

Common objectives

In 2000, 23 international organisations and 193 UN Member States met in New York to define the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to achieve by 2015. These objectives cover the great humanitarian issues of the twenty-first century. The MDGs make it possible to trace the broad outlines of NGO initiatives and to focus them, but they do not represent as such a real strategic innovation. However, when these MDGs are examined from a more faith-based perspective, they make it possible for the bodies concerned to negotiate a new aspect of development, based on religion. For the president of the World Bank, the involvement of religions would enhance the performance of World Bank programmes. Indeed, the commitment of denominational communities to the fight against poverty has become vital in certain spaces ; in addition, new forms of partnerships working to consolidate the respective forces of the various communities are to be envisaged. Thus, the MDGs serve to support various denominational communities so that they can intervene more effectively in areas where community issues are of primary importance to carrying out concrete initiatives.

Developmental or humanitarian ?

Contrary to development aid, humanitarian aid does not seek to transform a society. Its aim is to help manage a crisis. Development, as its name indicates it, offers longer-term help. It is rather a question of treating the deep-rooted causes of a situation of underdevelopment in order to bring about structural change. It is in this area that religious NGOs are playing an increasingly important role, in particular as regards co-operation and international development. Religious NGOs are increasingly conscious of the bearing they have on governments and their backers, but also of the role that they can have among populations. They have become an indispensable actor in international development.

The main religious NGOs in France

The exact number of NGOs is not indicated, but they amount to a few thousand. The data below makes it possible to have an idea about the best known and most important religious NGOs. Knowing that they are all active in humanitarian and development fields, it will suffice to point out their specific characteristics. As an illustration :

Christian NGOs (without denominational labelling) :

- ACAT = against torture and the death penalty
- World Vision International = mentoring children

Catholic NGOs :

- Secours Catholique = Countries in crisis and difficulty. 164 Caritas foundations throughout the world.
- CCFD-Terre Solidaire = Catholic Committee against hunger and for development. The first French NGO for development.
- FIDESCO = Catholic organisation for international solidarity

Protestant NGOs :

- DEFAP = Protestant missionary service
- Salvation Army

Islamic NGO :

- Islamic Relief Worldwide (see article by Catherine Bonjour)

Bibliographic references :
ARCHAMBAULT E., Le secteur sans but lucratif : associations et fondations en France, Paris, Economica, 1996.
BELLION-JOURDAN J., « Les organisations de secours islamique et l’action humanitaire » in Esprit, Août-Septembre 2001.
BRAUMAN R., L’action humanitaire, Paris, Flammarion (Dominos), 1996.
DURIEZ B., MABILLE F., ROUSSELET K., (Direction), Les ONG confessionnelles, Religions et actions internationales, Paris, L’Harmattan (Religions en questions), 2007.
FURNISS J., MEIER D., « Le laïc et le religieux dans l’action humanitaire, une introduction », in A contrario, n°18, 2012-2, p. 7-36.
LIOGIER R., « Le facteur religieux dans la géopolitique transnationale », in Blandine Chelini-Pont, Raphaël Liogier, Géopolitique du christianisme (Référence Géopolitique), Ellipses, 2003.
Revue internationale de politique de développement, « Religion et développement », POLDEV 2013, n°4.

Catherine Bonjour (Master 2 Student, University of Strasbourg)

25 juillet 2014