Wilton Park is a wonderful place for a conference – a stately home nestling in glorious English countryside. These days it is used for high minded 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’.
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.
What 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……