As a young Church of England priest in training, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Three weeks shadowing the Metropolitan of the Mar Thoma Church of Kerala, in verdant south east India, was too good to miss. The existence of a 2,000-year-old Christian church in the sub-continent was completely new to me. Coming from Europe, where religion is often treated as a private matter, I was taken aback by the overwhelming manifestation of religion in the public sphere. Everywhere I looked, religion – Hindu, Muslim and Christian – was present in the faces of the people, in their clothes, behaviour, architecture and in the conduct of daily life. Born and brought up in a publicly secular UK, I could not have imagined that India would be so publicly religious. I returned to the UK from Kerala deeply enriched by the experience.
Last autumn, a Wilton Park conference treated the
subject of ‘Religion and International Development’, signalling a belated recognition that religion plays a significant role in international development – both positive and negative. It encouraged policy makers, donors and aid agencies to acknowledge this role, and challenged them to work more closely with Faith Based Organisations (FBOs) to improve humanitarian and development outcomes.
In his 2009 Royal Society lecture on International Development the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, observed that ‘the majority of the world’s population does have religious convictions and to ignore these is to push against the grain of the societies you’re trying to help and support… [If] freedom of religion is an aspect of human rights, how you actually handle the religious practices of communities must be part of a global understanding of ‘development’… At best, communities of religious conviction have the potential to be serious and effective allies in the struggle against privation.’ The World Bank estimates that Christian health associations in Africa provide 28 per cent of national provision in fragile states, 37 per cent in low income states and 18 per cent in middle income states. This reflects the fact that FBOs often have strong local networks, enabling them to reach the most deprived people within their communities.
Western governments and international aid agencies need to do more than just understand the values and motivations of religious actors. They need to reflect upon their own assumptions and how they impact on development processes. From a secular perspective, religion can all too readily be seen as an obstacle to development or liberation. As a secular institution, the EU – the largest aid donor in the world – can be blind to the religious affiliations that permeate the developing world. Both aid agencies and officials used to promoting secularism need to engage with faith as something that is dynamic and useful. To deny the religiosity of the populations of the developing world is to deny an entire world view. People and communities need to be respected, understood and partnered with, so that they can become agents of their own change.
After all, international development is not just about economics, trade, or the growth of GDP, important though they are. At its heart, there must be a concern for men, women and children to flourish in the fullest and deepest sense – in matters public and private, social, political and spiritual as well as economic. This is not to say that governments and development NGOs should be privileging faith-based agencies, but they should at least be open to partnerships with them. Such partnerships can surely lead to the enrichment of certain communities in the less secular developing world.
In Judeo-Christian tradition there is a strong emphasis on the dignity of each individual and the sense of responsibility before God for the welfare of all. Not surprisingly, both faith and the enlightenment have informed the human rights tradition. However, most discussions in this sphere have now become detached from any sense of the divine; instead, they are remotely legalistic. This presents a rather thin view of human good. To progress from this, international development needs to see human beings as three-dimensional agents – body, mind and spirit – with the dignity and the freedom to shape their own community’s future.
In situations of dire natural disaster, western humanitarian relief agencies naturally want to provide as much emergency relief as quickly as possible. Yet they could find themselves working amongst religious populations who ask for prayer mats or Bibles, alongside rice and grain. In some crisis torn communities where every building has been destroyed, there can be a communal outcry for the public place of prayer to be restored, even before any other building. Only when the church or mosque or temple has been returned to the community can the shared journey towards recovery recommence. For secular development agencies such local religious concerns are difficult to handle.
Policy makers, donors and aid agencies based in the privately religious west need to engage more confidently with the public religiosity of the developing world. Some western NGOs also need to move beyond the suspicion that religiously motivated actors will only work for themselves, rather than for the benefit of all.
Part of the way forward lies in improving religious literacy. This will hopefully lead to a comprehension of the language and ways of religious communities, and the manner in which they consider human development to be religiously inspired. It will also allow development workers to distinguish between those elements of a particular religious culture which help the struggle against poverty, and those which get in the way. Despite this, it is crucial that sensitivity to the ethics and cultural norms of religious societies should not stop action being taken against oppressive communities, such as those which suppress women’s rights.
It is not only those controlling international development from a secular perspective who need to change, though. Policy makers familiar with the perspective of faith also need to develop literacy in the field of human rights. Together, this should yield a shared ground where useful dialogue can be carried out beneficially. At the same time, FBOs need to be far more ready to share information about the interaction of faith and the sphere of development.
The answer is not, however, to franchise development work to local faith groups. This can be a risk for both governments and NGOs, not least because of their accountability to their electorates or donors. They need partners who, ultimately, are able to work within established boundaries. Equally, religious groupings working in partnership with governments or NGOs can find themselves constrained by political bureaucracy that can feel quite alien. Faith-inspired NGOs, rooted both in their religious beliefs and in professional development practice, can play a crucial role in promoting understanding and mutual trust.
Nonetheless, well-constructed partnerships between governments, NGOs, FBOs and local faith communities can benefit everyone. These lead to far more thorough discussions about the nature of international development and would also create more robust ways of meeting development goals. If development agencies are ready to relate intelligently to religious faith, the concept of development is more likely to be seen as part of a wider human liberation. But for this to happen, religious and secular bodies will need humility and willingness to learn from each other. Shared learning about the causes of poverty, the problems of power, and about the unanimous need to move towards mutuality, can only be for the ultimate benefit of all.