The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on Tuesday announced the establishment of a new “religious engagement policy” the agency said is meant to incorporate more religious groups and institutions into its global aid and development missions. 

USAID, an independent department in the federal government, administers foreign aid and development assistance to civilian authorities worldwide. Its $50 billion budget funds humanitarian efforts in disaster response, socioeconomic development, and other areas. 

The agency said in a press release on Tuesday that it was debuting its “first-ever religious engagement policy,” which it said underscored “the important role of religious communities and faith-based organizations [FBOs] as strategic development partners.”

The press release said the new policy, titled “Building Bridges in Development: USAID’s Strategic Religious Engagement Policy,” offers aid workers a framework for “engaging religious communities and FBOs.”

Among its goals includes improved collaboration between religious institutions and the agency to maximize “humanitarian assistance outcomes.” The agency will also be pursuing what it calls “strategic religious engagement” with religious partners.

On the policy’s website, USAID said its approach to “strategic religious engagement” can work to “engage local actors as co-designers and critical partners” and encourage partnerships with “new and underutilized organizations with innovative ideas.”

The agency called the new program “an adaptive approach to development and humanitarian assistance that can apply to any sector or region depending on the local context.” 

In a policy document, USAID said it would take several steps to implement the program, including “assess[ing] a country’s religious landscape,” developing “approaches to engagement, partnership, and safeguarding,” “inviting religious actors into stakeholder consultations,” and maintaining “continuous engagement” with those stakeholders.

Program comes after ‘extensive’ dialogue with religious groups

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Bill O’Keefe, the executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy at the global humanitarian group Catholic Relief Services, said CRS is “excited” about the prospect of the new program. 

O’Keefe, who attended the program launch in Washington, told CNA that the program was “the result of extensive consultation and discussion between USAID and faith leaders and faith groups.”

“USAID has long worked directly and indirectly with faith leaders and faith groups, including Catholic Relief Services, Caritas organizations around the world, and other Catholic groups and religious leaders,” O’Keefe said.

“However, it has not had a clear policy encouraging that work and clarifying the contribution religious leaders can make to development and humanitarian response.”  

“We are excited to see the policy and hope especially it facilitates even greater support and partnership between USAID, local Catholic partners, and other religious leaders critical to peace and justice around the world,” O’Keefe continued. 

The framework of the program, O’Keefe said, is “solid.”

“Whether the policy achieves its goals depends on follow-up and leadership at USAID,” he said. “Engaging diverse religious leaders in the many contexts USAID finds itself will require [the agency to] bring to life the principles in the policy itself.”

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Past controversies over potential conflicts with religion

USAID’s current administrator is Samantha Power, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who served in the Obama administration. 

Religious groups had raised red flags regarding her nomination to the USAID post in 2021 over concerns that she would push a pro-abortion agenda in that role. Her nomination was praised by the pro-abortion Planned Parenthood Action Fund at the time.

Jesús Magaña, president of United for Life-Colombia, said upon her nomination that Biden was exemplifying an “agenda of death” by nominating Power to the role. 

Ivone Mieles, director of Pro-Life Ecuador, likewise claimed that the nomination was “scary for Latin America” due to the “influence that organizations … like Planned Parenthood, will have” under Power’s administration.

Pro-life advocates last year similarly warned of the influence that pro-abortion ideologues were having on international aid, citing the federal President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief distributing funds to the International Planned Parenthood Federation, which last year announced “a partnership with USAID” to address in part “family planning” and “reproductive health” in low- and middle-income countries.

USAID was founded in 1962 by then-President John F. Kennedy, who stressed the importance of charitable giving from “the wealthiest people in a world of largely poor people” as well as the U.S.’s “political obligations as the single-largest counter to the adversaries of freedom.”

Originally devoted largely to capital assistance, in its ensuing decades USAID shifted its work to focus on material aid such as food, health, and education. 

It also advocates for more infrastructural development such as improvements in agriculture and sanitation as well as technological development and “anti-corruption” efforts.