Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Religion and International Development

Washington, D.C.

The Pew Forum interviewed Katherine Marshall following a roundtable on religion and international development co-sponsored by the Forum and the Council on Foreign Relations. Ms. Marshall is the director of the Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics at the World Bank and a former country director in the World Bank’s Africa and East Asia regions. She discussed the role of faith organizations and interfaith dialogue in development policy-making, particularly with respect to HIV/AIDS, health, food security and poverty alleviation, as well as responses to religion within the development community.

Featuring: Katherine Marshall, Director, Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics, The World Bank

Interviewer: Rachel Mumford, Research Assistant, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life


Since 9/11 there has been growing recognition of the role that religion plays in global politics, development and humanitarian assistance. Why have religion and other civil society forces been avoided in past development theory and practice, including the World Bank’s development approach?

The early years of development work largely focused on the public sector and, to a somewhat lesser extent, on the private sector. So, for example, the World Bank in its early years, but also USAID for some time, worked predominantly with governments in situations where it was expected that governments would be taking the primary role. When there was a perceived gap with private-sector investments, the International Finance Corporation and some other private-sector arms were created to fill that gap.

But the perception or the assumption was that religious organizations had very little to do with the development agenda and they were rarely included either in the dialogue or in research. They were also not deeply engaged in development operations on the ground, even when they were deeply involved in areas that were increasingly pivotal to development, like education and health.

The World Bank is a somewhat different case with some special accents (with the blindness to faith institutions accentuated by the economic and financial perspectives on issues). But to a significant extent, the failure to perceive the role of faith institutions applies to the international financial institutions, the regional development banks and some of the other institutions that have a governance structure dominated by ministries of finance or ministries of plan, such as the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, Asian Development Bank, African Development Bank, etc. In most countries, ministries of finance do not tend to have well-established links with religious organizations. The notion for some of the people in these ministries that religion would be relevant for development was initially seen as somewhere between ludicrous and outrageous.

What are some of the unique resources and strengths that religion and faith-based groups bring to international development, particularly in the Third Word?

To my mind, the most fundamental and important thing that they bring is the depth of commitment to fighting poverty. Fighting poverty is at the core of most of the major religious traditions in the world. Someone has looked at the New Testament and counted 2,000 references to poverty there alone. The Jewish faith, the Muslim faith, and Buddhism, for example, are focused very much on the people who are excluded, the people who suffer and the people who are poor.

So there is a very strong common body of concern, interest and engagement between faith and development organizations. And virtually all of the organizations in the development world have come to focus more explicitly on fighting poverty over the years. For example, at the Millennium Summit in 2000, but also in earlier summits going back to the 1980s and the 1990s, there was a concern with the poorest of the poor, once termed “the lowest 40 percent.” For many, this sense of a common bond between the faith traditions and the development world is a very compelling motivator for dialogue and action.

Looking at it from the perspective of the development agencies, the critical areas are first, the major service provision role of faith communities. In other words, they are major actors in education and health but also provide large parts of humanitarian relief, social safety nets for people who fall behind, support for orphans, support of disabled people — all of those are very much part of ancient traditions, but also contemporary work by faith organizations.

Secondly, many analyses and polls, including — just as two illustrations — the Voices of the Poor work done by the World Bank and the Latinobarómetro poll, indicate high trust levels for faith organizations, much higher than for most other institutions — police, governments, NGOs, politicians and so forth. So if the objective is to work with communities, trust is a critical element, and building on and working with the trust placed in faith organizations is very important.

The third area is the extent and depth of presence at the community level and therefore the ability to reach people. Faith organizations are widely present almost throughout the world, and they are, in a sense, the ultimate community organizations, particularly in places with the weakest-level government structure or with the weakest infrastructure.

Finally, and in some sense this is the most complex issue, faith organizations have for millennia addressed some of the most complex ethical and moral issues that societies face. And the development business confronts many of those issues because it involves transformation, abrupt departures from traditional ways, and changes in behavior. Looking to some of the ancient wisdom and working with people from the faith organizations to address the trade offs that inevitably emerge is an important area.

Dealing with issues of corruption, for example, could be a subject for some very productive and thought-provoking dialogue with faith organizations, to find the best paths to deal with what is in fact a very complex set of behaviors and incentives that affect people in so many parts of the world, rich and poor, and that bind them together across national boundaries in intricately elaborate ways.

What unique problems or challenges does religion bring to international development?

We have indeed faced a particular experience of such challenges, as the relatively modest initiative by the World Bank to engage with faith organizations proved to be surprisingly controversial, particularly in its early years. And as a result, we have given quite a lot of thought to why it is that people reacted negatively to it.

I think there are four major reasons why people have reacted negatively. The first one is that religion is viewed by many in the secular development world as potentially divisive and potentially political. In other words, religious organizations contest among themselves; they are viewed as bringing considerable tensions — if one supports one group, another will be angry. They are seen as competing for followers, competing for resources, generating or contributing to conflicts within society. Since the international financial organizations are explicitly required to avoid involvement in internal political affairs, and since for so many governments or states, the separation of church and state is an important principle, there was a lot of concern with the World Bank’s potential involvement with religious organizations on any systematic level. So that was the issue of religion being seen as divisive.

The second complex set of issues is that for many in the secular development world, religion has been seen as dangerous, as being counter to modernization and counter to the kinds of developments that are being promoted. They are seen as supporting the continuation of traditional, often patriarchal societal structures, as not being open to evidence and to the kind of universal rights that underpin the development world.

One particular area has had a disproportionately large impact on this perception, and that is the area of reproductive health rights and the rights of women, in which a number of different religious organizations, obviously prominently the Vatican but also Islamic groups, have come together in opposition to some developments for women’s reproductive health rights. One effect of this is that some in the development world hesitate to have any engagement with religious organizations because their view is colored by the tensions that have been generated around these specific issues involving reproductive health rights and the broader rights of women.

You’ve also written about the role of some religious organizations in attaching stigma to the HIV/AIDS issue, for example.

That is another very good example, HIV/AIDS and religious organizations. Faith organizations bring great gifts to the battle against HIV/AIDS, but they have also been part of the societal patterns that fed the pandemic. A major element is the degree to which they have been part of the phenomenon of denial and of stigma and discrimination, to the point, for example, of some pastors refusing to bury people who have died of AIDS in the church yards or refusing to mention the cause of death in funeral services, and essentially contributing to the exclusion of people with AIDS from society.

So I’m only giving you now the examples of how people have argued against the inclusion of religion in development partnerships and in the broad agenda.

A third objection stems from the often unspoken notion that religion is basically defunct or not very relevant; that religion with modernization becomes less important, and from the conclusion that religion is essentially a lower priority than other areas, and it’s not an area that one needs to engage in explicitly.

A final comment arises from my perception of strong similarities between the reactions to including religion in the mix of issues and institutions and another far more accepted but still sensitive issue for development institutions: gender. Often in the early years when people talked about gender issues, many people approached this in a quite personal way, even quite emotionally, moved by a sense of their own relationships with men and women. In a similar way, I find that many people approach religion based on their own experiences and their own views, their own faith. And I think this makes it more difficult to bring the objective importance of the issues to the fore or to have a reasoned discussion about where faith and development come together than would appear obvious from looking at some of the numbers and the dynamics in the world.

You have also noted that some people in the development world see the emphasis in faith communities on miracles and faith, in contrast to a work ethic, as a challenge for development.

Many in the development world have a stereotyped view of what faith means in faith organizations. They believe it is essentially about preaching and services and sometimes about the old opiate-of-the-masses-types of argument.

A more complex issue, which in fact comes out in some of the engagements, is that the development organizations are profoundly evidence-based. I would like to think they are very pragmatic and very much shaped by experiences and by data. Whereas the tradition within faith communities is not to focus as much on evidence, though obviously there are many people who look at data and who look at evidence, but to tend to extrapolate from a theological perspective as opposed to what is actually seen and can be demonstrated.

So the approach and tone can be quite different. And I have heard many of my colleagues use that as an argument for why it is so difficult to engage in faith organizations. They are seen as driven by a very different set of motives than those of us who work in the secular world.

You have suggested that under James Wolfensohn’s tenure, the World Bank increasingly recognized the limits of state- and government-centered development approaches, leading to such initiatives as the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD). What inspired the initiation of the WFDD in 1998?

There were at least two or three different reasons why Jim Wolfensohn got involved, and this was very personal to him as president of the Bank. I think his personal experience and the importance of his Jewish faith had a role. But there were three other reasons that inspired or drove him.

A negative one was that we were hearing a lot of criticism from faith institutions about the Bank. One of the most prominent examples of that was the Jubilee 2000 movement. But there were many religious voices in the 50 Years is Enough campaign, and the anti-globalization protests, critiques of structural adjustment of privatization of water, etc. There was a sense that here was a community with whom we shared so many interests and yet we were at loggerheads over many issues. This was one reason to engage, whether to explain ourselves better or to understand better why there was this opposition and this anger.

The second reason was that Jim saw religious or faith organizations as the largest distribution system in the world, with a presence in virtually every community. He was very much struck by the Voices of the Poor results and the trust levels of faith leaders. So I think his initial impetus was very much that this was an enormously important community that we needed to engage with.

The third was that he was very impressed by specific data about the role of faith organizations in education and health. Since education and health are so central to the Millennium Development goals and to the poverty mandate of the development institutions, it seemed crazy that faith and development organizations were not working together more effectively on education and health.

I think you asked me how this developed. Jim Wolfensohn first had a couple of meetings, one at the Vatican with bishops, but also there was a meeting in early 1998 that was co-chaired with Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. This small meeting involved a number of representatives of leaders from different faith traditions, and gave birth to a continuing dialogue process. At a second meeting in late 1999, the idea was to establish a small organization that would ensure that this work continued, and that was the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

It was at this point that two things happened. The first was that the controversy within the World Bank called this into question; one result was that there was much more reflection about its purpose and direction, and therefore some delay in actually engaging in work.

The second was 9/11, which put a very different light on the role of religion in public affairs, and then global affairs, including development. It took some time to make those links explicit, but even within a day of 9/11 we were already reflecting on what this implied for the kinds of engagements and dialogue that we had been involved in, and we have been reflecting on it ever since.

How have transnational and community-level religious dialogues influenced the World Bank’s development approach?

The two most recent meetings of leaders that we held were in Canterbury in October 2002 and in Dublin in January 2005. Those meetings with development leaders contained an extraordinary fellowship and faith, and no individual who was present at those meetings was not altered and moved and influenced by them.

So there is a tremendous impact at the individual level that is related to contacts with some of the world’s global leaders in the faith and development communities, and meetings in configurations and settings where they usually don’t meet. For example, the Millennium Development Goals, the broad global compact for fighting poverty, took on a very different color in the setting of these meetings, as did the discussions about the tsunami, or discussions about the HIV/AIDS challenge, and discussions about why gender issues are such a source of tension between different communities.

That is the sort of global-leader issue, something roughly parallel to what happens at a G8 meeting or at a U.N. summit. What is interesting about the faith dialogue is that it also works, though on a relatively small scale, far removed from the global leadership at a community level, as you have indicated. It is working, for example, on a HIV/AIDS project with a group that is working with orphans or in the Community of Sant’Egidio, which is fighting to increase mother-to-child transmission programs or to ensure that treatment is available to mothers, and countless other very specific interventions.

Clearly we are not dealing with the full spectrum of development, but there is enough direct contact that the field experience — the community experience — is very much transmitted to the leadership and vice versa. And we have also worked to take this to a country level, in Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala and other countries, where we ask leaders what they have learned from the community, how that relates to the broad objectives that the leaders are presenting at a global level, and where the action points are formulated that they can use in their thought, outreach and action.

For example, if you’re looking at people working on programs for street children in Caracas or orphans in Manila, what do the Millennium Development Goals and the global focus on issues for youth and children have to do with what a faith community is trying to do with a street children program?

Those are the kinds of questions that we are wrestling with. The fact that the dialogue process has explicitly worked from the very highest levels to the most basic level in poor communities, has given us an opportunity to try to force ourselves to look at why there are the linkages and where the discontinuities lie.

Why does the WFDD invest in dialogue as opposed to funding service delivery or specific project aid?

There are two reasons. The first is that the organization itself has never been conceived as having the kind of funding and mechanisms that would allow it to be a grant-making organization. That would be a foundation, an organization with considerably more resources. And likewise, the World Bank does not have the option to grant funds directly to faith organizations because of its structure and its philosophy and its basic operating procedures. It has been important to be quite explicit about that because of course there are some organizations that hear the word “bank” and have the immediate reaction that this is about obtaining funds.

A second and more important reason is that we truly believe that the policy and knowledge approach are at least as important as money in bringing about change, that resources generally do follow if there are good policies and good programs, but that the areas of major discordance are more about what it is you are trying to do, whether there is the capacity to do it and whether there is sufficient evaluation of what has happened. Those are the major areas where action is needed more than simply trying to serve as a conduit or to broker funds to specific organizations.

What are as some specific examples of how dialogue has generated practical solutions to development challenges? What about, for example, collaboration on Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and the WFDD pilot programs in Ethiopia, Guatemala and Tanzania?

In looking at overall development assistance for poor countries, the international community, I think for very good reasons, has wanted to make sure that those funds go to countries in ways that genuinely focus resources on the problem of poverty and work on solutions that will lead to lasting and real change. So there is a whole set of processes including the PRSP, the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper process, which try to bring different voices of society into answering the question of what is going to make a difference on poverty, what kinds of policies and strategies need to be pursued. And then to keep everyone’s feet to the fire to be sure the policies are translated into action.

In these processes, the voices of faith communities have very often been absent — with some exceptions, but they have often been absent — and as a result they have been frustrated and have believed that the policies that their governments are pursuing are not going in the right direction. So trying to engage more effectively with a government-led process, thinking about strategies is an important area.

Illustrations of broad strategy issues might include whether enough attention is going to rural areas, whether there is a tendency to focus too much on urban areas, whether there is enough money going to education and health programs, whether the programs for youth and youth employment are working and what more needs to be done, whether the curriculum in education is generally adapted to the kind of society that is needed, moving forward. On all of these, faith institutions are likely to have views and relevant experience if the issues are well framed.

The issues of course vary by country. In some countries corruption is a major issue as it has been, for example, in Kenya. The approach to HIV/AIDS has been an issue. Regional disparities — is enough going to the North or the South? Is legislation dealing with the rights of women moving forward? Those are the kinds of issues that might very well enter into one of these strategy discussions.

Then there are also more specific areas, and health policy is one. For example, why are mothers and children not coming to clinics? What are the issues on access? Is it formal fees? Is it informal fees? Is it the fact that there aren’t enough nurses, that the operations are not effective? Why are you seeing more drop-outs in the schools? These are the kinds of issues that are amenable to policy discussions.

Likewise on food security, what is it that is discouraging farmers from planting? Is it that they are having difficulty selling their crops? These are issues that have a very technical side, but that also often have a cultural dimension and even an element that is directly linked to religious practices where a dialogue can genuinely improve the quality of analysis and the solutions that are set forward.

So, for example, one of the WFDD pilot programs focused on food security in Ethiopia. What ideas or issues did religious groups bring to that discussion?

Ethiopia is a fascinating case in point. Everyone was talking about food security at a certain point, around 1999 to 2000. The reason was that Ethiopia was just coming out of a famine and many faith groups had been deeply involved in famine relief so they were very preoccupied with the issue of delivery of food.

But once people got into talking about food security, it became apparent that they were talking about very different things. Some people were talking about a food stock. Some were talking about continued food distribution in very poor areas. Others were talking about subsidy. Others were talking about what you needed to do to encourage farmers to produce more, whether it was differences in prices or more fertilizer, agricultural tools or knowledge, so that they had new seed varieties and knew what kind of pesticides they needed in order to have higher yields for their crops.

So the dialogue on food security became extremely complex, and the faith-based organizations, as in many places in the Christian world, were in many ways almost indistinguishable from other NGOs, in that they would focus on agricultural extension systems and research knowledge and so forth. But what has been interesting in this place has been asking and forcing the question of why does the faith-based organization have an interest, what does it bring to the discussion that is somewhat different from a secular organization. There is always an answer, but it is always a difficult answer to get at because on the surface the differences may well be obscure and complex to ferret out.

In the food security issue I can’t give you a single bullet of what change was brought about, because the reality is that as people realized that they were talking about very different things, they in a sense became more concrete in what they were trying to do with their own directions, and focused less on food security as a major national policy issue, which was probably a constructive outcome.

The other thing is that in the course of the discussions on food security, it gradually became apparent that what was happening to the country on HIV/AIDS was an absolute calamity. First of all, there was a dramatic increase in HIV infections, but also the infection stage was becoming much more obvious. The HIV pandemic takes a long pattern when the disease is latent, when people are not seeing illness and death. It can be up to eight or 10 years between infection and the time that somebody is actually very ill.

What was happening in Ethiopia is that the infection stage was becoming much more obvious and it was placing enormous burdens on communities. The faith communities were deeply involved there with orphans and sick people and concern about prevention among young people and mothers dying, and so on. In a sense, the priorities took a turn as a result of what was happening there.

It seems that HIV/AIDS is a case where religious groups alone differ greatly in what they think the outcome should be or what the project is.

There are very different examples. In fact, our experience is that, insofar as we have been able to look systematically at different countries that are fighting HIV/AIDS, in the most successful countries, Uganda, but also Senegal, Mauritania, Thailand and increasingly Zambia, one of the things that ties them together is that the faith communities and the political, arts and business communities have worked together and have been willing to confront the issues together, and have been willing to appreciate that there will be different approaches.

My analogy on this is Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression. One of his comments was “when in a crisis pull any lever,” which in this situation means that, essentially, when you’re confronting a major HIV/AIDS pandemic, there isn’t a single solution, and therefore there are innumerable possibilities for different groups to take quite different approaches as long as they respect each other.

Clearly, there have been situations where there has been tension among different groups and between faith groups and development agencies, but the successful cases are those where there has been a remarkable degree of leadership and vision that has brought faith and development leaders together.

To conclude, what role do you see for religious and ethical dialogue in World Bank activities under Paul Wolfowitz’s presidency?

We’re still in a transition period and there is a decision-making process that is going on now as to what shape and form the World Bank’s partnerships with faith institutions will take in the future. It is very clear that for Paul Wolfowitz the issues of religion are of critical importance in the global agenda today. He has often said that there are many links between religion and development that are complex and diverse, but that we need to continue work on forging stronger partnerships and alliances and understanding better how the two work together.

Some of the areas that he has seen already either from his prior experience or in his first months at the World Bank are, first, the extraordinary role of Christian churches as well as the Islamic organizations in Africa. Secondly, he is clearly very interested and committed to the important role that moderate Muslims are playing in their societies and in the global dialogue that is taking place. He has a rich experience in Asia where the Islamic communities have played remarkable roles over the past decades.

And third, he is clearly very interested in and informed about the new alliances that are taking shape in the United States between very different religious communities, whether they are evangelical communities or traditional Protestant or the Catholic Church or Muslim communities or Jewish communities, finding ways to work together for causes linked to development. The work for the HIV/AIDS program, which gave birth to the president’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), is clearly a remarkable case in point. So is the joint work to advance dialogue on southern Sudan, addressing issues of trafficking and addressing issues of global warming. All of those are examples of actual or potential areas where new kinds of alliances and new kinds of partnerships can make an enormous difference.


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