Development and religion: ambivalent policy, grounded practice

Development policy seems to swing between a Marmite-style love-it-or-hate-it approach to religion. Yet practice on the ground is more subtle—and more effective. Cassandra Balchin suggests why this gap exists between policy and practice
Cassandra Balchin
19 January 2012

Despite a long-standing commitment to ‘bottom-up’ and participatory approaches, development policy is still largely determined by logframes and the perspectives of senior development professionals far from the coalface.

Nowhere is this generic problem more visible than in the question of how development organisations respond to religion. By ‘religion’ I mean religious organisations, as well as religiosity among people, and social and political power dynamics that are justified with reference to religion. There is something about this whole sphere of religion that seems to harden lines of policy thinking. Knowledge and experience of how to respond to power dynamics affected by other social categories—for example, gender, ethnicity, class and age—are thrown out of the window. Why this is so, is a matter for several PhDs. What I am interested in here is how this impacts policy.

Development policy is deeply ambivalent about how to respond to religion as a social and political force. Examples to the contrary aside, there are two clear trends among senior strategists in bilateral and multilateral agencies, as well as the major development international non - governmental organisations.

The first favours an unquestioning and undifferentiated use of religious organisations for service-delivery and seems to regard those who promote religious identities as the only legitimate interlocutors in debates about the relationship between religion and development. The second appears largely allergic to religion as a moral framework and to religious organisations overall: in their eyes, religion as such has no constructive role to play in development.

Yet practice on the ground by field staff and local development and rights activists is showing the way by responding more subtly—and arguably more effectively—to the challenge of accommodating religious worldviews and practices. Why this gap between policy and practice, and what is being done about it?

Here I am committing the sin of which I accuse such policy-makers: grossly essentialising their positions. But the nature of lumbering development organisation bureaucracies, whether governmental or non-governmental, is such that the further up the food chain, the smaller the time and scope for subtlety. In a private capacity, probably many recognise that “it’s more complicated.” But meanwhile, with these two, opposing ‘cultures’ clashing often in the same institution’s corridors, development policy overall seems deeply ambivalent.

Within development organisations, it is common to find that one programme will seek to elaborate a consensus statement on religion and development through a high-level dialogue with religious organisations. Often these are organisations which take positions on gender that directly contradict the development agency’s policies; while secular or religious organisations that support human rights and critique the abuse of human rights in the name of religion are frequently excluded from such dialogues. At the same time, another programme will spend money and effort on generating internal analysis that is deeply critical of the role of religious traditions on women’s lives. Is it a political or managerial failure, or both, that all too often these programmes do not engage with each other?

The unquestioning and undifferentiated use of religious organisations for service-delivery brings social and political legitimacy, resources and a captive client audience to religious fundamentalists. Research has shown that across regions and religions, fundamentalists undermine the rights of women, religious minorities, dissidents and atheists, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, while weakening democracy and pluralism overall. The channelling of funds through religious organisations that are both illiberal and anti-human rights is creating new realities on the ground and weakening local rights-based initiatives that have empowered many. This does not sound good for development.

Similarly, the mental blocks which result in an allergy to religion overlooks the fact that religiosity is, for many, an essential element of their well-being and identity, while religious institutions provide networks and services that help people survive in times of personal and national crisis. This also renders invisible the currents and movements within each religion that uphold and advance human rights. In particular, it ignores the Latin American experience with Liberation Theology in the 1960s and 1970s. Jennifer Butler, Executive Director of Faith in Public Life notes how, among other factors, “Religious progressives could have become a compelling counterbalance to religious conservatives and fundamentalists had they been better supported by the feminist community”; the same could be said of the lack of support for religious progressives from development agencies and the secular development non-governmental organisations.

One of the practical outcomes of these contradictory approaches is that development policy often lacks coherent guidelines for partnering with religious organisations and development organizations that have a religious identity. Since today even some downright fundamentalist religious organisations use the fashionable term ‘rights and justice’, coherent guidelines are crucial.

But the daily practice of field staff and local development and rights activists are often in significant contrast to these problems in policy. A recent Oxfam GB discussion document shares half a dozen case studies from field programmes that offer successful approaches to the many common challenges facing development practitioners in the context of the interconnections between religion, culture, diversity, and development.

In Am Nabak camp for the displaced in Chad, a development organisation proposed to train residents to spray tents against mosquitoes. Following gender guidelines, they suggested that both men and women be trained. But the men objected saying that local religious practice meant women could not enter a man’s house.

The staff, who were familiar with local practice, accepted the men’s point but as an entry point responded that women indeed needed to be trained because local practice also meant men could not enter women’s tents. So both men and women were trained.

On the first day, only the men did the spraying while the women mixed the chemicals and took care of safety issues. On the second day, however, roles were reversed by the participants and stayed this way for most of the remaining period. Indeed, the same men who had opposed women’s participation on religious grounds allowed the women to spray while they mixed the chemicals. The reality was that spraying took more effort. It also added to the women’s existing heavy workload.

This story demonstrates the value of ‘religious literacy’—the field staff knew enough about the religion to able to turn the religious argument on its head and use it as an entry point to support women’s equal right to be trained. I am not suggesting a crude instrumentalisation of religion or slavish deference to cultural norms, but the value of the knowledge-based, confident comeback.

At the same time, it reveals that religiously-framed objections to development can be a convenient cover for protecting existing power dynamics—in this case good old-fashioned patriarchy. In other words, an almost Orientalist fascination with the details of particular cultures and religions - which stems from the heavy anthropological influence in development policy and often assumes these are static rather than the object of constant contestation and negotiation - is no substitute for a solid analysis of power dynamics.

Another case study, on a campaign challenging early marriage in Yemen, illustrates how a focus on people’s practical needs can be a powerful alternative to head-on tackling the religious justification of harmful practices. In the Yemen campaign, convincing data about the impact of early marriage—on health, education, employment and poverty and not just for girls but entire families—was gathered by a local university department and received positively by communities. Although conservatives in parliament blocked a new law, at least the taboo on speaking about the subject has finally been broken.

Indeed, secular strategies such as empirical research have successfully been used to advance rights even where the state is theological or religion plays a major role in shaping public policy. For example, in Iran, women activists were able to use facts about women’s lives to reach out to conservative public opinion and build a popular demand for the repeal of stoning for illicit sex. Research into the backgrounds of those sentenced to stoning for adultery found that many were married women who had been the victims of domestic violence but refused a divorce; some had been forced into prostitution by their husbands, while others had been from minority communities unable to understand the Farsi-based legal proceedings against them. Overall, these facts challenged the official image of the adulteress as an over-sexed vamp undeserving of mercy.

The Yemen story also makes clear that religions are internally diverse, and therefore that debates in development policy about “how to balance rights, culture and religion" are simply asking the wrong questions. While many religious leaders opposed the campaign, some supported it. Evidently, all religions have interpretations which can support development that is in line with the realisation of the full range of human rights. The question then is how to support local activists who seek to make these interpretations the dominant ones. Some may argue that such selective support for pro-human rights interpretations of religion sounds too much like neo-colonialist intervention. Yet consider the local political impact of international funding for fundamentalist organisations, whether from fundamentalists in other countries or Western development agencies. In other words, all funding is necessarily political and a form of intervention.

The case study on We Can, a mass-based campaign to end violence against women in South Asia, shows how it is possible to side-step irresolvable debates about whether or not Religion X or Culture Y is “backward” or supports women’s rights. Instead, We Can has found that the vital task of changing attitudes can be advanced by appealing to common aspirations—such as wanting domestic harmony. Indeed, there seems to be evidence of a slow return to a focus on the role of values in motivating positive development.

But this doesn’t mean religiously-justified violence and intolerance gets off lightly. In 2009–2010, the campaign developed a tool for encouraging Change Makers (the campaign’s supporter-activists) to question their own prejudices as a necessary condition for ending all forms of intolerance and violence in society, including violence against women (VAW). Feedback from initial testing showed that people can question and change their own prejudices—even in contexts where religious identities have produced violent divisions in society. Results from a more formal testing are expected later this year.

So if there are initiatives on the ground that are successfully negotiating the minefield of religion and development, why the continued ambivalence in policy?

Partly, it is that responses have often been very local, and the synergies across regions and religions may not always be immediately visible. Partly they are also by people who may not have the capacity to convey their analysis and experience to a global audience. They may not speak a global language or be able to present their thoughts in the linear, pseudo-scientific style that can characterise mainstream development writing. Their skills after all are working with people, not writing snappy papers or PowerPoints. They may be valued for implementing a programme in the field but dismissed as legitimate commentators by their own organisation’s policy-makers because they are presumed to be ‘Westernised’ or ‘unrepresentative of their culture’ since they uphold human rights. Above all, there is often a ‘cultural’ gap between the development professionals at HQ who need black and white answers ( while giving a nod to the niceties of multiculturalism) and the field staff - whether local or internationals - who are firmly rooted in the complexities of the local context yet aware that solutions don’t always have to be complicated. Partly, it is also that mainstream development organisations and development agencies are often afraid of the kinds of free-ranging internal and publicly aired discussions that learning from the ground would require.

The Oxfam GB discussion document Avoiding some deadly sins is one example of an attempt to share a process of collective internal thinking that began in 2004 and to close this gap between policy and practice on religion, rights and development. As we know, most development agencies and non-governmental organisations have in their time commissioned papers that highlight institutional best practice. But that’s just the first hurdle. The real question is how to get action on their conclusions - especially when it comes to anything to do with religion. Listening more closely to experience from the field would be a good place to start.


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