BAMAKO, Mali — For a year and a half, Bara Kassambara kept his mouth shut.
Every day, all of his coworkers paused for prayer time. There were frequent Bible studies, and constant talk about Jesus. Kassambara attended the required events, but otherwise quietly focused on his work: bringing clean water to rural Mali.
“I think many people at World Vision just believed that I was a Christian,” said Kassambara, a Muslim in a predominantly Islamic country.
Fluent in English and with years of development work on his resume, World Vision hired Kassambara to work on the West Africa Water Initiative — a project to provide safe drinking water to stave off water-borne diseases that run rampant in the region.
It was a rare hire for World Vision, Kassambara said; he only got the job because it was a temporary position. When World Vision stepped down as lead agency on the project in late 2008, Kassambara took a similar job with another organization.
“The goal of World Vision is clearly written: to promote Christianity worldwide,” Kassambara said. “I knew this was going on. I knew the rules of the game. If their goal is to promote Christianity, why should they hire a Muslim?”
World Vision, based outside of Seattle, is one of the largest recipients of development grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal government’s foreign aid arm. The organization received $281 million in U.S. grants in 2008, up from $220 million in 2007 and $261 million in 2006, according to World Vision documents. Those grants, amounting to about a quarter of the organization’s total U.S. budget, came in the form of both cash and food.
The organization employs about 40,000 people worldwide.
Charity Navigator, which ranks charities based on efficiency, lists World Vision as a “super-sized charity,” with $1.1 billion in expenses in 2008, and gave it four stars — the best possible ranking. Throughout Mali, Christians and Muslims alike praise World Vision for bringing food and clean water to hungry people — the organization "extends assistance to all people, regardless of their religious beliefs," according to its website. Malians credit the organization with staving off starvation and helping rural villages develop agriculture. If the group ever leaves Mali, people there say they would be devastated.
World Vision officials say the organization does not proselytize, just that they decline to separate their work from their faith. "We do want to be witnesses to Jesus Christ by life, word, deed and sign,” said Torrey Olsen, World Vision’s Senior Director for Christian Engagement. That wouldn’t be possible, he said, unless the organization’s workers were Christians.
Under U.S. law, World Vision points to civil rights protections that allow religious organizations to hire employees based on their faith. This is an uncontroversial protection of religious freedom, given that churches obviously need Christian staff to carry out their missions, just as synagogues need Jews and Mosques Muslims.
But such religious institutions are typically funded by their followers. The controversial question is whether it’s a violation of the First Amendment to exclude on the basis of religion when U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill, a practice that became increasingly common during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
As a candidate, President Barack Obama promised to end such discrimination. So far, he has not.
And so for now in Mali, World Vision’s hiring practices mean that for many of the best qualified candidates, most jobs are off-limits.
Kassambara said he didn’t deny being a Muslim when asked, but kept quiet about his faith because a job with a stable, well-funded employer like World Vision is a rarity in this landlocked nation, one of the world’s poorest. There are few decent jobs here, and the government struggles to keep its most educated citizens from moving abroad.
World Vision only hires non-Christians if a qualified Christian can’t be found. According to its website, “World Vision U.S. has the right to, and does, hire only candidates who agree with World Vision’s Statement of Faith and/or the Apostle’s Creed,” referring to an oft-quoted Christian doctrinal statement.
Fabiano Franz, World Vision’s national director for Mali, said that jobs held by non-Christians are considered temporary. “There’s no encouragement for a career here if you’re not a Christian,” he said.
Franz argued that separation of church and state is an American concept that doesn’t translate well to many other cultures. In Mali, and in other countries throughout the world, he said, faith is integrated into daily life. An attempt to separate faith and practice in Mali, he said, would be foreign and confusing to those receiving aid. “If you’re a committed Christian, you shouldn’t have this separation between your faith and your work,” he said.
“We’re very clear from the beginning about hiring Christians,” Franz said. “It’s not a surprise, so it’s not discrimination.”
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer article on Passport, GlobalPost’s premium content section. To read the rest of the article, and to learn more about President Obama’s unfulfilled promise to end taxpayer-supported evangelical discrimination, please join Passport. Your membership helps GlobalPost support its worldwide journalism.
This article was supported by a grant from the International Center for Journalists.
The subhead of this article has been updated. It previously read "World Vision hires only Christians under its $250 million in US government foreign aid grants." As noted in the story, the organization gives preferential treatment to Christians, but hires non-Christians for temporary positions as needed, and about 20 percent of World Vision International's staff is non-Christian. Also, World Vision asked GlobalPost to point out a) that World Vision does not infringe upon the rights of its non-Christian employees to worship freely in the workplace around the world; and b) that while the West Africa Water Initiative referenced in the article received grant money from USAID, World Vision's participation was privately funded (the organization's hiring policy is the same for both publicly and privately funded projects).