Supporting Communities for Action

Foundation Update

Supporting Communities for Action

07 May 2015

Despite great progress in recognising religious communities as partners in development work, it is an illusion to think that the argument that they should be is won. A lack of trust on both sides remains and serious work is needed to overcome this. Not least because when resources are at a premium there is no alternative to co-ordinated action, but also that the benefits of collaborative work and dialogue go far beyond development, building resources for conflict resolution and countering extremist narratives, writes Ian Linden for our Global Perspectives Series.

Supporting Communities for Action

By Ian Linden

In her short, measured, essay Katherine Marshall describes the state of play between the sub-culture of international development and religion. In a few words she analyses how this relationship could, and should, be so much better and more constructive. A great deal of experience and wisdom is distilled here.

Our experience of her first lesson about "the difficulties of integrating religious dimensions into policy and operational work" reflects the frustration that seems to underlie Marshall's concern. The mindset that has blinkered the institutions that dominate the development scene, and their frequent unwillingness to take a pragmatic approach to religious groups, only serves to exclude the wider community from development work. Critically, this precludes the important co-ordinated, far-reaching and responsive action that faith communities are perfectly situated to offer governments and that their agencies deliver. If, as she claims, removing "the blinkers that have obscured religious dimensions [to development] seems a 'no brainer'", then why are the blinkers still so painfully slow in coming off?

The developmentalist Denis Goulet memorably used an African description of colonialists, 'one eyed giants', to describe the powerful international multilateral agencies and non-governmental development agencies in the 1980s. He was referring to their blinkered view of development that ignored any normative account of the good life, local configurations of the just society and how people should behave towards nature. This plea to take seriously Paulo Freire's popular participatory methodology coincided with Amartya Sen's paradigm shift in thinking about development away from economic growth towards the expansion of what he called an individual's 'functionings', capabilities and freedoms. P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Herder and Herder, 1970; A. Sen, Development as Freedom, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999.

These ideas filtered into the international development world in the simple premise that culture was important. But, of course, this whole discourse about normative accounts of development and the good life intersected with religion and ethics. Goulet himself was a Catholic and quoted liberally from the French Dominican priest Louis-Joseph Lebret, who wrote a large chunk of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Populorum Progressio. Pope Paul VI, 'Populorum Progressio: Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Development of Peoples', 26 March 1967, [

It was one thing for the great sociologist of modernity, Peter Berger, to call for 'cognitive respect', what is often called 'attentive listening', in dealing with other, non-secular world views; human nature was such that often this respect was not readily forthcoming. It was acceptable to talk about 'culture' in ways that camouflaged the importance of religion inside an anthropological concept that fell within the comfort zone of governments. But informed discussion about the different 'worlds of religion' was another matter. 'Culture' soon became a coded reference to religion.

Marshall's prescriptions for facilitating this discussion, what the groundrules have to be for religious bodies and those meeting them, are extraordinarily helpful. But in this article, in diplomatic fashion, she does not explore a core bone of contention between worldviews about the significance of sexuality and gender in development.

The United Nations Population Fund, as early as 1975, was the first major international body to sit down in dialogue with religious leaders to found the Al-Azhar Centre for Population Studies. I would suspect that they realised that, when it came to these issues, dialogue was essential. They had reached the not-unreasonable conclusion that their global success would be greatly aided by co-operation rather than trench warfare with religious organisations and followed up on it. It was probably no accident either that the year Sen received his Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences, 1998, another major marker event occurred: the World Faiths Development Dialogue led by World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn and the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. And it was, as she does not say, Marshall who acted as chief midwife to this.

But it would be foolish to imagine that the argument had been won. The uninformed observer might still conclude that GDP is the touchstone of international development. There remains an entrenched reluctance to engage with religious leaders and their communities amongst many secular development practitioners. Since 1998, inside and outside of religious institutions, gender and sexuality have become front lines in 'culture wars' that are as much religious prescriptions as they are embedded cultural practices. One thing that different forms of religious extremism do have in common is the ruthless pursuit of maximum control over women in patriarchal structures and relationships.

Whatever partnership principles are agreed, issues related to gender and sexuality often rule religious actors out in practice as partners for development by secular agencies unwilling to climb down from the moral high ground and to take more pragmatic stances. If the only efficient primary health care centre, clinic or hospital in town is run by people with the 'wrong ideas' about gender and sexuality, should the people they serve be left to die on the street because they cannot get funding? It is increasingly becoming a live question.

It hardly needs saying that these difficulties have been compounded as the terrain has shifted since 1998. This was also the year of al-Qaeda bombings in Uganda and Kenya. The rise of violent religious extremism has had two contradictory consequences. On one hand, interest in religion has grown apace. This has meant that religious ignorance is no longer a true reflection of all secular institutions. Intelligence agencies do a great deal of 'attentive listening' with corresponding understanding and development practitioners might begin to wonder if they should too. On the other hand, the narrative about religion as a divisive and dangerous force to be quarantined in a private space has gained ground in a more strident and dogmatic, though minority, secularism.

For local governments and religious organisations dealing with the fallout of violent extremism and balancing pressure from both sides of this contradiction, further problems arise from historic relationships. Distrust can arise on the part of governments when organisations have unclear funding sources; they dislike parallel forms of authority and networks independent of the ruling party. Though they are reluctant to draw them 'into the tent', they also do not wish to be upstaged before their electorates when these non-allied religious institutions perform public services better, as they often do. On the part of religious organisations, mistrust arises from resentment at rarely being consulted by governments early in policy formation; and the assumption that relations with government will result in more clientship relations defeating the spirit of public service.

All of these problems could be resolved by serious dialogue and a realism that recognises that there is no alternative to a co-ordinated health system when resources are at a premium. But the obstacles should not be underestimated. Poverty and corruption greatly limit the capacity of weak states to combat religious extremism. External agencies should be acting as facilitators in removing tensions instead of aggravating them by their funding stance and advice which may often reinforce distrust. Sadly it is in times of crisis, such as the Ebola epidemic, when the need for co-ordinated action with religious leaders and communities becomes most apparent that these disconnections prove to be most harmful.

Our own experience is that when religious leaders reach out to government in co-ordinated action, for example the National Malaria Unit in Sierra Leone, national preventative health campaigns are given a significant boost. Religious networks can spread information, reaching isolated areas government and foreign organisations often cannot. Muslims and Christians training and campaigning together generate understanding that can help build resilience to religious extremism, as well as improving skills in local healthcare provision to combat a range of tropical diseases. The religious idiom of sermon and khutba lend themselves to authoritative health messages by the nature of who is conveying them, the language they use and where they are delivered. Such methodologies are replicable, cheap and effective. Moreover they build up trust and social capital for under-resourced states. As Marshall says, it is a "no-brainer".

Ian Linden is a Senior Advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, formerly director of the social action programme Faiths Act and Associate Professor in the Study of Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has published a number of books on religion in Africa and two major studies on faith and globalisation, A New Map of the World and Global Catholicism. Linden was, for fifteen years, director of the Catholic Institute for International Relations and was awarded the CMG for work on human rights in 2000. He is a member of the Christian-Muslim Forum of the UK, worked in inter-faith dialogue with Shia leaders in Iran and has acted as a DfID consultant on matters of Faith and Development.

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.

Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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