What would make an Atheist spend a day discussing Faith and Development?

October 19, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

Had a good chat last week about one of my enduring hobby-horses: the role of faith in development, and the aid sector’s massive secular blind spot. The conversation was with Christian Aid’s Lila Caballero Sosa, who (with Islamic Relief, the Joint Learning Initiative and the University of Leeds) is putting together a big event on faith and development for next Spring.

Her background briefing nicely captures the main issues:

‘As the demographic weight of the global South increases, the world is becoming more rather than less religious. Religious faith is a major element of the social and political context in which international development efforts take place, and plays a significant part in the identity, beliefs, and daily decisions of a large majority of the world’s people. Despite this landscape, many mainstream development actors have struggled to engage effectively with religion as a factor in development, or indeed to work with religious actors. There is a need to apply a faith literate approach on a wider scale to development as this can help improve community acceptance and effectiveness, especially in those areas that relate to norms and behaviours, such as gender based violence, public health, peacebuilding, and good governance.’

Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong atheist, but also an admirer of faith groups and their activists, ever since my formative years in Latin America and 7 years at CAFOD in the late 90s/early 2000s, (which is why Lila got in touch).

Some of the points we touched on:

SOUTH AFRICA/CAPE TOWN – 350 climate change protest march outside parlament, 24 October 2009

‘Faith based’ and ‘secular’ aid organizations is often a false dichotomy. Oxfam was set up by Quakers, and still has some Quaker DNA (for example banning even the tiniest drop of alcohol on expenses ☹). More importantly, many of its partners and their individual staff and activists are motivated by their faith. Yet this is somehow filtered out in the official story – the best practice guides, strategies etc, which often combine a high level of rationalism and progressive political stances, but avoid any mention of religion. Faith-based policy making may be what actually happens in many cases, but evidence-based policy making gets all the airtime.

Faith is all about norms, but norms are complicated. At one end, there are moral norms – things people subscribe to simply because they are right, whatever other people say. A lot of these are faith based – harnessing deep religious narratives to raise awareness and action on topics like climate change has to be a good idea, as Alex Evans has argued.

But these days, demonstrating a ‘preferential option for the poor’ (in the language of liberation theology) could incorporate a number of less obviously religious ideas, such as Amartya Sen’s definition of development as the ‘freedoms to do and to be’, the push for localizing power and resources to those closest to the people we are trying to help (‘subsidiarity’) and acknowledging and respecting the centrality of faith in the lives of marginalized people and communities around the world. Decolonization surely has to include respect for the faiths of formerly colonized peoples. When Covid forced the white men in shorts to leave, one of the first things humanitarian organizations in the Pacific did was to introduce prayers at the start of their meetings.

At the other end of the spectrum, it can get very instrumental. When I asked our staff and partners in DRC whether they worked with the Catholic Church (arguably, the DRC’s only fully national institution), they replied ‘sure, we get them to hand out our leaflets’. Okaaaay.

But in between there’s a level of instrumentality that I think is legitimate. As Lila says, faiths are instrumental in establishing, challenging or perpetuating social norms, less deeply rooted than moral norms, based on what you think the neighbours think/do. These are becoming an increasing issue within development (back to Sen).

Faith Leaders are often prominent public authorities, resolving disputes when the state is nowhere to be seen, so it makes sense to try and work with them; they are able to reach communities through a very important lens that others cannot tap into.

An insistence on secularism makes aid programmes look weird and alien, laying them open to accusations of being foreign interlopers, by any populist seeking to shut down those pesky CSOs.

Community organizations like Citizens UK have shown the mobilizing power of working with faith organizations – churches, mosques and synagogues often have deeper roots in communities than any other institution (certainly more than NGOs or the state).

One of the obstacles to linking faith and development is people’s experience of the undoubted negative role of faith institutions, especially in areas such as women’s rights. This is totally legitimate, of course, but shouldn’t the response be to understand the arguments, debates and divisions within faith institutions (there are always a lot – nothing is a monolith) and build bridges with the like-minded groups, rather than write the whole lot off?

In terms of the question in the title of this post, I suggested:

  • Showing the relevance of a ‘faith literate approach’ to some of the hot topics in development, like localization and decolonization
  • Demonstrating the evidence of the importance and impact of faith leaders and institutions
  • Acknowledging the difficult issues (see previous para)
  • Having a panel of atheists, not all of them fellow travellers like me!

Persuaded? Any other suggestions for Lila?

P.S. Also been skimming this paper on ‘Understanding Islamic activism in Central Asia and West Africa and the Sahel‘. Not sure if I’m going to blog on it, but linking here in case the topic interests you.

October 19, 2023
Duncan Green


  1. Having a panel able to represent the fullest spectrum of religious views (because you could find yourself with comfortable fellow travelers on both sides excluding both wings of the discomforting who, may well be, the largest groupings). Meanwhile, in a Christian context, the fastest growing ‘denomination’ is Pentecostal and highly fragmented – a collection of likeness rather than a convenient structure.

  2. There’s formal organised religion, which might favour rules and norms, but then there are spiritual traditions, which I think are more to do with furthering human qualities – like compassion, kindness, forgiveness, getting to the point, etc. In addition, there’s increasing emphasis on indigenous knowledge systems and I don’t think you can separate out those knowledge systems from spirituality…I touch on some of this here:

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      1. Hi, Sure! The conference is an opportunity to further explore what role faith plays in development and how best we can all engage with this, recognising that faith is a very important part of the lives of the communities that Faith Based Organisations like Christian Aid and Islamic Relief work with and for, yet this part of their lives is not necessarily well understood by many in the sector. We like to think of the one day event as a “translation exercise” and a space to reach common understanding of faith and development, to demonstrate the impact that faith leaders, organisations and communities can have in bringing about transformative change beyond the often quoted examples and to not shy away from recognising that there are difficult issues, myriad views and experiences, but which are worth exploring and understanding better. We hope the conference is not just a one-day thing, but rather the opportunity to open up new perspectives and opportunities.

  3. Faith could provide credibility and easily win trust for faith based organisations working in the development sector . It could also become their greatest weakness in regions of great religious diversity if the faith based organisation had its roots in one of the denominations in the region raising questions about their agenda in other groups.
    Faith in our part of the world is also used to build power by certain religious cum political groups. Religious leaders exercise great power because of their presiding over life cycle events and controlling the pulpit. In such cases religion is often used to beat their opponents and to muster greater power for the faith groups.
    When it comes to evidence based policy making the gap between the public and private transcript is a phenomenon not restricted to the work of faith based groups but is widely found all around in the development sector.

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      Thanks Masood, love ‘the gap between the public and private transcript’. During my brief time as a policy wonk at DFID we were much more interested in policy-based evidence making, than the other way around. We would phone up a think tank and say stuff like ‘we need a paper showing how EU subsidies harm developing country farmers, can you get it to us by the end of the month?’

  4. “Oxfam was set up by Quakers” – plus other Christian denominations too, first meeting at St, Mary’s church Oxford, first chairman Canon Milford , vicar of St.Mary’s

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  5. For more on Quaker undertakings and thought in humanitarian and development work, including contributions to several different organisations, try

    Trigger warning – researched and written by a card-carrying God-botherer.

    The issue of working with faith organisations is particularly salient in the inclusion (or otherwise) of people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity, as they/we are often excluded or oppressed by faith organisations, while frequently being people of faith themselves – check out several publications from

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