An increasing number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) provide humanitarian assistance, including healthcare. Some faith-based NGOs combine proselytising work with humanitarian aid. This can result in ethical dilemmas that are rarely discussed in the literature. The article explores several ethical issues, using four generic activities of faith-based NGOs: (1) It is discriminatory to deny aid to a needy community because it provides less opportunity for proselytising work. Allocating aid to a community with fewer health needs but potential for proselytising work is unjust, since it neither maximises welfare (utilitarianism) nor assists the most needy (egalitarianism). (2) Faith-based-NGOs may state that proselytising work combined with humanitarian assistance improves spiritual wellbeing and overall benefit. However, proselytising work creates religious doubts, which could transiently decrease wellbeing. (3) Proselytising work is unlikely to be a perceived need of the population and, if carried out without consent, breaches the principle of autonomy. Such work also exploits the vulnerability of disaster victims. (4) Governments that decline the assistance of a faith-based NGO involved in proselytising work may deprive the needy of aid. Three strategies are proposed: (a) Increase knowledge to empower communities, individuals and governments; information on NGOs could be provided through an accessible register that discloses objectives, funding sources and intended spiritual activities. (b) Clearly demarcate between humanitarian aid from proselytising work, by setting explicit guidelines for humanitarian assistance. (c) Strengthen self-regulation by modifying the Code of Conduct of the Red Cross to state criteria for selecting communities for assistance and procedures for proselytising work.
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The author is currently a member of the Board of Trustees of an NGO in Sri Lanka.
The author is based at the Department of Clinical Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo, Kynsey Road, Colombo 8, Sri Lanka. He is currently on sabbatical leave and working as a locum consultant physician, Barking, Havering and Redbridge Hospitals NHS Trust, Essex, UK.
- non-governmental organisation