Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Do religious values and beliefs impact on development thinking?

The relationships between religious values and ethics in developing countries and mainstream development theories, policies and practices are complex and often troubled. 
This results from the long history of religious competition in some parts of the world, the close associations between religion and colonialism, the origins of development thinking in the colonial encounter and the continued dominance of development policy and practice by the (essentially Christian) rich north. For mainstream development thinking and practice, religion has been best avoided although some development actors are happy to support and work with religious organisations who are prepared to keep their ‘development’ activities separate from their religious activities, especially proselytising. Religion is often seen as a source of conflict and an obstacle to desirable social change, best relegated to the private sphere, and expected to decline in importance as societies modernise.
However (and not only in developing countries), religion has not declined as expected: it continues to influence people’s attitudes, beliefs and practices, and to play a critical role in politics and society globally, nationally and locally.  Development thinkers and actors would be ill advised to see religion (and faith-based organisations) as a panacea that, if it can only be harnessed, can make a significant contribution to the achievement of development objectives, or alternatively, as an obstacle that reinforces patriarchy and social conservatism. Above all, they can no longer treat it as invisible, understood by all (because everyone is brought up within a religious tradition) or too difficult to understand.
Research on how religious teachings are interpreted by people in developing countries, how they inform their values and ethics and how these are reflected in attitudes, social relationships and practices need not be concerned with the ‘truth claims’ of individual religions. Instead, it is useful to distinguish between beliefs (the cosmological lens through which people make sense of the world in which they live) and values (the moral principles on which people draw to make decisions in their everyday lives). Although religion cannot easily be disentangled from other social and cultural spheres, research presented in the panel  at the DSA conference considering Lived Religion shows that it provides ideas of right social ordering against which people compare both their own lives and the wider communities and societies in which they live.

Religions teachings, rituals and organisations are resources that can help people negotiate their everyday lives, influence their aspirations and provide them with sources of hope and dignity. Research amongst members of various faith traditions in different countries (for example Hindus and Buddhists in India) reveals these characteristics of religion, both for poor people and for those motivated to address destitution and social inequality, although the nature of and authority accorded religious teachings varies, with ‘religious rules’ for living more a feature of Islam than the Indic religions.
Research also shows that there is no single or simple answer to the question of whether and how religion makes a difference in development practice. Some attempts to base development interventions on religious teachings (such as the nationalisation of zakat collection and disbursement in Pakistan) do not appear to have fulfilled their proponents’ expectations. While religious organisations may play a role in service delivery (especially education and health) in some countries, and the services they provide are valued by both governments and users, they do not have a significant role every country, their coverage is never geographically comprehensive and they cannot be a substitute for government.
Strong traditions of religious philanthropy may give rise to large locally financed organisations, but research in Pakistan shows that they concentrate on short term charity and welfare, rather than attempting to foster lasting poverty reduction or sustainable development. International links may encourage them to conceptualise development in a different way (for example Caritas in Pakistan) and provide significant funds. However, the nature and source of the latter is important: research in India and Tanzania shows that funds (grants, remittances) from overseas members of a religious tradition are more likely to enable an organisation to achieve its aims than funds from mainstream bilateral and multilateral donors, which reduce the autonomy of local institutions, forcing them to comply with programmatic and organisational templates decided by others.
Research findings on these hitherto neglected topics provide some pointers for mainstream development thinking and practice, although the implications are not the same for all development actors or all contexts.

- Mainstream development actors must be aware that their own assumptions about religion may blind them to the different nature and organisation of religion in other contexts.

- Although the connections between religious beliefs and values and actions are complex, understanding needs to be improved in order to better assess the potential and pitfalls of ‘bringing religion in’ to attempts to achieve improved wellbeing and social change.

- The motivations, priorities and capacity of faith-based organisations vary: while some play significant philanthropic, service delivery and developmental roles, they often cannot be easily distinguished from non-religious organisations, may be socially exclusive and politically motivated, may concentrate on short term charitable activities rather than lasting solutions to poverty and inequality, and may have little autonomy in terms of finance or development thinking.
For findings from research in India, Pakistan, Tanzania and Nigeria undertaken as part of the Religions and Development Research Programme, see www.rad.bham.ac.uk   

Carole Rakodi is the Director of the Religions and Development Research Programme

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