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:
‘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.