Development

New partnerships between religions and international organizations tackle sustainable development

In Brief: 
  • International development agencies are forming new or stronger partnerships with religious groups.
  • The trend is driven by recognition that faith based-organizations often have strong connections at the grassroots — and a galvanizing moral perspective on development issues.
  • There have been numerous high-level and low-level meetings recently between religious leaders and development officials, including at the World Bank and the UN.

BRISTOL, UK — The images of religious leaders in diverse garb, marching behind colorful banners with symbols of the world’s major faiths, conveyed a sense of the sacred nature of a meeting held in this historic English seaport in September 2015.

But at the head of the procession was an ensign with the logo of the United Nations — an institution generally concerned with more worldly affairs.

The juxtaposition, however, conveys well the theme of the meeting and its agenda, which was to develop a series of action plans by faith communities in support of Agenda 2030, the new global development plan adopted by the UN later in the month.

The faith community action plans, which include things like pledges to develop microcredit programs for the poor, increase access to education, plant trees, invest in clean energy, and establish green pilgrimages, were welcomed by officials from the United Nations, who were present at the meeting.

“More than 80 percent of the world’s people express a religious affiliation,” said Paul Ladd, then the director of the post-2015 development agenda team at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), speaking in Bristol. “Knowing this, it becomes clear that the UN needs to work closely with faith communities over the next 15 years if the new global goals for sustainable development are to be achieved.”

While the Bristol Commitments represent an important step in bringing grassroots support to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as the 17 goals in Agenda 2030 are known, the Bristol meeting and its outcome are far from the only new or expanding collaboration between religious groups and international development agencies in 2015.

 In April, the World Bank launched an initiative to better involve religious organizations in its effort to end extreme poverty. That initiative centered on the creation of a joint statement, titled “Ending Extreme Poverty: A Moral and Spiritual Imperative,” which was initially endorsed by some 30 global religious leaders and faith-based organizations — including the Bahá’í International Community.

The idea, said the Bank, is to “generate the necessary social and political will” to end extreme poverty by 2030 by “tapping into many of the shared convictions and beliefs” of the world’s major religions about the moral duty to combat poverty.

Other development agencies, both at the United Nations and among governments, are also increasingly collaborating and building partnerships with religious groups to address sustainable development, climate change, and poverty issues.

Examples include the creation of an interagency task force at the United Nations to consider how to better partner with faith-based organizations on development, a July “Summit of Conscience” in Paris to create greater support to combat climate change, and the International Partnership on Religion and Sustainable Development, a new endeavor of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Development and Cooperation and other international development agencies.

“Religion is back at the table,” said Martin Palmer, secretary general of the UK-based Alliance on Conservation and Religion (ARC), one of the oldest and best known groups that has sought to bring together religions with environmental groups and development organizations like the World Bank.

“Move hearts and minds”

“The hope is that the faiths can actually move people’s hearts and minds, and change human behavior with respect to the whole range of issues related to sustainable development,” said Mr. Palmer, who was deeply involved in an earlier World Bank/religions project, a contributor to the “extreme poverty” initiative in April, and the organizer of the Bristol meeting.

According to Mr. Palmer and others, the shift in thinking about how religions can help international development agencies meet their goals stems in part from the growing realization that governments cannot do it all, that they must turn increasingly to civil society to meet global challenges, and that religions, especially, as a segment of civil society, have a dedicated following with the motivation and capacity to undertake change and transformation.

“I think in general there has been an increasing recognition within the development discourse that the role of private actors is taking on a much more significant role within the organizations of development,” said Adam Russell Taylor, who leads the Faith-Based Initiative at the World Bank Group.

“Twenty years ago, ODA (Official Development Assistance) was the biggest source of financing for development. Now the private sector has far eclipsed what ODA provides, and a significant part of that sector is religious and faith-based organizations,” said Rev. Taylor, who is also an ordained minister in the American Baptist Church.

Rev. Taylor said this new understanding of the importance of faith-based groups in development is bolstered by the recognition that “the developing world is becoming more religious and not less religious.”

New guidelines

This trend has led a number of UN agencies recently to develop guidelines for working with faith-based organizations. Since 2009, at least five agencies — UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNAIDS, and UNHCR — have produced and published such documents as internal blueprints for how their agencies should work with religious groups and to guide religious groups who wish to work with the UN.

“The case for working with faith‐based organizations, as one community among many critical agents of change, is no longer a matter of discussion, but rather, one of considered, systematic and deliberate engagement of the like‐minded partners among them,” say the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) guidelines.

“Moreover,” the guidelines continue, “there is clearly an important parallel faith‐based universe of development, one which provides anywhere between 30‐60% of health care and educational services in many developing countries. At a time when basic needs are becoming increasingly harder to provide for more than half of the world’s population, we can no longer avoid acknowledging these parallel faith‐based development interventions which reach so many and provide so much. Many are critical venues for outreach, resources, and service delivery.”

Azza Karam, a senior advisor on culture at the UNFPA, said religion has become “the new normal” at the UN. “Because of what has happened over the last five to ten years, there has been a shift from where the UN has seen religion as the ‘other’ — because religious issues and actors weren’t really supposed to be a part of the UN system as understood by the UN — to where the UN can’t seem to get enough of it.”

Dr. Karam also said the shift is partly driven by the rise in violence in the name of religion, coupled with the rise in evangelization and proselytization among some religious groups. “These trends have forced us to pay attention to religion,” she said.

Role of motivation

The World Bank initiative on extreme poverty highlights another aspect of the trend: the desire to capitalize on the ability of faith groups to mobilize support and to advocate because of their strong reputation for moral and spiritual leadership.

Representatives of religious organizations who drafted the moral imperative were keen on this point.

“We believe faith has the capacity to tap the deepest reservoirs of human motivation and therefore release the collective will and raise the consciousness of people in a way that brings the moral dimension of poverty to come to the fore,” said Bani Dugal, the representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the UN.

“All individuals have the responsibility to assist people living in poverty. The societies and the institutions are responsible for creating the conditions in which poverty can be eradicated. Bahá’í communities around the world are contributing to eradicating poverty with grassroots efforts to build capacity through education and other processes, with a goal of enabling individuals everywhere to become protagonists of their own progress and development.

“These initiatives also encourage individuals to consider their social responsibilities towards others. Measures to promote the well-being of all have been blocked largely by the pursuit of self-interest and overall disunity that, sadly, seems to characterize many of our individual and institutional pursuits today,” said Ms. Dugal.

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