Torrey Olsen on Faith-Based Humanitarianism and World Vision
Date: October 5th, 2014

Being a humanitarian aid worker can be a dangerous job.  Torrey Olsen, Director of Christian Witness at World Vision, knows this well from his own experience.  With over 15 years experience in West Africa, Mr. Olsen has endured malaria, being shot at, and being abducted at gunpoint and left to walk home in the Sahara Desert.  He reviews these experiences and what the role of religiously-based humanitarian aid organizations play in the world with a specific focus on World Vision.

Our conversation begins with a discussion of World Vision, a Christian-based humanitarian relief organization with 45,000-50,000, several hundred thousand volunteers, and an annual budget of roughly $2 billion.  Torrey reviews the history of this entity, its general mission, and discusses a number of different projects that they have engaged in over the years.  He notes that while a faith-based organization rooted in Christianity, it is not a proselytizing ministry and has signed on to the Red Cross Code of Conduct.  Moreover, while employing nearly every stripe of Christian, World Vision operates ecumenically both hiring members of other faith traditions (e.g., Muslims, Hindus) and reaching out to these different confessions as a way to build communities and solve social problems at the grassroots level.  Mr. Olsen provides details of a recent project they are undertaking designed to bring Christian pastors and Islamic clerics together to disseminate information about the Ebola epidemic that is affecting western Africa.  He also covers a number of other humanitarian projects and along the way Tony learns what Plumpy’Nuts are.

Our discussion of World Vision also includes some reflections on how there has been a massive sea change in the world of humanitarian aid efforts.  Compared to the not so distant past, secular non-government organizations, governments, and local communities are embracing the efforts of faith-based organizations to help solve various socio-economic problems.  While there is much talk about “new social movements,” these “old social movements” (i.e., religious congregations) are ready-made for rapid collective action and have very useful information about local conditions and how aid efforts can be managed in that context.  Moreover, these religious groups also happen to be highly trusted among local populations, which facilitates efforts to bring both short-term and long-term assistance to communities in need.  We also discuss the general strategy of World Vision, which includes “rapid response teams” to drop in emergency supplies and long-term development projects such as encouraging local gardening as a means of battling malnutrition.  Torrey lays out his job with the organization, noting three specific tasks that he is responsible for: 1) training and supporting staff; 2) mobilizing pre-existing churches and faith-based organizations; and 3) supporting child sponsorship programs.  (Mr. Olsen and his wife have “walked the walk” by adopting a child and guiding him through a successful college and professional career.)

We then turn to Torrey’s personal history, and what a story it is!  We learn that although being raised as a pastor’s son, Torrey had his “prodigal period” only to return to his faith with a strong interest in economic development.  His first experience in the field involved be caught in the middle of a civil war in Chad and hiding under a bed while hundreds of villagers were killed around him, and then escaping to an French airplane.  This wasn’t the only harrowing experience he has had, as later in his aid career he was abducted at gunpoint.  He describes his thoughts and emotions during this very tense time, a fascinating look into how difficult it can be working in some of the world’s “hot spots.”  Nonetheless, he also recounts the numerous success stories he has been part of, including a project that had citizens growing their own food in small gardens in West Africa and an ecumenical effort between Muslims and Christians to help educate people about AIDS.  Torrey also mentions the role a movie — “The Imam and the Pastor” — played in alleviating conflict in local regions of Ghana that had the effect of local residents resisting an affront by Boko Haram.  He describes the most rewarding aspects of development work as being long-term projects that flourish and being able to let local individuals, using their own knowledge of their conditions, make choices that best suit their environment.

We finish the interview with his response to critiques that organizations such as World Vision are engaging in cultural imperialism or “ricebowl Christianity.”  He notes the acceptance that his efforts have among local populations he has worked with and wishes that more media attention would be paid to the good works that people are doing rather than the conflict.  The podcast ends on an upbeat and optimistic note about the future direction of the world and the role that religious individuals play in it.  Recorded: October 3, 2014.


Torrey Olsen’s bio at World Vision.


The Imam and the Pastor film.


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