Action for Peace and Progress: ‘Tin Ears’ on Religion and Development

Foundation Update

Action for Peace and Progress: ‘Tin Ears’ on Religion and Development

07 May 2015

The role of religion and of religious actors is far too often ignored or dismissed by international development officials and organisations. Religious actors have a wealth of experience, access and capacity to offer in tackling and achieving global goals, and the separation of secular and religious efforts is wasting precious time and resources. Yet there is hope, as the experiences of the World Faiths Development Dialogue proves, writes Katherine Marshall for our Global Perspectives Series.

Action for Peace and Progress: ‘Tin Ears’ on Religion and Development

By Katherine Marshall

Discussions of international development issues and policies and religion tend to veer towards one of two extremes. Where economic facets of issues tend to dominate you will find scant mention of any feature that might be called religious. Alternatively, where the discussant has a primarily religious vision, religious facets may well dominate the narrative, whether it is about a practical health challenge or an economic strategy. At one extreme is a broad tendency to ignore religion, whether because of unease about the topic or a perception that religion is a private matter, the significance of which has declined in public life or should do so. At the other is a worldview so coloured by religious beliefs that everything falls within its ambit.

These extremes reflect widely differing understandings of what religious beliefs represent in the 21st century and how they influence international affairs. They also reflect the distorted lens through which religious faiths and institutions are often viewed. This is applicable at many levels, involving many very different kinds of issues. Analysis tends to be coloured by how the perceiver views religious matters: positive or negative, central or peripheral, cerebral or practical.

This disjuncture matters because we urgently need insightful, objective and probing analysis of religious factors at work in international development. This is in part because most people in the world consider themselves part of a religious community. The most recent The Global Religious Landscape study from the Pew Forum shows that 84 percent of the world's people are religiously affiliated []. It is also because the vast network of religious institutions can and should be allies in global efforts to end poverty, assure quality education and health care for all, protect the environment, end wars, promote human rights and advance other worthy causes.

Even a cursory review of social, political and economic forces at work in world affairs makes it clear that religious institutions, ideas and leaders play important roles in most societies and countries. Religious roles may be most visible where religion is seen to fuel conflict, but religious actors are involved in virtually every sector and activity, whether at the level of speaking about ethics and values or in shaping daily lives. Religious influences on domestic and international affairs are complex and dynamic. As globalisation shapes ever more plural, inter-faith societies, these complexities increase.

A first order of business is thus to make rigorous and professional analysis of religious roles in global affairs a sine qua non, integral part of policy analysis in the various reaches of professions involved in international affairs. For an example of such an approach to 'faith literacy' see K. Marshall, Global Institutions of Religion: Ancient Movers, Modern Shakers, London and New York, Routledge, 2013. A second is to address the root causes of tensions between religious communities and other religious or non-religious actors. And a third is to engage religious actors positively and actively in advancing the global goals that promise a better world for the future.

In 1998, a dialogue about development and religion, the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), was jointly initiated by the World Bank President, James D. Wolfensohn and then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, in which I have been engaged from the outset. The initiative's goals are broad and ambitious. Firstly, it aims to stimulate constructive partnerships that would extend the reach of development programmes and enhance their quality and impact. Secondly, it attempts to address critically the misunderstandings, biases and tensions that handicap collaborative work between religious and secular development actors. It was from the outset an inter-faith project, in the sense of engaging leaders from a wide range of world faiths.

This 15-year journey in inter-faith dialogue, focusing on the broad agenda of international development, has spanned a turbulent period. The tragic events of 9/11 and other terrorist attacks brought about a significant change in the overall context, but not in the effort itself. This heightened attention to what many saw as a 'resurgence' of religion and particularly its potential to incite or fuel conflict, and multiplied inter-faith efforts and lively debates about religion's role in international affairs.

Inter-faith work ranges from the very global to the very local. It can be highly intellectual and philosophical, focusing on beliefs and teachings, or be very pragmatic and action-focused, assuming that if people from different religious communities work together on any practical problem both better understanding and co-operation will result. The WFDD is primarily about common engagement on practical issues of common concern, and thus falls on the pragmatic end of the spectrum. An example is work to better understand and support strategic co-operation among different faith and secular actors on a range of health issues, such as malaria, HIV and AIDS, maternal health and child health. Mobilising faith coalitions to fight corruption, or redefining approaches to the care of orphans and vulnerable children, a traditional area of focus for many faith traditions, are other examples of common causes. However, the WFDD cannot be corralled solely into pragmatic, action-focused areas. Questions about the ends and ethics of development arise in virtually all cases and the dialogue or engagement needs to find ways of addressing these critical issues. An example is gender equality and justice, a topic seen quite differently in different religious communities, but where there is increasing convergence on global norms and standards.

Inter-faith dialogue, which should encompass intra-faith dialogue, for example among different Christian denominations or approaches to Islam, can vary from widely inclusive, including atheist or indigenous religions for example, to a more selective focus on bringing together a limited group of specific traditions. The WFDD in fact extends beyond faith traditions to include non-faith actors, an important bridge that is often harder to cross than those among different religious traditions.

The WFDD offers four valuable lessons that highlight the imperatives and pitfalls of engaging religious actors directly in international development. For an account of the World Faiths Development Dialogue experience see K. Marshall, 'Religion and Global Development: Intersecting Paths', in T. Banchoff (ed.), Religious Pluralism, Globalization, and World Politics, New York, Oxford University Press, 2008. A first lesson turns on the difficulties of integrating religious dimensions into policy and operational work. Wolfensohn and Carey were keenly aware of strong feelings that divided religious actors but did not anticipate the tensions and ambivalence they found, somewhat to their surprise, among secular institutions when the topic of religion was raised and among religious actors vis-à-vis their secular counterparts. As illustrations, when the World Council of Churches debated whether to engage with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in a dialogue, their discussion document was entitled, Lead Us Not Into Temptation. World Council of Churches, Lead us not into Temptation: Churches' response to the policies of International Financial Institutions, 2001, [ Wolfensohn found among the World Bank's governors near unanimous opposition to any formal engagement with religious institutions. These tensions underscore the strong preconceptions and emotions that many bring to a discussion about religion. They also reflect large knowledge gaps. Few development professionals bring to their work a broad and deep understanding of religious institutions, making it difficult for them to understand the contemporary world's complex and changing religious tapestry.

To advance a meaningful dialogue about the roles of faith in development work, care and professionalism in broaching religious topics are vital, as are setting standards and developing mechanisms to enhance basic 'religious literacy' among international affairs professionals. This task is easier said than done but a first step is to acknowledge how far educational and training approaches have left basic understandings about the world of religions to the side. A counterpart among religious institutions engaged in development work might be termed 'development' or 'economic literacy'. Both are essential to equip those engaged in dialogue and partnerships with something approaching a common vocabulary and understanding.

A second lesson is that the religious dimensions of development work are extraordinarily broad. Quite literally any issue, from HIV and AIDS, to education, energy access and extractive industries, engages religious actors and institutions. Yet these actors rarely form part of the core analysis and policy dialogue. The need for knowledge and research is obvious once the links are highlighted. So is the need to broaden the understanding of who is at the 'policy table'. The religious dimensions are often difficult to measure and attention to refining monitoring and evaluation is needed. But a first step is to remove the blinkers that, deliberately or inadvertently, obscure the faith dimension.

A third lesson is the importance of religious actors and issues in addressing the challenges for fragile, failing and conflict-ridden states. There is attention to the role of religion in these conflicts and especially to the perils of violent religious extremism, but far less to the potential of religious actors to deliver services and shape attitudes in constructive directions. In the 2014 Ebola crisis, for example, religious leaders and communities should have been engaged far more actively and directly from the start in responding to the epidemic in situations where state institutions are weak and overstretched. Religious roles in education, health and post-conflict reconciliation are often vital.

The fourth important lesson is the need to avoid the perception and reality of what is commonly termed 'instrumentalisation'. This is essentially a desire by some organisations to 'use' faith-inspired actors to achieve ends that are determined and defined by others. This approach can provoke a negative reaction from faith actors who perceive that their roles are viewed in this purely instrumental light with little interest for their particular concerns or challenges. This has various important implications, notable among them that both faith and development actors need to engage with each other at reflection and planning stages of projects, not just the implementation stage and that a focus is needed on developing partnerships that avoid the pitfalls inherent in ill-planned and poorly balanced co-operation arrangements.

Removing the blinkers that have obscured religious dimensions seems a 'no-brainer'. The magnitude and dynamism of religious institutions, their social, political and economic power and above all their importance to so many people and communities, is a powerful argument for taking religious factors far more seriously. The potential of religious actors to contribute to achieving vital global goals of peace, progress and human rights is another. However, taking the next steps towards their full inclusion presents important challenges and deserves careful reflection. The lessons from WFDD are offered in that spirit. The importance of knowledge, professionalism, openness to new understandings, an inclusive approach and a careful focus on fragile and conflict states are among the most important lessons.

From the outset the word dialogue has evoked lively debate. Those who hesitate when confronted with the word dialogue are concerned that it suggests all words and no action, a talk-shop or an endless process without a clear end. We have continued to use the word quite deliberately, to stress the vital importance of communication as a pathway to common action. Dialogue, as opposed to discourse or debate, suggests a balanced exchange and, still more, openness to transformation. Dialogue takes courage and a willingness to seek common ground, as, for example, theologian Hans Kung and his colleagues have embodied in A Global Ethic. Hans Kung, A Global Ethic for Global Politics and Economics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998. It also calls for an honest and forthright discussion of differences as well as creativity in resolving them or in finding ways to co-operate despite them. Religious diversity needs to be seen as a strength of the human condition. The clear threats of fundamentalist traditions that espouse violence and of traditions that are exclusionary of women or of other communities do need to be confronted. The conviction anchoring this engagement is the recognition that dialogue and action can lead to better understanding, including a better appreciation for difference, which can provide the foundation that will allow communities to work together to achieve vital global goals.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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