Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The role of religion in development

Here's an article from South Africa's Mail & Guardian by Madeleine Bunting about the importance of religion in development projects in Africa. I'm posting it in it's entirety as part of my long answer to Robert Mayer's challenge a couple months ago for me highlight other issues of relevance in quest for an end to the Zimbabwean crisis and also as a result of my interest in development.

"A recent survey found that 31% of British people thought Easter was sponsored by Cadbury’s, while 48% had no idea what the religious festival was about. The survey adds to evidence of how Britain has been de-Christianised in the past 50 years.

What’s interesting is how peculiar this phenomenon is in a global context. As Europeans become increasingly wedded to their faithlessness, the rest of the world has experienced an astonishing increase in religiosity.

Nowhere is this more true than in Africa. Christianity and Islam are expanding dramatically as they gather new converts, while traditional religions are experiencing a renaissance.

The astonishing growth of Pentecostal churches throughout Africa is being driven by United States evangelical missionaries and their wallets. Meanwhile, the Saudis and Kuwaitis are pouring huge sums into Africa’s Muslim communities. Known Saudi aid transfers to the continent amount to $1-billion a year, which is not far from the British level of aid. Yet this is rarely acknowledged in the West.

Some of the most arresting sections of the report by Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa deal with religion. It argues that nationalism in Africa is exhausted, and that politicians and state structures have lost almost all credibility or legitimacy. Into this vacuum has stepped religion.

This analysis in the report is largely Bob Geldof’s doing. Without grasping the significance of faith in Africa, he argues, we can’t begin to find development strategies that are going to work.

Geldof’s position draws heavily on the work of a couple of development thinkers and his travels in Africa. “The spiritual is to be negotiated on a daily basis,’’ he told me.

Christianity and Islam have three strengths over the nation state in Africa. The first is trust. Whereas politicians are synonymous with corruption, faith organisations are trusted; they can gather tithes and build institutions, investing for the benefit of the community. Whether it is mosques in Sierra Leone or churches in Nigeria, they have succeeded where the state has failed.

The second strength is that faith organisations deliver the goods — they account for 50% of all health and education in sub-Saharan Africa. They are far more effective than any state in reaching the most destitute. In rapidly urbanising Africa, faith organisations are sometimes the only functioning form of institution and of social capital — which explains something of the appeal of the Pentecostalist churches mushrooming in shanty towns. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Catholic Church even runs the only semblance of a national postal service.

Third, and crucially, Christianity and Islam offer what Ian Linden described in his paper for Geldof as “a language for change and redress’’.

The issue in Africa often is how to mobilise people to demand and achieve change, and faiths provide the ideology and legitimisation for change in a way that politics no longer can.

The million-dollar question is whether the changes championed by faiths coincide with Western development priorities. Often they do. For example, faith groups have a track record of conflict resolution in troubled regions. Or take another example: the Pentecostalist message of fidelity and no pre-marital sex could be a tool in the battle against HIV/Aids.

But Linden has concerns on one key issue — how to increase the autonomy of women, which is vital to the achievement of a wide range of development goals such as infant mortality. The faiths, which all promote male authority, are so much “part of the problem, they can’t be part of the solution’’, he says.

Geldof has blown open a much-needed debate: economists and politicians have dominated the agenda of African development for half a century, and look where it’s got us. Economic growth is not just about technical knowledge, but also about human behaviour — and that is rooted in beliefs such as what constitutes progress and development. [emphasis is mine] Indeed, what is wealth? These questions are spiritual as much as material in Africa; if Britain appreciated more of the African understandings of these concepts, it might learn as much from Africa as Africa is expected to learn from the West." — © Guardian Newspapers 2005

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