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October 27, 2011

Religion and Development: what are the links? Why should we care?

October 27, 2011
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Wilton Park is a wonderful place for a conference – a stately home nestling in glorious English countryside. These days it is used for high wiston houseminded seminars on global governance, foreign policy etc, linked to the British Foreign Office, but the hosts take care to ‘fess up to the irony that the aristocratic pile was built centuries ago by some long-forgotten military type with money embezzled from the English Crown.

It also insists on a level of confidentiality that make Chatham House rules look positively relaxed – no quotes, even anonymous, without permission from the speaker. Unfortunately, I had to exit early from the conference on religion and development I attended there this week, so didn’t have time to get permissions, so the only thing I can write about is my own presentation. So what’s new?

I was speaking on the need to increase ‘religious literacy’ in the development sector, even in secular organisations like Oxfam. Why? Five reasons, for starters (please add your own):

1. Theories of Change: as we think harder about how change happens, religion keeps cropping up, whether it’s promoting agency and a sense of ‘power within’, for example in our work on violence against women, trying to find out how poor people experience poverty, or exploring the internal structures of social movements like the Arab Spring. In all of these, religion plays a crucial part in forming identity and values.

2. Resilience to shocks: whether it’s the global financial crisis, or the first few chaotic hours and days after the Haitian earthquake, poor people turn to their churches and mosques for help in an emergency. If we are serious about promoting disaster risk reduction before catastrophe hits, we need to be talking to the institutions that are most relevant to poor people.

3. The growing importance of advocacy: in many developing countries, religion is an important shaper of political space and decisions. Political leaders often defer to religious ones, and getting the faith-based organizations on your side can transform the prospects for change. Just look at the role church-goers played in the successful Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign, itself a biblical concept.

4. Campaigners are trying to understand better the deep frames that determine how we see the world. Religion plays a vital role in creating those basic frames and values.

5. One of Oxfam’s big priorities is gender and ‘putting women at the heart of all we do’. Religion plays a huge role in many poor women’s lives, and if we want to understand that, we have to leave behind secular sophistries about false consciousness (to caricature, ‘religion is really anti-women, it’s just that all those women who regularly attend, pray and see their faith as a vital source of wellbeing have all been brainwashed to the true extent of their oppression’.) There was some fascinating debate on the extent of ‘religious feminisms’, with women in all churches arguing for women’s rights, using sacred texts to back up their case. It would be great if someone could identify a cross-faith gendered version of the ‘golden rule’ (treat others as you would have them treat you). Anyone seen one? More on gender, faith and development in this new Oxfam book.

Engagement can fit anywhere along a spectrum from ‘find out more’ through ‘dialogue and critical engagement’ and ‘limited issue-based alliances’ to ‘active partnership’. Don’t get me wrong – in all of these areas, religion can play a progressive or a (sometimes very) regressive role (or both). But if we’re serious about development, we need to understand much more about the diversity, divisions and debates within each church on things like women’s roles. That’s true even if, like me, you are ‘devout atheists’.

So much for theory, how about some examples? These are taken from previous posts and ‘Avoiding some deadly sins’, an excellent new Oxfam paper by Cass Bechin on religion and development.

What happens if you ask people what they want after a disaster and the answer comes back ‘we want a new mosque?’ In Aceh after the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, Oxfam said no to one request.  But two years later, after the big Java earthquake of  2006, we said yes.

Java earthquakeWhat happened? The request came in to a small grant scheme for infrastructure, aimed at helping communities recover their normal routines as quickly as possible. While most requests were for furniture, building materials etc, one community asked for money to buy materials to rebuild its flattened mosque (the community had to contribute labour in return).

According to El Tayeb Musa, the Oxfam staffer overseeing the fund for us in Java at the time, we supported it partly because the mosque was also used for community meetings.

The money was duly handed over, the mosque rebuilt, and the community in question was one of the success stories in a badly hit area, rapidly recovering both in terms of rebuilding its infrastructure, but also social cohesion and healing after the psychological trauma of the earthquake. The mosque was at the centre of the rebuilding effort.

El Tayeb stressed the non-religious aspects of the mosque-as-community-centre, but my response to him was ’shouldn’t we have funded the mosque even if it was only used for prayer?’

But any such conversation has to have a clear understanding of the organizations’ own red lines. In the comments on the original post, Caroline Sweetman pointed to an example from Ethiopia, where she was asked if Oxfam would fund new sharp knives to make female genital mutilation less risky. A no brainer perhaps, but why do I feel much more sympathetic to a hypothetical request for prayer mats than to one for bibles? Still wrestling with that one.

And finally, a nice example from Chad.  In Am Nabak Camp for the displaced, residents were asked to select an equal number of men and women to be trained to spray camp tents against mosquitoes. The men opposed women’s participation in the programme, stating that according to local religious practice women are not allowed to enter a man’s house.

OGB staff accepted the men’s point but suggested that the women should undergo the training as well so that they could spray their own tents. It was agreed that the women would also assist the men in mixing the chemicals and addressing safety issues. This suggestion was accepted and both men and women were trained.

On the first day, only the men did the spraying while the women mixed the chemicals and took care of safety issues. On the second day, however, roles were reversed and stayed this way for most of the remaining period. Indeed, the same men who had opposed women’s participation on religious grounds allowed the women to spray while they mixed the chemicals. Why? Because spraying took more effort……


  1. A very important issue, this one, and not often given the attention it deserves.

    I would add an extra dimension to the discussion, though – the role of traditional beliefs and witchcraft. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where other (more recognised) religious beliefs are all imports, traditional beliefs remain very strong, forming a core around which other religious beliefs are shaped – in my experience at least.

    This can act as a serious brake on community development initiatives, private sector development, political engagement, etc. If doing well and getting ahead (in whatever field) means attracting jealousy and witchcraft, many people prefer not to get ahead.

    Back in the 1950’s the future Tanzanian president, Julius Nyerere, said that the most important thing in the lives of urban, educated Tanzanians was witchcraft. I see very little in modern Tanzania to change that view.

  2. To add, three examples from Tanzania:

    1. There is the recent phenomenon of large numbers of Tanzanians spending huge amounts of money to visit a retired Lutheran pastor who claimed to have a miracle cure for everything – HIV, cancer, STIs, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc. He said he had been given the recipe by God in a dream, and that a single cup would work both as prevention and cure. A few months later, doctors report that this has created huge problems with people having stopped taking ARVs and other treatments in the belief that they had been cured.

    2. There are also last year’s albino murders, said to be witchcraft related.

    3. And a case of a leading politician caught on CCTV cameras spreading a mysterious white powder on the seats of various other MPs in the Tanzanian parliament.

    I don’t want to weigh in on how these particular cases relate to traditional and “modern” religion.

    Rather, I am arguing that each one of them is a development issue. Health services, the rights of disadvantaged groups, and governance and accountability are all areas the development industry pays a lot of attention to. Yet we did little or nothing in each of these three cases. Instead, we typically avoid any involvement when things get complicated by a religious element, whether that’s witchcraft or more recognised religion.

  3. Hello, my name is (Ms) Huguette Redegeld, a French native. I read with great interest your article which what forwarded to me by one of my colleagues, Matt Davies, from the NGO ATD Fourth World. Within this organization, I start a mission entitled “great poverty, spiritualities and religions”. So I am eager to learn from others how they tackle this complex issue, both intimate and public. If you could advise me on what, eventually whom to consult, I would be grateful. Not too much
    though. I am not a native English-speaking and do not want either to be overloaded. Thank you in any case.

  4. Great to this issue raise on the development agenda.

    It is something that Tearfund has been addressing since our inception, working with and through the local church where possible and feasible. It’s not without it’s difficulties.

    Gender is a key power issue that still struggles to be addressed. It takes time to go through each of the Biblical texts that are sometimes used to justify the hierarchial view of men above women. We are challenging those views through the work that we do. I have a chapter in the new Oxfam Book you mention on Gender, Faith and Development, that outlines some research we did relating to HIV & Gender. What the chapter doesn’t mention is that we went on to fund a 2 year project to look at the foundational issues of gender, address the Biblical misconceptions, look at violence against women and address relationship issues. The project was a success as it was locally owned and brought together. It wasn’t a bed of roses though as difficult conversations needed to be had about what theology was going to be taught. Good relationships with the local organisation and church was essential to work through this issue together. All of this takes time, is resource intensive and not easily scaled-up. It therfore is difficult to access institutional funding for such projects that in the end bring about long term attitudinal change within the community. More on the work can be found here in the case study

    In the recent ‘Silent No More’ report by Tearfund on the church’s response to sexual violence, amongst the recommendations for the church there was one for directed at aid agencies, governments and donors of the need to recognise the potential of the church and work together with them. Check it out here

    As a Gender Advisor in a Christian organisation it can be a very lonely path to tread when you are challenging deeply held beliefs. It doesn’t make you popular. We need all the support and encouragement we can get to keep calm and carry on!


    1. Hi Mandy. Thank you for your insights. I’m interested to read more about the “2 year project to look at the foundational issues of gender, address the Biblical misconceptions, look at violence against women and address relationship issues.” However, the link is broken. Could you give me more info – where it was implemented, who the local partners were etc – or provide a new link?

      Thanks so much!

  5. What do you mean by this? Not clear what you’re looking for exactly…

    “It would be great if someone could identify a cross-faith gendered version of the ‘golden rule’ (treat others as you would have them treat you). Anyone seen one?”

    1. I mean is there some phrase or concept about gender equity or women’s rights that is common between the main scriptures of major religions. Is so, it wd be a very useful rallying point.

  6. Thanks for the great presentation at the conference Duncan – you missed two more days of fantastic food and conversation! I’ve added some of my reflections on the rest of the conference here:

    Mandy has highlighted some of the great work she’s spearheading at Tearfund on gender, and which features in the Oxfam book you highlight.
    Building on your point on resilience, I’m also going to give a shameless plug for a Tearfund book which we affectionately call Pastors in Disasters – highlighting the vital role of faith based organisation in preparing for and responding to disasters:

    It’s great that Oxfam, DFID and others are looking at faith in more detail with regard to theories of change and I’m hopeful that more ideas for collaboration, research to build the evidence base, and guidelines for donors and NGOs will come out of the meeting.

  7. As far as my knowledge goes most religions would agree that women are created by a God & as such have great value, worth & are to be treated with dignity & respect.

    The issue is of course is that it can come across as reinforcing patriarchal cultural values and not addressing the fundamental power base issues that keep women subjugated under the context of religious adherance.

    Separating out what is scriptural and what is cultural is a good first step. It’s not as easy as it sounds though.

    Mandy Marshall

  8. Can I suggest a couple more reasons for ‘religious literacy':

    1. Religion, belief, faith are at the core of most cultures’ world-view. These societies and cultures find it hard to comprehend the secular ideologies of ‘Northerners’ and their development and aid agencies, that usually regard religion as unimportant or irrelevant.

    2. Every community has at least one mosque, church or temple: more than a spiritual centre, it is a local manifestation of a global community, a built-in grassroots network, a symbol of hope, peace and well-being. Aid programmes come and go, but the local imams, priests or pastors are the permanent potential (and often actual) community-builders and facilitators.

  9. Hmmm, suppose it depends which religions you include because gender-specific codes are quite varied across religions. If the Abrahamic ones, then there’s probably stuff around honouring women and honouring mothers.

    There’s also stuff about balance between the sexes, the idea of a natural complementarity between the two sexes, etc. All very binary, and unfortunately also often used to reinforced gender roles (women’s work vs men’s work in a ‘natural’ partnership e.g.). But could certainly be reframed/reclaimed.

  10. But I think part of the problem is that people tend to use scripture to support their existing views, which they’ve developed from a wide range of influences.

    When I lived in Zambia different people routinely referred to different scripture. More patriarchal people stressed that Adam was born before Eve, that wives should submit to their husbands as head of the house, where they should be mere helpers. These discourses were sometimes used to justify resistance to gender equality. I also heard many tales of pastors prioritising family unity at the expense of women’s well-being, such as in cases of gender-based violence. But others referred to the Bible in their support of gender equality, referencing mutual respect, love, friendship, happiness and equality in the sight of God.

    The Bible seemed to be used to sanction and re-enforce beliefs acquired elsewhere. Church denomination, like friendship groups, though influential, appeared to be chosen on the basis of what individuals already felt comfortable with.

    People’s selective interpretations of the Bible seemed influenced by upbringing, education and hope. Those who grew up in patriarchal homes seem to find confirmation of their ideologies in church and scripture, which were referenced as justification. With rote learning pervasive in schools, these ideas are often unquestioned. Further, in a context of insecurity (of finances and health), despair and hopelessness, adherence to scripture was often seen as instrumental for blessings, in this life and the next. In this way, adherence to patriarchal scripture was not just a belief but motivated by a desire for blessings.

    So while it’s definitely brilliant when pastors champion gender equality (as many do), I think the influence of religion should be understood in a broader context, of economic insecurity and social environment.

  11. After a one week process to strengthen a Tanzanian based grassroots organization’s capacities for its own organizational learning and building its skills in facilitating learning-based M & E in grassroots project situations, the two facilitators sat down for a home cooked dinner with an expatriate couple from Europe who worked in advisory capacities with the same organization.

    It was a pleasant moment of free flawing and friendly conversation, in front of a warm fire. This was quite welcome in what, during that time of the year, was very cold Southern Highlands of Tanzania. We talked and joked about cultural differences and the shocks we experience as Southern/Northern individuals, when we choose to study, live or work across cultures, particularly within the North-South divide. Then my real shock came, in that moment: The greatest shocking experiences, as shared by one of the couple, was when she had just arrived in Tanzania, visited rural communities, and saw people building new churches.

    A new Church being build was not something she had seen before in her life. She had certainly seen Churches in Europe, but these are 500 year structures, most of which are now being turned into museums.

    I was shocked by her shock, not because of any urge to express a contrary opinion, but upon the realization that religion, manifested through communities of (christian)faith has seriously receded as an archetypal experience of many Europeans young to middle age today. I had always wondered, during my previous work with a church-based development institution in Tanzania, why church-based development agencies in Europe were particularly vehement in their refusal to fund church construction as development work. Here was a clear disconnect, in my view, but which I could not fathom. For church agencies to fund church construction in Africa, it had to be disguised as a multi-purpose community centre.

    I am now an OD practitioner and one of my current struggles is to justify and sustain OD work as a values based practice that makes interventions to increase transformational capacities of organizations, leaders, and communities. The competition, in capacity building work today, comes from those who perceive the perceive organizations and communities as places whose effectiveness, sense of purpose, and even sense of mission and identities, will be improved through strengthening some sort of scientific, managerial capacities. Is the latter really a trendy thing that is again passing me by? Maybe my “aha” will one day come from another fireplace conversation and dinner with a funder or adviser of development processes (if there has ever been such a thing).

  12. I had no idea that Oxfam financed the building of mosques using money donated for disaster relief. I’m horrified, and I know a lot of other donors and fundraisers will be too.

    1. Well that’s one reason why we were worried about doing it, but if a poor community battered by a national disaster says that helping them rebuild the spiritual and cultural centre of their community is what they are most in need of, are you suggesting we should just ignore that and do what we think is best instead? No easy answers on this, I think

  13. For the question of why you might look at prayer mats more sympathetically than Bibles , I think that’s because we feel that prayer mats are used within an already believing community but Bibles will be used to convert others from their existing beliefs. However, I think that is maybe just another aspect of our Western liberal mind-set that thinks belief is fine and dandy when it is personal and individual but the minute you act on it, it looks fundamentalist

    1. Or to put it another way, the prayer mats are requested whereas the bibles are often foisted on people. Or, because ‘secularism is the estranged child of christianity’ and so secular organizations are particularly hostile to promoting it.

  14. Really? ‘Bibles are often foisted on people’. I’ve worked for 17years in a Christian org and not once have I ever seen Bibles given out never mind ‘foisted on people’ . The language we use is key, which also relates to the word gender, when conjuring up images in people’s minds.
    I do think it was courageous of Oxfam to fund the mosque knowing it would be highly contoversial to do so. I wonder if a faith org did the same would it be seen differently.
    Just some reflections

  15. We aren’t about putting WOMEN at the heart of what we do as Oxfam – it’s WOMEN’S RIGHTS… and gender equality. We know that many women all over the world are actively opposed to women’s rights and gender equality including many, many women who are religious/associate themselves with a faith. Maxine Molyneux wrote a very good piece quite a while ago (1985, the classic article where she outlines the concept of gender interests in the context of Nicaragua) distinguishing between women’s interests and gender interests… and another piece a few years later which typologises women’s movements. Only some women and some women activists and some women’s organisations are actually interested in women’s rights as a collective marginalised group. What the newer Oxfam terminology says we are about is ‘gender justice’. Re your observation about how good it would be to have a goldern rule requiring all of us to treat women as equals (presumably that is what lies behind the idea of treating people as we would ourselves wish to be treated) – we have – it’s International Human Rights Law – on which no so called ‘moderate Islamist’ government will base itself – they will base their law on the Koran. That’s why at the Women in Development Europe (WIDE) Conference on Women and the Arab Spring which I attended last week, everyone was so very depressed. Naive liberals hoping for something which will uphold women’s rights, from political parties pledged to place religious laws at the heart of what THEY do. Sadly never the twain shall meet. Not my opinion, the opinion of Middle East feminists attending the conference – some religious, some not. The last thing they need right now is to hear we buy the idea of any Islamist party being likely to uphold women’s rights – the Koran respects women but it’s about complementarity, not about equal treatment.

  16. Sorry, I mean the women at the conference were depressed about the number of naive liberals thinking women’s rights are safe in the new governments of the Aran Spring – it is naive to think this and we need to make sure we uphold them in their struggle to uphold women’s rights as human rights – ‘feminism is about believing women are human’ – that’s a good golden rule

  17. I have been thinking about the ‘no-brainer’ above: Should an organisation like Oxfam fund new sharp knives to make female genital mutilation less risky?

    If it was my daughter in a society where the practise was effectively compulsory, then I would want very sharp knives, a trained medic, sterile dressings, pain relief and good after-care.

    Alternatively, if I care about the welfare and rights of young girls who live in a society where the mutilation is going to happen anyway, then surely reducing it’s risks and pain is a good thing?

    I’m not clever enough to know what the answer to this no-brainer is! What do others think? Or is it about the impact that news of such funding would have on donors in the UK?

    PS I agree that religion is incredibly important to most people and of course this has to be included in development thinking.

  18. Practitioners’Guide Religion and Development:
    Religion influences the way people see themselves, each
    other and the world around them. Especially in developing
    countries, religion often figures largely in everyday life.
    This is something that many Western development
    organisations used to underestimate.
    Nowadays Dutch development organisations realise they
    must take religion into account. But what is the best way
    for them to do that? How can they incorporate religion
    into their everyday work? And how can employees of Dutch
    organisations take the role of religion into account?
    The Knowledge Centre Religion and Development (KCRD)
    aims to share knowledge and stimulate religious empathy,
    by combining practical experiences with respect to religion
    in development processes with academic reflection. This
    book is the result of the knowledge, experience and insight
    that the KCRD has gained since its establishment in 2006.
    This book is a practitioners’ guide centring on practical
    experiences of development professionals, supplemented
    by theoretical considerations. The book does not provide
    cut-and-dried answers to questions, nor does it provide a
    ready-made approach. However, it does stimulate readers
    to reflect on the topic of ‘religion and development’.
    We hope this book will appeal to employees of assorted
    Dutch development organisations. We encourage them to
    discuss the dilemmas and practical accounts contained in
    this book in more detail – and to raise their own dilemmas.

  19. The issue of witchcraft draws an easy line between the merely religious and the crazies. Anyone who still believes in witches has not left the 18th century behind.

  20. I think that’s simply because we feel which prayer mats are used within an previously believing neighborhood but Bibles will probably be used to convert others from other existing beliefs. However, I believe that is maybe just another facet of our Developed liberal mind-set in which thinks perception is fine and also dandy when it is personal and also individual but the minute you act into it, it looks fundamentalist

  21. This is usually a great point, I see lots of atheists just who think all smart people are atheists and dumb persons are religious. This is undoubtedly incorrect as we can pretty locate stupid atheists and smart Christians. It also makes whole body about people being either stupid or smart, I think just about so many people are smart about certain topics and dumb about others.

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