Religion and Development
Religion and Development
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter argues that while the links between both ideas and practice that touch on religion and development are legion, an exploration of what that really means, intellectually and in practice, is still tentative and quite fragmented. The limitations in systematic investigation of the topic have several explanations. A prime reason is the breadth and complexity of the institutions and issues involved. Special sensitivities around the religion development nexus is another. Perhaps most significant is the historically shaped segmentation of language, relationships, and perspectives among different types of institutions. Despite much overlap and many synergies, the two worlds (development and faith) have largely operated in separate universes, with different institutional, intellectual, and ideological frames. The resulting disconnects and frictions can result in wasted resources and in the kind of tensions that sap will and operational efficiency. They dampen the potential energy and ingenuity that can come from creative partnerships among these different institutions. They matter above all because they represent missed opportunities in the global effort to confront the challenges of global poverty and inequity.
The avenues by which religion influences development activities in different faiths and regions are haunting in their complexity.
Setting the Scene: Disconnects on the Ground
A technical team met at the World Bank's Washington, D.C., headquarters for an in-house review of a a social assessment for a southern African country. The survey, conducted by a local team of social scientists, was part of the preparatory work for an ambitious multidonor nationwide malaria program. State-of-the-art participatory survey techniques were showcased, as was the effort to reach traditional leaders, local elected and appointed officials, and civil society organizations. The discussion focused among other topics on practical implications of the study's findings. For example, the survey found widespread informal polygamy, so the question was whether the bed nets, which are a pivotal element of antimalaria strategies, should be given to men or women. If the traditional path of targeting men was followed, it could be difficult to assure that all children would sleep under the life-saving nets that would protect them against mosquitoes. The complex social implications were thrashed out.
What was the view of the local pastors, a participant asked? Church communities were omnipresent and active in the country and were deeply concerned about child mortality. What had the survey learned from their responses and experience? There was an awkward silence. It transpired that the study had failed to include churches or pastors because religious institutions of all kinds did not form part of the accepted definition in that country's professional development circles of “social.” This had raised no flags for the World Bank.
A workshop for interfaith teams from several African countries, held in Ethiopia, included a field visit in Addis Ababa to a Christian organization that provided home-based care to families who were affected by HIV/AIDS. The diverse interfaith group was discussing the broad implications of the program—its views on (p.194) orphan care, possible incentives for testing for HIV, and the community impact of the disease and the organization's response. A complex chart on the wall attracted attention. The director explained that the chart allowed him to track the complex flows from financial commitments from external organizations that supported the organization's work. No one organization could or would support their overall program, so the reality took the form of an uncertain patchwork arrangement. He found that donors tended to tire of programs after a time, moving on to meet new priorities and strategies, so a constant renewal of donors was also essential. He spent a large part of his own time mobilizing and coordinating the financing that kept the organization alive.
The visitors keenly felt the irony of this picture. The organization's work offered rich lessons about the pandemic and represented important avenues for response, for example, on orphan care and attitudes on HIV/AIDS testing. But it seemed quite disarticulated from national strategies because the organization worked indepedently. The financing picture was still more ironic. That very morning the workshop discussion had focused on the fact that far more international funding was available for HIV/AIDS programs than could be disbursed. There was lip service recognition that HIV/AIDS programs must be a long-term marathon, that there are no quick fixes; an essential element in success is persistence and steady learning from experience. But the reality on the ground looked very different as this program director struggled to cobble together an imperfect and uncertain financing plan for his essential work.
The common threads in these two “parables” are, first, the impressive common ground that unites very different organizations that are working to address international development and fight poverty and, second, the practical gaps between rhetoric and on-the-ground realities, both in approach and in that essential tool, financial flows. All the players involved, whether secular or faith inspired, grappled with the complex issues involved in reaching poor communities, in this instance, to fight the pandemics of HIV/AIDS and malaria. They shared a common genuine motivation to help bring about change. But effective intellectual and organizational ways to link their ideas and their practice were lacking. Both examples suggest that better understanding, communication, and coordination could well make the programs work better, grounding them more directly in community realities and offering a better chance for lasting results over the longer term.
The links between both ideas and practice that touch on religion and development are legion, but exploration of what that really means, intellectually and in practice, is still tentative and quite fragmented. The limitations in systematic investigation of the topic have several explanations. A prime reason is the breadth and complexity of the institutions and issues involved. Special sensitivities around the religion development nexus is another. Perhaps most significant is the historically shaped segmentation of language, relationships, and perspectives among different types of institutions. Despite much overlap and many synergies, the two worlds (development and faith) have largely operated in separate universes, with different (p.195) institutional, intellectual, and ideological frames. The resulting disconnects and frictions matter. They can result in wasted resources and in the kind of tensions that sap will and operational efficiency. Still more, they dampen the potential energy and ingenuity that can come from creative partnerships among these different institutions. They matter above all because they represent missed opportunities in the global effort to confront the challenges of global poverty and inequity.
Framing the Question and Definitions
The Millennium Declaration that emerged from the summit of world leaders at the United Nations in the year 2000 was hailed as a reason to celebrate a near-universal, truly global commitment to achieve ancient ideals of ending poverty. The framework embodied in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), despite its many imperfections, defines tangible goals in eight areas, from poverty and hunger through mobilization of financial support, with deadlines and specific benchmarks designed to hold all to account. It acknowledges the complex partnerships needed to achieve results. Public and private, secular and religious, all are called to action.
The Millennium framework highlights the complexity of contemporary relationships among secular and faith-inspired actors and the way they play out in international affairs. The process of engagement in what is termed development is dynamic and highly interdisciplinary, and it involves an extraordinary array of different partnership arrangements. These partnerships take place at the most global and most local levels, and they vary by region, faith, nation, community, and even individual. The engagement spans virtually all sectors of activity, from AIDS to zebras. And it often sparks emotions ranging from unbridled enthusiasm to vehement opposition. Thus Sabina Alkire's observation, cited earlier, about the extraordinary complexity of the topic is an apt reminder not to indulge in overgeneralization.
Three basic questions to ask are, therefore, “What is meant by development?” “What is meant by religion?” and “What have the two to do with one another?”
As to what is meant by development, beyond a reasonable degree of consensus that absolute poverty is tragic and even evil, and on a broad definition that includes all basic human needs, the sands of understanding about what constitutes development are shifting. Especially since the end of the Cold War, the equation of three worlds is rendered largely meaningless. Grouping the world into developed and developing also has little sense, given the wide variations in country situations, changing trajectories, and disparities within any notional bloc. Today's global reality involves widely different country and regional situations, wide welfare gaps within countries, and considerable dynamism that shifts groupings over time. Côte d'Ivoire was a dynamo of development at one point, then a failing state, and now seems to be creeping back toward emerging low-income nation.
(p.196) The goals of development efforts are complex, and in that sense the Millennium Development Goals represent a deceptive oversimplification. Contrasted with the straightforward notions set out by early development economists and practitioners that posited a steady progression toward modernity, fueled largely by investment projects, the scene today looks rather different. Development is well understood to involve different paths and often different ends. Human development—education and health in the first instance, social capital beyond that—is well appreciated as both a priority goal and means. Participation by communities and individuals in every aspect of the process of change is an accepted prerequisite for successful programs and is linked to what is nearly a mantra today: local ownership. That often differently defined term equity is taking on new importance as an objective, as it becomes increasingly clear that the goals of development go far beyond simply ending avoidable misery. Equity underscores the commonsense point that what is desired is not equality in the sense of the same outcomes and paths. Equity suggests balance, access, and opportunity. Complicating an already complex picture is a blending, in argument and strategy, of rights-based thinking, compassion, and fear of terrorism. All three strands lead to a focus on what are variously termed least-developed countries, low-income countries under stress, failing states, or the bottom billion among the world's population.
Social justice and progress have long been and remain contested space. What is new is the real prospect of a world where a decent life is expected and should be feasible for all people. The questions are how to get there and what constitutes a decent life. Here again, warring intellectual gladiators offer rather different diagnoses and prescriptions: Jeffrey Sachs argues passionately that the poorest countries have had a raw deal from geography, history, and contemporary global economic systems; they need large financial flows to get on the ladder of progress. Meanwhile, William Easterly cautions that much of the resources flowing to development have gone to questionable ends with limited results to show for vast efforts. Development is one topic where that much bandied phrase “ ‘it's complicated” applies well. Veterans of the field (myself included) have learned reams of lessons from experience and appreciate well that simple diagnoses and remedies are perilous. Humility and awareness of the complexity of the challenge are among the most significant lessons of more than sixty years of experience.
Turning to the second challenge, defining what we mean by religion, that phrase “it's complicated” applies still more. Religion is hugely complex, and any definition, starting with the words religion, faith, and spirituality, are hotly contested. The terms are understood differently and often in ways that are quite contradictory: for example, is spirituality the essence or the opposite of religion? It should hardly be surprising that the world of religion opens a Pandora's box of information, insight, contradictions, conflicts, and wisdom, given millennia of history and the essential roles that religious belief play in human history, psychology, and welfare. But there is nonetheless a tendency for many to pigeonhole their perceptions about religion and to seek simple explanations of what it means and does.
(p.197) And what do religion and development have to do with one another? For starters, the boundaries between religion and development are far fuzzier than most recognize. At a recent meeting, for example, one participant highlighted that all human action is motivated by faith (with economics a prominent example, with its faith in unseen hands); the question is what kind of faith? The role that religion plays in motivations, in the ordering of lives, and in organizations of many kinds is rarely straightforward or simple.
How development issues and institutions relate to religion thus varies widely. There are some clear, practical intersections: for example, where faith-inspired organizations run schools and universities, health services, HIV/AIDS work, or microfinance programs. Trickier and more elusive are questions about how religion is linked to social tensions and conflict, as well as conflict resolution and peace building. And the deepest questions turn around how religious and spiritual motivations affect social change and social welfare. In sketching the arena within which contemporary interactions between development and faith-inspired actors take place, there is merit in looking at different levels of engagement, with their evident implications for scale: the community level, affecting day-to-day lives; national approaches, including in particular legal and policy dimensions; transnational faith organizations like the Catholic Church, which exercise particular sway; and interfaith initiatives linked to development, a growing area of interaction.
In short, an array of caveats: approaching the topic with any prospect that the answers will be simple is unrealistic. Development and religion have far more to do with each other than most treatments of either topic would suggest, but the links are a blizzard of different pieces, a kaleidoscope of changing parts interacting, and not a single picture or mosaic.
Journeys toward Development-Religion Engagement
The path to exploring this kaleidoscope of relationships among religious and secular perspectives on development has different parts. Different stages of the journey provide a historical time dimension and also illustrate some of the issues that have emerged as the different communities and approaches have come increasingly into contact. The journey of international development—in many respects, the journey toward human social and economic progress—in a concrete way can be seen as starting in the post–World War II period, which saw the creation of many of the institutions that are the most active players today: the World Bank, most United Nations specialized agencies, the Marshall Plan, and major relief agencies that evolved toward broader development roles: Catholic Relief Services, CARE, and others.
For decades, the story of engagement was largely one of ships passing in the night. With exceptions (and there are exceptions to every statement on this topic), the common working assumption was that religion belonged in the private sphere (p.198) while the focus of formal development work labeled as such was on public institutions and on private investment. Knowledge and systematic exchange was limited. The World Bank library, to take a concrete example, has had no category for religion. Major faith-inspired organizations did come to serve as essentially executing arms of some development programs, particularly where humanitarian relief was concerned, but they were rarely at the policy table as fully engaged partners in those early years. Civil society, so visible and significant today, was overall rarely seen as a critical element in the development equation. Religion, if seen as part of civil society, was treated in roughly the same fashion—out of sight and out of mind.
A first element that opened up communications was the growing appreciation described earlier among development professionals that development would not come by applying simple recipes. It was rarely linear, still less often predictable. A deeper appreciation of what poverty meant, that it went far beyond low incomes, worked as a deep intellectual current that changed approaches and assumptions at many levels. For example, the Voices of the Poor studies led by the World Bank in the mid-1990s evoked keen interest and were and are widely quoted. These large and participatory surveys brought individual voices of poor people into discussions and showed the complexity of poverty, how risk and uncertainty played out, and how human development was tightly linked to opportunity. Research and operational experience combined to paint a far more complex and nuanced picture of what development truly entailed, its links to culture, the central role of gender relations, how governance changed outcomes, and many other dimensions. The new appreciations opened doors to more participation, subtler understandings of events, and more hunger for understandings that began at the community level and helped explain complex behavior and responses to circumstances and incentives.
But the newly opened understandings and doors came at a time not of harmony but of mounting tensions and critiques of development work. From the late 1970s, development work was traveling some bumpy paths. The expected steady upward trajectory and the hopes that accompanied new independence for many nations, especially in Africa, were dashed, not everywhere but in many regions and countries. Oil price increases shocked economies, development projects launched with fanfare foundered, and growing populations and especially large cities swamped plans to enroll all children in school and assure health care in poor communties. The World Bank and other development organizations shifted their focus to national policies and to programs aimed at large changes, often termed structural adjustment. Faith institutions, largely informed by what they were hearing from communities where the disappointments were playing out, responded with mounting criticism that went from core policies and approaches to attitudes and behavior.
Development, willy-nilly, was emerging from the shadows of technocracy into politics. Rather ill prepared for the spotlight and onslaughts, most actors responded (p.199) clumsily. The tensions between a civil society movement that was revolutionized by both changing politics and technology and official institutions mounted. When protests erupted into violent confrontations, especially played out on a world scene as in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001, the future path seemed increasingly dangerous and uncertain.
Meanwhile, geopolitics had experienced the revolution of 1989 and 1990, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, and the rather abrupt close of the long Cold War chapter of world history. These seismic shifts affected development thinking and organization profoundly. The political standoffs and alliances that had importantly if indirectly affected approaches to many poor countries played out over time. The longtime support for regimes like Mobutu's Zaire could no longer be justified. New so-called transition economies in east and southeast Europe and Central Asia became part of the development equation but with fundamentally different challenges. Raw and long-standing conflicts took new forms.
Amid these momentous changes at least on the development scene, the roles of religion were not at all apparent and, indeed, were largely ignored. But over time, deep-running social forces were also changing the religious landscape and, together with civil society's revolutionary explosion in activity, brought new forces to bear in many corners of the world. Debates about how to approach HIV/AIDS, awareness of the muscle and rapid spread of Pentecostal churches, the growing influence of Wahhabism in Muslim societies but also of Sufi movements, and the growing environmental movement that engaged faith actors were among the vital currents shaking the world of religion that increasingly impinged on the “space” and agendas that development institutions had seen as their chasse gardée.
Nowhere did this play out as clearly, in terms especially of the religion- development link, as on the issue of poor-country debt. The approaching turn of the millennium in the year 2000 marked an important watershed as both development and faith actors took stock and, often, did not like what they saw. Reflections about promises made and not kept at summit after summit generated the Millennium Development goals, while the focus on “what went wrong” for poor countries crystallized about the issue of debt.
On the MDGs, the deliberations played out largely at a state level, with heavy inputs from international nongovernmental organizations; only recently have faith communities taken on the enormous challenges that they represent. By 2010, Religions for Peace and the Micah Challenge offered examples of express focus on building alliances to translate millennium ideals into reality. Before the year 2000, however, the Jubilee 2000 movement that clearly emerged out of religious thinking and institutions, broke new ground in drawing on biblical wisdom to call for debt cancellation for poor countries. The mobilization around Jubilee 2000 turned a technocratic issue, where few truly understood the elaborate mechanics of the moving financial world consensus on debt relief, into a moral imperative. World (p.200) leaders listened, and the glacial movement on debt picked up momentum. Sadly, debt was only part of the problem, and the year 2000 passed by, but the lessons of Jubilee are significant.
Partly with these openings but spurred by other forces, the alliances of religious groups took new and often startling forms and alliances. The common cause of poverty, and sometimes common frustration with official discourse and action, lay behind an array of strange-bedfellow alliances and popular mobilizations. The most striking was the alliance in the United States that generated the ambitious President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program. Concerted action to end sex trafficking is another example.
This history of gradual engagement between faith and development actors, moving from indifference and ignorance to tension to something approaching rapprochement, has many more chapters. But what we see today is a growing interest in partnerships generally and with faith institutions more specifically.
Bumps along the Road
The journey outlined here has echoes in parallel histories of civil society more broadly and, for example, trade unions. The history of religious encounters in the development field, however, have some special elements. As the World Bank, under presidential leadership, sought to engage with faith institutions starting in 1998, an unexpected array of tensions and objections emerged. Some were peculiar to that institution and moment in history, but they offer a cautionary tale nonetheless. Some tensions were related to lack of knowledge—read “mutual ignorance”—others from differences in approach and language. But they were also illustrative of significant reservations, especially among secular institutions, that have stood in the way of more active engagement and cooperation.
Put briefly and almost as a caricature, country representatives, as the World Bank's governors, expressed keen reservations about engaging with religion because they saw religion as divisive (interfaith and intrafaith tensions, personal jealousies, church-state tensions). They were doubtful that the essential objectives of religious actors were compatible with the development mission because they saw faith institutions as supporting the status quo in many situations and read their motivations as more about future worlds or converting new members than about transforming society. Especially on topics like gender equity and reproductive health, they saw religious views and politics as dangerous for development. And crudely put, many saw religion as a global force as essentially defunct and thus of low priority.
Extensive dialogue has tempered and informed these views, and far more doors are open. The dialogue has also elicited and helped to define the hesitations of faith actors about the development world. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that the dialogue among development and faith actors is smooth or technically driven. The history and emotions around both topics are an essential part of the scene.
Religion and development share large common ground. Experience and exploration highlight four particular areas of emphasis.
Faith and religious beliefs and practice are an important element in shaping the values and incentives that drive social change and social relations. Disentangling the faith element is obviously fraught with difficulty. At the broadest level, faith is part of the human endeavor to define the ideals of society and the path to achieving them. More concretely, the calls to conserve resources, save money, and attend school all have faith links. Different faiths may (or may not) approach these questions differently, coloring the path of social change accordingly. This essential backdrop is largely about understanding (not, obviously, seeking to convert or change values). Better knowledge and appreciation can inform design of programs at many levels. Poor knowledge has led to countless blunders and suboptimal programs and policies. Among live issues for exploration today are faith roles in generating, preventing, and resolving conflict, the impetus and impact of the spread of Pentecostal churches in poor communities, and the contemporary social roles that spreading Sufi movements are playing in Muslim societies.
Faith institutions shape ideas and values, but they are also very practically engaged in service delivery. Education and health, the most important are directly linked to the Millennium Development goals. The imperfect knowledge of what faith institutions are doing in these two critical sectors is an obvious knowledge gap to fill. Another is the large and largely unmapped role of faith-inspired organizations involved in virtually every aspect of development work: microfinance, water, garbage and sanitation, tree planting, and so on. Faith institutions are engaged in supporting migrants, providing safety nets for the destitute, working with the disabled, and caring for orphans. These, in turn, are high-priority topics for development institutions. There is a vast field for investigation of both quantity and quality of this work, as well as ample room for coordination and common engagement.
The bumpy road of partnerships among religious and secular partners on important development policies suggests that priority should go to thoughtful dialogue. Reproductive health and gender roles are by far the most contentious and the most important topics. Approaches to corruption and governance more broadly are another.
The engagement of faith and development institutions has often turned around practical and immediate issues. Stepping back, the engagement has also posed for all concerned a set of underlying challenges about the very objectives of development: what are the visions of an ideal society? How can traditions and traditional beliefs and cultures survive with the catapulting changes of the contemporary world? How much diversity can be sustained within a framework of common human rights and ideals of equity and equal opportunity?
A common statement in development circles is that religion is part of the problem and part of the solution. The statement is echoed by many thoughtful religious leaders, even as others find it offensive. The assessment is obviously simplistic, but it highlights three important dimensions. First, in approaching this topic, perceptions matter, and perceptions of what religion is, does, and should be are deeply held and varied. They are not abstract when they translate into real action (for example, when a public health official dismisses faith voices from a planning session because he says their approach is not evidence based). Nor is it abstract when faith leaders denigrate what they describe as the crass material motivations of dedicated development professionals. Second, highlighting the positive and negative facets of faith roles underscores the obvious point of enormous diversity in experience and approach. Few would contest that various religious sects, among them the Lord's Liberation Army, which has torn northern Uganda asunder, are evil and imperil human progress. Some religious views that call women to obey their husbands are contentious and seem incompatible with human rights. In contrast, the love of learning that is nurtured by many religious institutions and their dedicated roles as inspired teachers give meaning to goals of universal education. Thus, there is a call to a nuanced approach to the topic of religion and development, one that acknowledges the enormously significant roles and potential for good and also acknowledges where there are true differences and problems.
To conclude, the religious dimensions of development offer more a lens than a special field of study. These dimensions are so embedded in an enormous range of topics that disembedding seems nigh impossible. It is hard, looking through this lens, to see how development work could have progressed without understanding the many religious dimensions. Yet the topic, in all its complexity, has been largely neglected by both academics and operational actors, with important negative consequences. The neglect has led to missteps and, above all, missed opportunities. It has curtailed efforts to understand what have proved to be complex processes and challenges. But the neglect is not without reasons, and as always, those reasons have their history. The most obvious turn on lack of knowledge, above all a divorce of fields of study and institutions. Mapping of relevant religious work is still very partial, and mutual knowledge is often lacking. But the separations of worlds also arise from tensions on specific issues like gender and reproductive rights. Acknowledging the tensions and working to find more common ground (for example, seeking ways to cut child and maternal deaths) might help in bridging gulfs.
Alkire, Sabina, Review of Religion and Development for The Elgar Companion to Development Studies, ed. David Alexander Clark. Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 2006.
This pithy survey of issues and literature was prepared some years ago but serves as an excellent introduction to all dimensions of the question, from theology to practice on the ground. Topics covered include values, personal visions, faith-based institutions, professionals, dialogue/encounters, religion versus global development, and religious forces in civil society.
Berkley Center Web site, Georgetown University. http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/programs/religion-and-global-development
The Religion and Development program at the Berkley Center is active and involves partnerships with several institutions and two Henry Luce Foundation-supported projects, one reviewing faith-inspired work by region, the second reviewing development topics. In-depth interviews with practitioners (over one hundred and fifty) describe experience and insights.
Clarke, Gerard and Michael Jennings. Development, Civil Society and Faith-Based Organisations: Bridging the Sacred and the Secular. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2008.
Haynes, Jeffrey, Religion and Development: Conflict or Cooperation? Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2007.
This book surveys the landscape largely from the perspective of conflicts.
Marshall, Katherine, and Lucy Keough, Mind, Heart and Soul in the Fight against Poverty. Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004.
Marshall, Katherine, and Marisa Van Saanen, Development and Faith: Where Mind, Heart and Soul Work Together. Washington, DC: World Bank 2007.
These two books are both a narrative of experiences in the global encounter of religion and development (for example, Jubilee 2000, the Fes Festival of Global Sacred Music, and the Fes Forum on Globalization) and more specific experiences of faith development partnerships.
Religions and Development Research Programme, University of Birmingham (UK). http://www.religionsanddevelopment.org/index.php?section=1
An ambitious five-year program supported by the British DfID, focused on four countries, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Tanzania. The website has a rich array of working papers and policy briefs resulting from the research.The program has concluded.
Religion and Global Development.A special issue of The Review of Faith and International Affairs. Vol. 8, Number 4, Winter 2010.
This special issue includes articles by renowned scholars and addresses topics ranging from the Protestant Ethic and its functional equivalents to religion and public opinion on economic globalization and anti-corruption campaigns and the evangelical tradition.
World Faiths Development Dialogue: http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/wfdd
This website frames the large body of information on WFDD and broader faith development links in the MDG context. It includes in-depth information on the country study of Cambodia, undertaken as an example of a country level exploration of faith development links.
There is a substantial and growing literature on specific topics, notably peace and conflict, and HIV and AIDS. There are also histories of faith-inspired organizations (for example, Habitat for Humanity International).
(1.) Sabina Alkire, “Religion and Development,” in The Elgar Companion to Development Studies, ed. David Alexander Clark (Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 2006), 502.