Four lessons of religion and development

The Oslo Center’s project Religion & Development is nearing its end. It has been both informative and challenging to drill into some of the hardest and also the most sensitive issues of today: Does religion promote or inhibit development? Does religion contribute to peace or conflict? How do we work with HIV / AIDS when our partners believe contraception is a sin? How can we meet millions of people who believe that gender equality is a Western idea?

To say something wise about religion’s role in development is proving to be difficult, and it requires empirical knowledge and sensitivity. But it is not impossible.

Religion is complex

Religion is a complex phenomenon. Religion includes ethics, emotions, rituals, identity, institutions, ideology, law, myths, dogmas and belonging. Just to mention a few issues.

Religion may seem as a rigid dogma, but it is a dynamic and changeable phenomenon. Definitions, traditions and categories are shaped by the passing of time and changes when facing different contexts. What one holy man claims is the essence of religion, another holy man might claim is abuse of religion – often with the same authority and the same source. Yesterday heretics could be tomorrow reformers.

Whether you believe or not, you’re always an actor in the field of religion. As soon as you have commented on religion, you are firmly placed inside the debate. Religion is one of those phenomena were you can’t have a neutral position – no matter how much you strive for an unbiased scientific method.

Religion is also a power struggle. Religious symbols and identities are extensively used as a tool in political struggles worldwide. Thus, what looks like religion on the surface might very well be politics.

Therefore the analysis of religion and development demand sobriety and a critical eye. Both when we’re facing the phenomenon on the ground, as well as when we’re facing our own perspectives on religion. Simple generalizations about religion’s role in development can be more misleading than illuminating.

What have other people learned?

Working with the project “Religion and Development”  the Oslo Center wanted to look into similar processes in two other comparable countries to document and compile experiences and knowledge. England and the Netherlands stood out as comparable cases when both these countries’ development agenda is similar to Norway, as well as these two countries started raising awareness of the relationship between religion and development already ten years ago. From their processes we could learn important lessons, and maybe also avoid mistakes they had made.

Four lessons

Firstly, we have experienced that focus on religion readily disclose ideological disagreements and strong feelings – far into the government and the ministries. Almost no matter how good and “neutral” intentions one has to increase knowledge on the subject. One ends up in a tug of war for or against religion. Often, this has developed into strong rhetoric about “religious” or “secular” world images: often portrayed as a battle between presumably disadvantaged religious actors and secular actors with a purely materialistic agenda devoid of cultural sensitivity.

This is a simplistic position that might lead to conflict. One badly needs a nuanced demystifying of religion, and a way to talk about religion that does not hold normative and preconceived positions.

Furthermore, the experience of these countries shows that research on religion and development takes time. To unravel the complex relationship between religion and development in different contexts is a time consuming task. Therefore, this research is quickly written off as boring and irrelevant to the hectic political life. Without concrete recommendations and fast answers on how to deal with religion, focus is lost and the subject is dropped. One consequence of this is that the subject of religion is treated ad hoc, and survives only as long as individuals take the initiative – there is no institutional support.

A third observation is the ongoing struggle between the conservative and the more moderate religious parties. Conservative forces versus progressive forces seem to be a major axis which divides the global religious actors in development and human rights issues. This is especially visible in UN resolutions related to abortion and contraception, known as reproductive health.

Here we see that the traditional boundaries dissolve and new interfaith alliances are built, such as the Vatican, Iran and Egypt. This is perceived as a continuing challenge for diplomats from the EU. And it has not become easier by the fact that EU more and more often want to speak with one voice in foreign affairs. More progressive European countries does simply not get through to the UN when conservative countries such as Malta prevents consensus within the EU.

Experience from the Netherlands and England also shows a widespread interest in increased cooperation with the huge group of faith-based organizations represented in the development contexts. International donors quickly discovered that the UNs Millennium Development Goals  can’t be achieved through government institutions alone, at least not in weak states. Therefore, one have to a large extent in the past decade examined the possibility of including the many religious development organizations into this work. It has tremendous potential, but also a myriad of fundamental considerations. The idea of drawing experience from all relevant parties are good, but in practice it has proved to be fundamentally challenging. Where are the boundary between state development aid and faith based missionary work? Does the faith-based organization want to build state institutions? Do they share the government’s view on abortion, contraception and homosexuality?

“Faith-based groups” is also a highly diverse group with different agendas, interests and methods, and it is not guaranteed that “our” faith-based development organizations are in tune with the local religious groups. Even though there are potentially an invaluable aid in the faith-based organizations, anecdotal visions of a friction-free collaboration has often been corrected by a complex reality.

Opportunities for Norway

It is certainly possible for Norway to avoid some of the problems other countries have encountered, and to build a good development policy that also takes account of religion – but it is not easy. A basic premise is to be able to look past large ghosts on religion and secularism, and treat religion as a social phenomenon on par with other phenomena in a society that we have to build up knowledge around.

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