Do the benefits of engaging religion for development outweigh the dangers?

Thursday, 1st May 2014
RUSI, 61 Whitehall, London, SW1A 2ET


Religion and development: desirable or dangerous?


The role of faith-based organisations in international development is “not just unobjectionable but also indispensable”, declared Robert Calderisi at the fifth Westminster Faith Debate of 2014. Most of the panel agreed with him – but it was clear that many in the audience were less convinced.

At a time when religion’s role in the political sphere is again being disputed heavily by British politicians and academics, this debate about religion and aid work gave some important insights. What benefits can religious aid agencies bring to international development – and what are the dangers? Do the benefits outweigh the dangers, or is development work best left to secular organisations?

Addressing these issues were Douglas Alexander, Shadow Foreign Secretary and former Secretary of State for International Development; Robert Calderisi, a former director of the World Bank and an author on international aid and development; Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Departmental Lecturer in Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford; and Loretta Minghella OBE, Chief Executive of Christian Aid. The debate was chaired by Charles Clarke, former Home Secretary, and Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Lancaster.

Religion’s involvement in aid work has certainly had a chequered and controversial history. Linda Woodhead, Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, began the discussion by outlining the “pendulum-swing” of this history. In the nineteenth century, religious ideologies, Western imperialism and international development went hand-in-hand – developing the world along Western models was part of a civilizing mission for European empires. The postcolonial era saw a strong reaction against these paternalistic aid models, and more secular approaches were promoted in place of religious ones. Since the late 1980s, however, there has been a reappraisal of the role religion can play in international development. She suggested that we may now be in a new phase where faith-based agencies try to adopt non-paternalistic models of development. So is religion’s role now a clearly positive one?

Calderisi, Alexander and Minghella had little doubt this is the case. Calderisi, author of a recent book examining the role of the Catholic Church in international development, argued that the Church has made historic contributions in three key areas. It has had a leading role in spreading education (to girls as well as boys) in developing countries, overcoming opposition from colonial rulers and indigenous prejudices. It has been a crucial advocate for the poor around the world – in Calderisi’s view, it has helped to pull more people out of poverty in the last 50 years than any other institution, including the World Bank. The Church has also made important contributions to global healthcare. In response to Clarke’s reminder that the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception and HIV has caused much controversy in the past, Calderisi argued that both the Catholic and Anglican churches have been leaders in the fight against the stigmatisation of HIV and Aids since the mid-1990s, and that demographic booms in developing countries are due more to cultural and economic factors for the families involved, rather than the Church’s teaching. For him, any negative consequences of religion’s role in development are now more than outweighed by the benefits.

Alexander and Minghella strongly agreed, also pointing out the contributions of faith-based agencies in these three areas. Alexander emphasised that those of secular perspectives cannot deny the centrality of religious groups in pushing for development and aid, and stressed that such groups were motivated by genuine spiritual convictions. In his view, a “golden thread” underpins the world’s religions, broadly recognising the “Golden Rule” and our unity in our common humanity. He noted that there are multiple ways of looking at development – for some it is about charity and compassion to others; for others, development is about “justice”. Both he and Minghella discussed the vital role played by faith-based aid agencies in tackling underlying structures of inequality in the regions they work in – and Minghella argued that large religious organisations like Christian Aid, with their transnational networks, provide frameworks for “organized grappling” of inequalities and conflict. She emphasised how integral faith is to many of the people in need of aid around the world – faith-based agencies, then, are particularly suited to understanding their outlooks and needs.

Whilst these three speakers did acknowledge that in some circumstances the involvement of religious organisations in development had had negative effects, it was Fiddian-Qasmiyeh who was most critical. She noted that an implicit assumption on this issue in public discourse is that secular models of development do not have dangerous consequences, whilst religious ones can do. Against assumptions that faith-based aid groups reproduce patriarchal attitudes, she stressed that secular agencies are not immune from them either. Nonetheless, religious groups’ involvement in international aid development has produced some particular effects which need to be evaluated critically. Refugees seeking aid or asylum in Western countries often have to portray themselves in particular ways in order appeal to the ideals of aid agencies and governments: for Muslim asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East, sometimes this involves downplaying their connections to Islam so as not to be treated with suspicion – a form of “epistemic violence”. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh argued that not all religions, and not all faith-based organisations, have the same political and institutional standing as agencies like Christian Aid – in particular, Islamic aid groups are particularly treated with mistrust in the West, and are suspected of having ulterior political and proselytizing motives.

Further reservations emerged during the panel discussion and the audience Question and Answer session. One theme was the role faith-based organisations play in generating dialogue between communities in conflict with each other – something Minghella advocated strongly. Some audience members noted that ‘development’ and ‘change’ are not necessarily positive, and questioned the capacity for organisations to facilitate inter-religious dialogue when many people on the ground do not want to engage in it. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh warned of “the tyranny of accepting dialogue is enough” – there is an unequal power balance between aid donors and recipients, because the former may use ideas and terminologies the latter do not understand. Woodhead, meanwhile, noted that Christian Aid was not purely neutral in such dialogue, but sought to encourage those groups with religious convictions that might impede aid work, for example concerning contraception, to change their minds. Another audience member questioned how far the agendas of Western faith-based agencies are shaped by particular political stances and Western concerns – noting Christian Aid’s opposition to free trade and GM technology.

The relevance of religious literacy to this debate was also noted. Alexander noted that a growing number of politicians and members of the public in Britain feel unable to engage in these debates because of a lack of understanding about religious ideas and terminologies. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh implied that this encouraged distrust of faith-based development agencies and their motives, leading to assumptions that secular organisations are to be preferred.

Despite these criticisms, it was clear that religion has had, and will continue to have, a major part to play in international development and aid work. The assumption that secular models are preferable to faith-based groups because they are more ‘neutral’ is too simplistic – there are dangers involved in all models of development. Minghella insisted that aid agencies can have most impact by engaging with religious institutions on the ground: “If you get faith leaders saying, ‘HIV is a virus, not a sin; the stigma is the sin’… this is extremely powerful.”

Simon Perfect


  • Charles Clarke

    Charles was Labour Member of Parliament for Norwich South, which he remained until May 1997 –...

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  • Douglas Alexander

    The Rt Hon Douglas Alexander is Shadow Foreign Secretary and member of parliament for Paisley and...

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  • Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh

    Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh is Departmental Lecturer in Forced Migration at the Refugee Studies...

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  • Linda Woodhead

    Linda is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University and Director of the Religion...

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  • Loretta Minghella

    Loretta Minghella OBE is Chief Executive of Christian Aid, which she joined in April 2010. Loretta...

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  • Robert Calderisi

    Robert Calderisi is an expert and author on international aid and development. He started his...

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  • Development introduction (10.02)

  • Presentation by Robert Calderisi (6.37)

  • Presentation by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (6.55)

  • Presentation by Douglas Alexander (13.24)

  • Presentation by Loretta Minghella (12.02)

  • Development All Presentations (49.17)

  • Development Panel Discussion (19.44)

  • Development Audience Q&A (38.17)


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