Dialogue between World Bank and world faiths sparks new approaches to poverty

For religious groups, the new dialogue with the World Bank has spurred a greater level of interreligious understanding and unity on the issues of poverty and development.

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - It would be an oversimplification to say that the first working meeting between world religionists and World Bank specialists boiled down to a debate over the relative importance of human values versus economic facts and figures in understanding the causes and cures for poverty.

Rather, it became clear at a meeting held here January 12-14, that the new dialogue begun in 1998 between the world's major faith groups and the World Bank is stimulating an evolving convergence between economists at the Bank and religious representatives - a direction that promises to have a major impact on thinking about economic development worldwide.

Entitled "Values, Norms and Poverty: A Consultation on the World Development Report 2000/1," the meeting was the second in a series of workshops held to solicit input from stakeholders in the processes of global economic development for the 2000/2001 edition of the Bank's annual development survey, a publication that has great influence around the world on development theory and practice.

Also present were academics who study development issues and representatives of African non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Accordingly, the topics and discussions of the consultation were multifaceted.

Yet, according to participants, the presence of representatives from the world's major religions was a fresh element - and the discussions were richer and more comprehensive because of it. In a word, the main contribution of the religions was a further elaboration of the importance and practicality of "values" in development.

"If there was one achievement in Johannesburg, it was that we got values fairly and squarely on the agenda," said Wendy Tyndale, coordinator of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), a new entity that acts as a secretariat for the world's religions in the dialogue with the World Bank. "And at the end, I feel the authors of the World Development Report were saying that they see values as a very important topic."

For the religious groups, the meeting in Johannesburg, along with a preparatory meeting held last December in Rome, offered an opportunity for in-depth dialogue among themselves on the issues of poverty and development - something that faith representatives say has rarely occurred before, and certainly not at such a deep level. The result, say participants, is a greater level of interreligious understanding and unity, especially on these issues.

The religions are, for example, drafting a commentary on the preliminary outline of the World Development Report 2000/1, and although still a work in progress, it can be seen as an important product of the Dialogue. Indeed, the mere existence of such a document - which seeks to integrate the views of major faiths on the issues of poverty and development - is considered by some as a large step forward in interfaith understanding and agreement.

"At almost every meeting I have gone to, people from the other religions have commented on our work and our values and said, 'Look, there seems to be a lot in common,'" said Azim Lakhani, a representative of the Aga Khan Development Network, which represents the Ismaili branch of Islam at the WFDD. "So the first realization that comes up is that there is a lot we [the faiths] have in common. The second thing is that there is a genuine interest in looking at the different experiences we have had and learning from them. I think a lot will come out of this, but it will take time."

Initiated by James Wolfensohn

The new dialogue between the Bank and the faiths was formally begun at a historic meeting in February 1998, when James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, invited representatives of nine of the world's major religions to Lambeth Palace in London to discuss how the Bank and the religions might forge a new relationship to help tackle the problems of global poverty.

At the meeting were leaders from the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Sikhism, and Taoism, who, together, represented the religious traditions followed by an estimated 3 billion people. Mr. Wolfensohn himself represented the World Bank.

From the meeting came a joint statement, signed by Mr. Wolfensohn and by the event's co-sponsor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, on behalf of the religions, which acknowledged a shared "deep moral concern for the future of human well-being and dignity," confirmed a "conviction that the definition and practice of desirable development must have regard to spiritual, ethical, environmental, cultural and social considerations," and committed the parties "to continue and develop this dialogue, to deepen our relationship with one another and to look forward to possible new ways of working together in the future at many different levels."

Among the specific ideas for such a continuing dialogue was an invitation by the Bank to the religious communities to "influence the thinking of the World Bank by participating in the studies and discussions embodied in the Bank's annual World Development Reports," especially in relation to the year 2000/2001 report, which will focus on poverty.

As such, the meeting in Johannesburg - which was co-hosted by the Bank and the Archbishop of Cape Town, the Most Reverend Njongonkulu Winston Hugh Ndungane - represents the first real working meeting between bankers and religionists as they enter into an ongoing dialogue.

And according to participants, the meeting in South Africa - at least as far as the relationship between the Bank and the religions is concerned - was something of a new experience for all.

"One of the main challenges was bridging the three very different languages expressed at the meeting, between the economists, the bankers and development professionals, and the people representing the faiths," said Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, who was present as a representative of Judaism. "But during the conference there were moments when you could almost see light bulbs going off over people's heads, a sort of 'Aha, now I get it,' insight."

Much of the give and take between the economists and the religious representatives came over the issue of how properly to measure poverty. "Getting measurements right is important when you are talking to World Bank people," said Ronald Herring, a professor of government at Cornell University in the USA, who attended the meeting as an academic specialist. Dr. Herring explained that the Bank's personnel know that they will have to justify their positions to governments and government finance ministries. "And if you don't have your numbers right, nobody respects you. You can't just say people are happier or poorer."

At the same time, representatives of the faiths were concerned with moving the discussion on poverty and its cure in a direction that more explicitly recognizes the importance of spiritual and moral values in the development equation.

"One of the starting points for all of the faiths is the idea that you can't separate economics from the rest of life, and that therefore development must take into account cultural, social, spiritual and political aspects of human existence," said Ms. Tyndale of the WFDD. "Development is about life and people and not just about abstract economic concepts. So, for example, if the economists are pushing a structural adjustment program, they've got to understand how people will be affected by it."

Other points emphasized by the faiths, according to Ms. Tyndale and others, included: that education and the personal transformations that come from it are vital in combating poverty; that qualities of moral leadership (with an emphasis on fighting corruption) are likewise essential; and that poverty cannot be realistically eliminated without the participation of the poor themselves in determining the best solutions to their problems.

Many of these points also struck a chord with NGO representatives at the meeting. "A lot of people commented on the fact that religion is such an intricate part of our lives, that it guides our moral values, it guides our thinking, it guides the way we react," said Uzo Egbuche, director of the Nigeria-based Centre for Environmental Resources and Sustainable Ecosystems, who was among about a dozen representatives of African academic and non-governmental organizations at the meeting. Some Africans at the meeting expressed disappointment, however, that representatives of indigenous religions were not present.

Ravi Kanbur, director of the World Bank team that will write the 2000/2001 World Development Report (WDR), indicated that these first interactions with religious representatives have indeed provided the team with much to think about.

"From the point of view of poverty reduction, the values emerging from a faith perspective clearly strengthen the moral imperative to eradicate basic deprivation, and they place a special injunction on those of us who are not deprived to pursue this goal," wrote Dr. Kanbur, in response to a series of email questions from ONE COUNTRY. "Johannesburg also provided the consistent message from the faiths that religion is not a substitute for removing material deprivation. We now need to move to specific issues such as gender inequality, civil conflict, land reform, market liberalization, social safety nets, etc. - all issues which are central to the WDR, and on which it will be important and interesting to have a faiths-based perspective (recognizing the fact that there may indeed be different faiths based perspectives on these issues)."

Dr. Kanbur also indicated that his team looks forward to more "interactions" on the "question of values and norms and what this means for the conceptualization, identification and measurement" of poverty. "Encouraged by the initial explorations in Johannesburg," wrote Dr. Kanbur, "the WDR will give weight to participative methods of poverty assessment and, from the preliminary analysis so far, the issues of dignity, voicelessness and powerlessness emerge as important."

Case studies

Representatives of the faiths presented various case studies, drawn from their own experience in social and economic development work, to show how such a spiritually conscious approach can be effective and that such approaches do have measurable elements.

"Dignity is almost a summary measure of all the different dimensions of poverty that the World Bank is considering," said Dr. Lakhani of the Aga Khan network. "And by looking at things like self-esteem, self-worth, the ability to participate in decision making, which are all components of dignity, you have things you can measure."

The Bahá'í representative presented a paper entitled "Religious Values and the Measurement of Poverty and Prosperity" which, among other things, suggested that measuring the "improvement in the ability of all the members of a community to consult" could be used as a primary measure of success in assessing development.

"Both the process and the outcomes are observable and, therefore, in some way measurable," said the paper, which was presented by Matt Weinberg, director of research for the Office of Public Information of the Bahá'í International Community. "The use of consultative methods of decision making can lead to novel solutions to community problems; they can result in greater fairness in the distribution of community resources; and they tend to involve and uplift those who have historically been excluded from decision making, such as women and minorities.

"Experience has shown that consultation enables communities to sustain and modify development initiatives, contributing, thereby, to self-sufficiency and a higher quality of life. The ability of people to come together in these new and constructive patterns of participation and interaction is, in some respects, a more important outcome - and, therefore, more important to measure - than the quantifiable goals traditionally associated with development projects."

The Bahá'í presentation also emphasized the importance of capacity building, especially training that includes moral education. "To omit the spiritual or moral dimension is to miss the key ingredient in building up the fabric of community life," said Mr. Weinberg. "We tried to go beyond the issue of recognizing the importance of religious values per se, and emphasize that the integration of moral values into every development initiative is crucial. This might mean designing projects that emphasize service to the community and its needs; or allowing people to learn how to work together in developing constructive solutions to problems or pursuing in a systematic way the implementation of gender equality."

For the Bank's part, Dr. Kanbur said his team is indeed looking forward to discovering more about "what lessons can be learned from faiths based anti-poverty interventions which are different from secular interventions."

Learning from each other

More than merely a process that engages economists and other mainstream development thinkers with religious groups, the World Faiths Development Dialogue is also creating a new arena for interfaith understanding and collaboration.

"This is unusual - the idea of the religions getting together a common platform and exchanging ideas on this issue of poverty," said Swami Amarananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, who was a representative of Hinduism at the meeting. "Because theologically, every religion is a little different. But we are beginning to learn how to talk together, to learn how to cooperate."

Swami Amarananda said, too, that some religious representatives began to question their own approaches and histories on the issue of poverty and development. "Roman Catholicism is a major religion in Africa and Latin America," said Swami Amarananda. "Yet these regions are poor. Why is this so? The Buddhists were asking the same questions - how is it that the Buddhist countries are lagging behind? And the Hindus, also, asked the same question."

One significant outcome of the dialogue is a new body of work that is being produced by the religions as they grapple with these issues together. At the Johannesburg meeting, Dr. Kanbur and his team asked the faiths to submit a detailed commentary on a draft outline of the WDR.

In response, the WFDD secretariat has begun to circulate among the representatives a draft commentary, titled simply "Comment," on the WDR outline. In its initial form, "Comment" is remarkable for the manner in which it draws out the common points of view among the faiths on these issues while paying homage to each faith's approach.

"The starting point for all the faiths is that, as the Hindus put it, 'all human activities are part of the sacred pattern of the Universe,'" says a February 1999 draft of "Comment." "There can be no separation between the material and the spiritual elements of life. Thus 'development' or 'progress' must include the cultural, social, spiritual and political aspects of human existence. If emphasis is placed only on economic development, even this will fail. 'Where there is no bread, there is no Torah, and where there is no Torah, there is no bread,' say the Jews.

"The fundamental concern of all faiths is with life. 'Development' must be, first and foremost, about enabling life, in all its dimensions, to flourish," the draft Comment continues. "The focus of development must thus be on people rather than economic processes."

Download the complete statement of the Bahá'í International Community from the World Bank site.