Balancing Security and Transparency In the Work of Christian Aid and Missions
We all acknowledge that there are places in the world where it is dangerous to be a Christian or to spread the Gospel to the lost.
Christian watchdog group Open Doors recently published its list of most dangerous countries for Christians. Afghanistan tops the list this year, with North Korea making its perennial appearance just below. The annual list shows a 24% increase from the year prior of Christians killed because of their faith. Persecution is also based on things like the risk of violence, arrest, churches being closed, and laws that threaten foundational Christian thought or activity—North Korea, for example, has barred the Bible among “foreign published material.”
However, do security concerns within countries like Afghanistan and North Korea translate into a need for secrecy by missionary and aid organizations in the United States? How can ministries balance security concerns with the need to provide transparency and accountability to donors and supporters?
Given her experience in many closed countries while reporting for WORLD News Group, author and former senior editor Mindy Belz told MinistryWatch there is a spectrum of ways she has seen organizations protect their workers. Rarely does it require a total blackout.
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Often, it is “shining a light in dark places” that has helped secure situations for those in danger.
“It tends to bring about pressure that is helpful, rather than harmful,” she said of her experience.
However, she acknowledges that not all coverage is wise or takes risk into account.
The most deference should be given when an individual’s life or livelihood is in danger, Belz said. But moving up the chain, institutions are less vulnerable than an individual.
Often, large credible organizations work closely with local governments and get buy-in before setting up operations.
Belz referenced an operation by Samaritan’s Purse to set up a field hospital in a dangerous area of Iraq after getting permission from government officials and the World Health Organization. Samaritan’s Purse was very transparent about what they were doing and were willing to treat all in need, wounded families and even wounded terrorists.
She acknowledged that Samaritan’s Purse might be a best case scenario, but it speaks to the health of the organization and their willingness to gain credibility with local officials and serve those in need.
“If an organization is having to hide, do they have local buy-in?” she posed.
However, some organizations, like Global Catalytic Ministries, seem to use security as an excuse to not be financially accountable for funds they raise. In recent months GCM has been attempting to raise millions of dollars for supposed relief efforts in Afghanistan, but refused to answer questions about finances and operations when asked by MinistryWatch.
Belz believes the same principles of establishing local connections and some buy-in ought to apply to most missionaries.
“Anyone who wants to be productive must establish biblical connections,” she offered, noting stories she recalls in which Muslims have protected Christians from attacks in their communities because they considered the Christians to be vital members.
“Of course, it isn’t a fail-safe,” she acknowledged.
Security concerns and situations can change regularly. And mission organizations have challenges staying on top of that.
World Help’s Director of International Partnerships, Kraig Cole, told MinistryWatch they depend on local partners to make them aware of the context and situation on the ground before sending groups on short-term mission trips to assist local partners with a project.
They also take State Department bulletins and Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) reports into account when analyzing and assessing security risks for groups, and they must consider “certain assumptions made [by locals] about foreigners, especially by the criminal element.”
When reporting to donors and supporters about projects in sensitive areas of the world, like the Middle East and Central and South Asia, Cole said they have to find a balance.
They may blur faces in photos and use different names, but they acknowledge to donors that they have done so to protect the safety of individuals.
“Our donors are extremely understanding of the balance between security and transparency,” Cole added.
With the transfer and publication of much information online today, mission and aid groups must also consider cybersecurity concerns. Authoritarian regimes and surveillance states monitor the internet.
Cole said they follow the guidance of their information technology department, and use encryption and key words whenever needed.
And there are projects in certain countries that are never posted online, Cole said.
“We take the approach to social media—if we don’t want it found, don’t post it. Anyone can find anything.”
World Help will meet with donors who give to highly secure projects one-on-one to provide updates, Cole said.
Sean Eyre, founder and CEO of the non-profit Ericius Security, which provides professional cybersecurity services to missionary groups and other aid groups working in dangerous areas, notes that mission groups often don’t recognize their electronic vulnerabilities.
“If the right threat actor got a list of risky operations a missions group is involved in, it could both directly hinder the operation and endanger the missionaries there,” he told MinistryWatch.
When trying to help groups balance providing meaningful reports about their work with real cybersecurity threats, Eyre reminds them they can “tell an honest, emotionally engaging story to their supporters without including all of the details” like names and locations.
Instead of thinking of it as hiding information, Eyre encourages the groups to consider the protection they are providing.
“People should only have access to the information they need in order to provide their function or role,” he said, while acknowledging this often flies in the face of the more-information-is-better Western mindset.
However, he offered an alternative perspective: “In reality, you’re communicating that your supporters understand how risky your work is, and can be trusted to give you support with only limited access to information. You’re also giving your supporters a glimpse into the caution and wisdom that you use to keep missionaries and new believers safe in a rapidly evolving world.”
Belz has seen groups exploit stories for donations, however, so she encourages supporters to beware.
“Are they discussing something real, specific, and recent? There must be enough details for the account not to be suspect,” she warned.
Membership in groups like the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability and transparency rankings from MinistryWatch can help donors make informed decisions about the history of an organization’s work and use of the money entrusted to it.