A sustainable development for poverty deviation, that focuses on the breadth of the challenge requires partnerships. Although strong collaborations between bilateral and multilateral agencies, and the private sector and civil society are rising, the role of faith actors to achieve better outcomes is yet controversial. Why is there reluctance to involve faith actors? How can international agencies support and scale up collaboration with local faith actors for lasting change?
Before 9/11, the world bank launched an initiative to bridge the gap between the world of religion and development. It was stimulated primarily by tensions, around structure adjustments, and various issues that were spurred by a shared passion for development. A sharp opposition jolted the initiative and encouraged curiosity to uncover the sources of anxieties and concerns. Most are still relevant today. It highlighted a widespread reality that religion is part of the problem and part of the solution. Equally, many see development institutions as unreliable, especially with their different mandates and roles.
The multifaceted realities that made the journey difficult are based on these issues: (1) a sense that religious institution leaders are divided, divisive, and dangerous. Sometimes, religion is framed as an ideology, others, as purely driven by politics; (2) a perception that there is a lack of coherence between the international development and the religious institutions’ missions, principally in issues like gender equality and government roles; (3) a distrust in the international development institutions’ ethical compass, associated them with a new form of colonialism. We see this today echoing in the tension from locals, that the policies and the programs adapt poorly to the countries’ reality. Those differences do not mean there is no shared commitment to the poorest and most vulnerable, and we can leverage to strengthen partnerships between faith actors and international agencies to achieve better development outcomes.
Eighty-five percent of the world’s population has some religious affiliation [PU Center]. This large percentage tells us that the issue is complex, and if we do not appreciate this complexity of religions, the world is in trouble. The faith sector is interdependent on civil society but not part of it. It is a set of compound institutions. Although the need for religious literacy is settled because it is crucial to work with Shia or Sunni, Sikh, or Hindu to grasp how these institutions function and how it fits within the countryside, religious literacy is hard to define.
To operate in any country or sector, we need to look at the whole religious landscape parallel with the development agenda, without favoritism. It should be part of the country mapping surveys, showing how the religious institutions work, what it might look like, and how they come together. A recognized strategy is to start with a practical program to get their engagement. For example, in Senegal, looking at the whole religious landscape with a practical program in the context, across the francophone African countries, involved religious communities in a serious dialogue about family welfare and planning issues. In Morocco and Sudan, in an educational and childcare program, the faith communities and their networks were influential in underserviced areas – unreachable by international agencies–to advocate for girls’ education and advance human capital development. There are remarkable success stories and mixed experiences. The bottom line is that there is potential for what we can achieve together today. Faith actors do not want to be instrumentalized for someone else’s development program. However, they are usually willing to collaborate for joint action on community priorities, particularly for the most vulnerable.
The growing international concern with freedom of religion and belief is a central focus in U.S. policies since 1998. When the world bank reviewed the safeguarding policy, there was a discussion on whether it would be feasible to look at religious freedom as part of the safeguard policies. The conclusion was that it was far too complicated for the bank to be involved, and it is very political. However, we cannot ignore that this is a central issue, not only for the U.S. government but for a number of the European governments which are in the process of assessing first what is religious freedom, and what are violations, because frightening data indicates that breach of religious freedom, varying from prosecutions to genocide, is increasing. It is affecting more of the world’s population.
An open dialogue is needed to work effectively with faith actors in a sustainable way. It is not enough to supply technical training or spiritual reflection alone, or even a mix of these two. Once we recognize the complex challenges we face, we should establish a strategy to identify both the knowledge that religious communities have the issues, the areas of disagreements, conversions, and possibly working together.