Adam Phillips, the new director of USAID’s faith office. Photo by: USAID via Twitter

U.S. President Joe Biden issued an executive order on Feb. 14 establishing the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. This interagency body promotes cooperation between U.S. government agencies and religious and secular organizations.

Initially created under former President George W. Bush and maintained — with some changes — under former President Barack Obama, the office effectively disappeared under former President Donald Trump.

During the Trump administration, partnerships between the U.S. Agency for International Development and faith-based organizations adopted what many saw as a more political stance, particularly as USAID came under pressure from the White House to support religious groups in the Middle East.

Part of our Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

Last month Adam Phillips, a pastor from Portland, Oregon, was sworn in as the new director of USAID’s faith office. He will also lead USAID’s new Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships Hub, housed in the newly established Bureau for Development, Democracy, and Innovation.

Devex spoke to Phillips about the Biden administration’s approach to faith engagement and its role in USAID’s response to multiple current crises.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What can you tell me about the conversations that you had with the administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris around taking on this role? What are the set priorities they asked you to take on?

The conversation was really about how we demonstrate American leadership around the world — and in this country too — in terms of our commitment to economic recovery, climate action, leadership around the COVID global pandemic. We talked a lot about "building back better," and I think that has real ramifications, too, for how we engage and partner with faith groups and civil society.

This office is not just about religious engagement. It's also around partnering with civil society actors of faith — and no particular faith — to stand with and work alongside folks around the world. It's the Neighborhood Partnerships Center, so for me, my mandate is a little bit broader in terms of a global neighborhood.

We've got dual crises. We've got the crisis of COVID. We've got the real need to step up and address climate change. And these are also opportunities for us to lead anew.

How do you think about the definition of the center you lead and the definition of your role, if it's focused on partnering with people of both faith and no particular faith? That seems to encompass everybody.

This office has its historic roots going back 20 years now, I think, going back through multiple administrations. At USAID, as we celebrate our 60th anniversary of work, we've got a long body of work to reflect on in terms of how we do faith engagement and faith partnerships — how we live into that and how we do that well.

I think the “neighborhood partnerships” piece is simply to provide some clarity that this is about civil society and that this is kind of a return in some ways to how the faith office was engaged during the Obama-Biden administration.

We get to flesh that out in unique ways, as USAID, and I think that's why this configuration with me directing the [Local, Faith, and Transformative Partnerships] Hub is also helpful in that we talk about new partnership initiatives, we talk about Indigenous, locally led development groups. Yes, the scope is large, but USAID's got a really great way to approach these kinds of partnerships.

What is your view of effective faith engagement and faith partnership for a development agency like USAID?

The reality is that faith groups, faith leaders, faith-based organizations aren't “reaching the last mile.” They're already there. And so for us, it's about how do we partner well and effectively with evidence-based solutions to engage civil society actors in locally rooted places that can help best address the needs there in their own communities, especially when we think about global health and this pandemic we're facing.

It's going to entail ... working with people of faith and no particular faith to develop integrated and inclusive approaches around development and humanitarian assistance. How do we strengthen pluralism? How do we work at the intersection, not just of faith and development, but people of faith are people with multiple identities. And so we think about what it looks like to be engaging with those partners.

The last administration emphasized international religious freedom, but many viewed their approach as highly politicized. Do you envision a sharp pivot away from how the Trump administration approached faith engagement?

When I think about that question, I think about ... the career staff and these amazing public servants that get up every day and focus on the task at hand — which is to serve in ways that, on behalf of the American people, promote and demonstrate our democratic values abroad and advance a free, peaceful, and prosperous world.

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A month in, we are — as every new administration does — taking a thorough, comprehensive review of all the programs. I'm still getting up to speed on all the issues at hand. But I do know this: that we are unequivocally committed to protecting religious minorities and people at risk of persecution.

And when we think about current leadership, I know acting Administrator Gloria Steele believes that and affirms that. And if confirmed, Ambassador [Samantha] Power will be a champion of these issues.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.