Book Review: A Twist of Faith

A rousing good read and cautionary tale of one man’s mission to help AIDS orphans in Africa — and how good intentions can pave the road to hell — the book A Twist of Faith also offers a few facts that may surprise you:

  • Faith-based organizations spend more money on aid than the U.S. government’s foreign aid agency, USAID.
  • The number of faith-based do-gooders working overseas today is massive, in the hundreds of thousands, but nobody really knows. They usually don’t report activities to outsiders or other aid agencies.
  • Evangelical Christians had a huge role in laying the groundwork and fueling America’s global leadership in responding to the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

Those are just a few interesting tidbits in this new book by John Donnelly, who I guess I should disclose at the outset of this review is a friend. More importantly, he was for many years Africa correspondent for the Boston Globe and is one of the best journalists covering matters of global health.

So why write about faith-based organizations in Africa?

“I saw so many of them when I was based there, and was curious,” Donnelly said. A decade ago, the AIDS pandemic was creating millions of orphans in Africa and faith-based organizations were coming in by the thousands to rescue these children.

“I wondered what they were all doing, and if what they were doing was working,” Donnelly said. “It wasn’t based on any personal beliefs. I was just surprised at how big this was, and also how uncoordinated it all was, and still is.”

This scattershot, fractured approach to aid not just a problem for faith-based organizations, he emphasized. Lack of coordination, half-baked if well-intended ideas and lack of accountability is rampant throughout the entire aid & development community.

In that sense, Donnelly’s book A Twist of Faith: An American Christian’s Quest to Help Orphans in Africa should be of interest to both faithful and faithless do-gooders.

The story follows the exploits of David Nixon, a troubled young man who escapes his family’s dysfunctional patterns by first becoming a devout Christian and then taking on the cause of trying to help orphans in Malawi, starting a small organization he dubbed the NOAH Project.

I won’t spoil the story by giving away too many details of Nixon’s path to enlightenment – which starts right off with his discovery (after investing a lot of time and money) that what he wanted to do, build an orphanage, wasn’t what the community wanted or needed. Instead of stubbornly trying help in the way he wanted to help, Nixon listens and learns … and changes directions.

The story of David Nixon is fascinating by itself, but Donnelly deftly weaves into the plot a number of other vignettes or analyses that show this man’s experience is representative of a widespread problem.  Oprah Winfrey makes a cameo appearance in the book, as does Madonna and her ill-fated plan to also build an orphanage in Malawi. It turns out the celebrities, despite all their wealth and access to expert advice, can be just as clueless as a southern bubba about how best to help the poor.

Even readers who could care less about (or are hostile to the whole idea of) faith-based organizations will enjoy reading about Nixon’s trials, tribulations and passion.

As Donnelly explains well in the book, the size and scope of the faith-based community overseas should make anyone who cares about foreign aid and international development sit up and pay attention if only because ignoring the faith-based component of the humanitarian sector means you are missing at least half the landscape you are trying to improve.

And, as I noted at the top, there are some surprising observations and factoids in this book that will may change your view of foreign policy — of what it takes to make aid really work – and give you some hope that we may yet return to a time when conservatives and liberals, Christian fundamentalists and gay activists and even Congress can came together to help the poor.

Donnelly’s hope is that this book will encourage the faith community and secular humanitarians to critically evaluate what they are doing and collaborate as much as possible on projects of proven value.

“Many of these people still aren’t working together,” Donnelly said. “It’s a problem.”

A Twist of Faith is a great read. My only criticism is that the chronology sometimes jumped around a bit at time and the book breezes rapidly over some complex issues. I would have welcomed more of Donnelly’s keen analysis and insight, a longer book. Nixon’s story continues in reality, of course, but it seemed to me to end abruptly in the book.

For anyone who wants to know what it’s like to launch and manage a humanitarian project in Africa, faith-based or not, this book should be required reading.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Doug Satre

    Thanks for letting us know about this Paul- I look forward to reading it. I just ordered Barnett’s Empire of Humanity on the history of humanitarianism, and curious about the historical context here. Isn’t it true that at it’s inception at least, humanitarianism was essentially faith based? Does Donnelly put recent efforts in that context? Thanks for your site.