Faith and development – what's the connection?

I’ve worked in and with many faith-based organizations over the years and have long argued that development organizations can’t afford to be blind to the importance of faith. Research shows that people living in poverty trust their churches more than any other institution, and faiths are vital in forging the attitudes and beliefs that underpin (for good or ill) the daily life of society. Moreover, the world is becoming more, not less religious – secular Europe (at least at elite level) is the one region that is out of step.

So it is good to see a coalition of organizations (including Oxfam) putting on a series of seminars on ‘New Perspectives on Faith and Development’ to try and bring together two largely distinct communities. I attended the second seminar, on faith and markets, last week and found it intriguing and frustrating in equal measure.

The basic challenge, as set out in the speakers seemed to be that we have a contrast between good people and bad systems (on the financial crisis, climate change, corruption etc etc). But there were two contrasting views on how to respond.

One was to make the good people better, focussing on values and building Ken Costatrust. Ken Costa, who combines being a church leader and chair of Lazards Bank, argued that ‘faith generates trust and ensures the possibility of globalization’ and contrasted trust (necessary and effective in transforming the system) with regulation (inevitable, post crisis, but ineffective). Good people would eventually lead to a better system, seemed to be the underlying assumption.

Tariq RamadanBut Tariq Ramadan, the Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, argued that people of faith need to get their hands dirty more directly. ‘The problem we have when we come from a religious tradition is that we are too vague…….we have to stop only speaking about values, and start talking about applied ethics’, including building alliances with people of different faiths and none, and working with economists and other disciplines in specific advocacy to fix failed aspects of the system.

I’m with Tariq – hardly surprising as I cut my political teeth in Latin America at a time when the liberation theologians of the Catholic Church were talking about ‘structural violence’ and the need for Christian communities to get directly involved in social change. It’s not sufficient to concentrate on the individual – faith groups surely have a much wider responsibility to seek social, political and economic change, just as development organizations have a responsibility to understand the impacts (both positive and negative) of faith and religion on the lives of the poor. If that sounds a bit sermon-like, I guess it’s not surprising, given the subject.

Click if you want to watch the launch seminar with Tony Blair, or attend forthcoming events on conflict, health and education, sustainability or a closing event with the Archbishop of Canterbury. If you’re not in the UK, they will all be broadcast on the web. For me summary of the recent papal encyclical on globalization see here, and for a much less reverent take on the Pope’s latest pronouncements on the export of spiritual ‘toxic waste’ to Africa click here.

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7 Responses to “Faith and development – what's the connection?”
  1. Christine Zarzicki

    Duncan, I think this posting is very interesting. I believe that the relationship between religion and development is completely underrepresented. It seems to me that in nations where people have greatest faith are those that have the slowest development. This is not to say that there is no religion in the United States or Europe, but that it’s less of a priority. Is it that people in these underdeveloped countries believe that good things will eventually arise out of their suffering and sacrifice? Or perhaps the general direction in which the world is headed is sacrilegious and iniquitous? Or is it that their religious leaders are dissuading people from being proactive? Either way I believe that a solution is needed. Leaders of religious movements who are committed to their faith need to take a more pragmatic approach to development. Instead of focusing on keeping the faith, action must be taken. Organizations such as Habitat for Humanity that combine religion and action seem to be headed in the right direction. While faith is a personal decision that everyone is entitled to, a sustainable life is a basic human right. Religious leaders have the power to instigate change and I look forward to them taking action.

  2. Kun

    I think the discussion of the relations between faith and development is quite meaningful. “Ken Costa argued that faith generates trust and ensures and the possibility of globalization…” I don’t buy the argument. People in different countries or groups have different faiths cross the world. It is sort of inevitable for people with different religious beliefs to have disputes with each other since they have different attitudes towards something. And I don’t think people with good belief can surely lead good system. It’s common to see that people start to do something with good motivation but end up with bad results. Meanwhile, faith is individual behavior. I still think development needs institution which is a vehicle to combine the people with different faith to reach effectiveness, and which can help guarantee good motivation can lead to good results.

  3. Sharon N

    Thanks for your insightful article. I agree that many of the countries that seem to ‘focus on religion’ seem to have the slowest development. However, it seems that there are two major reasons for this. One, the countries that are religious, primarily of either Catholic or Protestant Christian faiths. Then, we must realize that these religions were brought by colonial powers. Although religion in itself is a loving insitution, many of the colonists used religion as a means of imposing their own values upon other nations, and depleting them of their resources and riches. So, it will be difficult for a nation whose resources and riches have been taken to recover from the economic consequences of this, and ‘develop.’ Secondly, since such nations have experienced a great deal of injustice and strife upon earth, their ideologies often lead to concentrating on the ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’ rather than concentrating on the ‘goods’ and ‘riches’ of the Earth. These are the two major reasons why I believe that nations with Christian religions are not ‘developing’ at the same rates as Europe and the US.

  4. Estenieau jean

    Faiths and development may sounds the right combination when you consider them theorically. But looking at our daily experiences based on the relationship between the churches and their followers, I must say that 75 percent of the time the faiths do not produce anything comparable to development and I can even say that most of the time, the result is underdevelopment. The pastor and his cabinet, most of the time, consider themself as the dictator of the ministry and do things as they please.They want the fideles to consider them as their liaison to God and for this matter, the fideles, sometimes, spend everything they have to take care of their pastor and not worry of how many people within that church that really need help. Practically faiths in the church do not always coincide with development.The pastor and his church is somehow another form of capitalism.

  5. James Eliscar

    I would like to thank you for bring on the front end this issue linking faith and development. I think that as an institution trustworthy of the people it can be used as agent of development. However, the question that I raise is: what kind of development that we want to promote? From whose perspective? Most of these societies in which Westerns are conducting study and doing projects linking faith and development have native religions that for the most part were oppressed by mainstream-like religion. As we know, these other religions have certain set of values, that may or may not, be different from values of native religion. Haivng said that, I will raise another question: do you want a multi-religious perspective of development? Can that be even possible, in the first place? We should not forget, although religion in itself is good, but it has been used by colonial powers and others to expand their influence and use as means of control to plunder resources of the same nations that now trying to link faith and development. There is that historical dimension that we will need to frankly address in engaging in that path — which I would like to see happening.

  6. Aimable Nsangiyumva

    The discussion is very interesting. However, it looks more focused on what has happened than on what can happen if faith is intentionally used for development.
    It’s true that colonial powers and current religious leaders misappropriated resources of poor countries and individuals. That was and still is their intention. But, what will happen if faith is intentionally used to promote the wholistic development of people? From the Bible perspective, there will be a balanced growth of the spiritual, physical and mental development. We will have good project managers like Joseph who saved Egypt from a 7 years drought through increased agriculture production and savings.
    We will have less currupt and humble leaders like David who aknowledged their wrongdoing against the poor. What about sustained families and reduced crimes that most of developed countries are also lacking?
    Faith is a tool like politics, science, technology, etc. The problem is the intention of leaders who uses it.

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