Tackling Inequality on the grounds of religion or belief: more than ‘add religion and stir’

March 29, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Cathy Shutt

Last year the Coalition of Religious Equality and Inclusion in Development  (CREID) contracted me to conduct research in support of mainstreaming inequality on the grounds of religious belief or non-belief in international development. Having taught on ‘faith in development’ for over ten years, I was naturally curious and accepted. Despite being an atheist, I was already convinced that recognising spirituality and faith as dimensions of people’s identities and well-being is central to the  2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the principle of ending all forms of discrimination and exclusion,  leaving no one behind.  

What I didn’t know before was that there are two fairly well-defined camps – a bit like in the gender and development world: ‘faith in development’ and freedom of religion or belief (FoRB). Allow me to explain the differences and why they matter.

This is the first of two blogs.  It briefly summarises key moments from the history of ‘faith in development, before highlighting key differences in the theories of change (TOC) underpinning this agenda with that for religious inequality/FoRB in development. I home in on two specific aspects that emerged as sources of confusion during my research. These relate to working with faith-based organisations and faith leaders.

In the second blog I look at the dilemmas a FoRB agenda poses for practitioners and how these might be overcome.

Faith in development’s theory of change

Arguments for including ‘faith in development’ gathered momentum following the seminal 1999 Voices of the Poor study commissioned by the World Bank. This study identified the importance of faith identities as sources of comfort and hope for many people that had long been ignored in international development.

A review conducted by CREID explores the reasons for the systemic oversight of religion in development.  In short, the modernisation theory of change assumed that economic rationality would lead to a post secular world.  As mounting evidence of the importance of faith identities eroded this confidence, development organisations and academics became more interested in the role of faith and religion in development.

Implicit associations were already well established. The philosophical links between most faiths and the practises of aid giving and development are strong. From a more practical perspective, faith based organisations had long played vital roles  as providers of basic services  in contexts such as Sub-Sahara Africa.  These were particularly important during the Washington Consensus era of structural adjustment and the rolling back of the state.   Moreover, faith and faith leaders have also been key players in social justice movements, such as the Philippines’ People Power movement that  brought down the authoritarian Marcos regime in 1986.

Increasing recognition of the importance of faith in development and social change enabled champions in donor agencies to persuade colleagues of the added value of a ‘faith in development’ TOC.   This might be described as religion or faith providing inspiration, strength and therefore added value to other development and rights-based endeavours.  Key assumptions were that paying more attention to faith would enable greater reach, mobilisation and cooperation.  They tended to be operationalised through theories of action involving faith leaders and faith-based organisations.

Have implementing faith in development theories of action and change proved problem free?  Of course not.  I encourage the undergraduates I teach to engage with a range of dilemmas arising.  These include issues such as women’s rights that initially proved a sticking point, preventing many feminists fully supporting ‘faith in development ‘approaches to development.

During my research I was presented with several examples of initiatives to overcome such problems that usefully highlight key differences between ‘faith in development’ and FoRB. One example was Christian Aid’s side by side programme with a theory of action that assumes faith leaders can play central roles in shifting beliefs and norms that discriminate against women and girls.  While this is undoubtedly an important initiative to tackle discrimination on the grounds of gender or sexuality that fits in a ‘faith in development’ theory of action, it has a different genesis and theory of change than FoRB.

Differences between faith and FoRB in development theories of change

CREID’s research argues that while a ‘faith in development’ agenda is important for challenging secular blindness and making development more inclusive of faith identities, it does not go far enough.  A FoRB-sensitive theory of change has a different focus.  While it shares aims to make development more inclusive and can engage faith leaders, this is not to capitalise on the power of faith and faith organisations. Rather, a FoRB lens aims to address inequalities arising from conscious and unconscious bias on the basis of faith, religion or non-belief.

It follows those theories of action for FoRB in development interventions focus not only on secular-religious divides but also on divisions between and within religious and non-religious groups. By so doing FoRB highlights the risks of instrumentalising faith-based organisations or powerful faith leaders, who tend to be elderly men.  Without due care, theories of action that focus on faith leaders or organisations risk overlooking conscious and unconscious bias that may make these actors oblivious to challenges facing individuals, often from minority faiths who are hard to identify and reach operationally.  For example, while a programme like side by side starts to address gender discrimination, it may not consider how this intersects with bias due to faith or religion.  Research by CREID finds that poor women belonging to minority religions often face distinct forms of Othering for example, their bodies becoming pawns in political struggles or more subtle, ideologically motivated sexual grooming.

Comparing Faith and FoRB in Development

DimensionFaith in DevelopmentFoRB in development
Understanding of the problemSecular blindness ignores the importance of faith identities and added value of faith actors, leading to sub optimal and non-inclusive work on development and some rightsBlindness to division and discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief and non-belief leads to sub optimal work on development and rights because it ignores Othering on grounds of belief or non-belief
Theory of changeMore deliberate incorporation of faith and faith actors will lead to more inclusive and better quality developmentSensitisation to discrimination on the grounds of religion, belief and non-belief will enable more inclusive and equitable development
Key assumptions in theories of actionFaith organisation and leaders are key intermediaries able to leverage the added value of faith; they can be persuaded to denounce interpretations of discriminatory norms and beliefs on issues such as genderFaith organisations and leaders may be part of the problem as well as the solution. They need to be engaged with care and approaches that pay attention to unconscious or conscious bias specific to religious belief and practice that can intersect with other discriminatory norms and beliefs
Inspired by Mariz Tadros’s presentation  Inclusive Development: beyond need, not creed. page 27)

In conclusion, even though FoRB starts by recognising the importance of religious norms and beliefs, it goes much further than recommending ‘just add religion and stir’. Vitally, it seeks to tackle religious inequalities that are defined as the unequal power relations that people experience on account of being seen as the religious ‘Other’, be they of the same faith as the majority, of a minority faith, or of no belief at all.

March 29, 2022
Duncan Green