Faith and development – what’s the connection?

October 6, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

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.

October 6, 2009
Duncan Green