Role of religion in international development strong and growing, say participants in forum

In Brief: 
  • According to participants in a forum on “Faith, Belief, and Development,” the role of religion in international development is growing as faith-based organizations have an increasing impact.
  • Such impacts include gender discrimination backed by “traditional practices.”
  • Positive impacts include the religious motivation to do good and help others.

GATINEAU, Quebec, Canada—The worldly practice of promoting economic progress is sometimes seen to be at odds with the spiritual goals of religion.

But at a conference in August, academics, practitioners and religious leaders examined the role of religion in international development and concluded that the impact and importance of faith-based communities and organizations in development is significant and growing.

Participants in the day-long forum, held 27 August 2013 on the topic of “Faith, Belief and Development,” offered a wide range of perspectives.

On the one hand, there were suggestions that religions and religious leaders sometimes hinder development, as when, for example, the advancement of women is blocked in the name of “traditional practices.”

Others pointed out that religious people and communities have always been front-and-center in development work, whether in charitable efforts like building schools or health clinics or simply in inspiring many development practitioners to help others.

One thing, however, was agreed upon: that the role of religion must be factored into any development program or process.

“Religion must be mainstreamed within development,” said Tamsin Bradley, a senior lecturer in international development studies at the University of Portsmouth, who gave the keynote speech.

Religion a moral code

“Religion is important to local people in many developing countries because it forms a lens through which they see and relate to the world and provides a sense of identity and belonging. Religion also provides a moral code to live by and therefore impacts on decision-making processes and human actions,” said Dr. Bradley.

As such, she said, the public and private expression of religion “can be a useful source of motivation in the achievement of development goals.”

Jennifer Henry, executive director of Kairos Canada, a coalition of Canadian churches working for peace and justice, agreed, saying however that there are a number of ways in which faith-based organizations and development organizations function differently—even though they work for similar goals.

Religions tend to take a long term view, she said, whereas development practitioners often operate on more limited time frames.

She added, “religious communities know that not everything important is of this world—whereas development people are preoccupied with this world.”

The material-spiritual dichotomy in development work was also discussed by Ming Hwee Chong, a representative of the Bahá’í International Community to the United Nations.

He suggested that international development efforts were hindered by prevalent conceptions of human nature that, for example, reduced human beings to an “economic man” that “pursues his self-interests in a rational, calculated, and self-maximizing manner within an arena of competition over scarce resources.”

Mr. Chong suggested that an alternate view that recognizes an underlying spiritual reality “that makes it possible for us to understand and satisfy material needs within appropriate limits, while rising above the exigencies of mere animal existence.”

This conception can help practitioners focus on the expansion of those human capacities and capabilities that will promote the greatest level of individual and community empowerment in the long run, he said.

The forum was sponsored by the Canadian Association for the Study of International Development and the Canadian Council of International Cooperation (CCIC). It was held at Université du Québec en Outaouais.