Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

The intersecting paths of religion and development

The essence of development can be expressed as the cumulative growth of per-capita income, accompanied by structural and institutional changes. Although per-capita income is a crude measure unless problems of measuring the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and its distribution are taken into account, this is often the best proxy measure. Many development specialists argued that, post Second World War development policies have often failed to help the poorest 40% of the world’s population. Although many aid programmes have an urban bias, they have widely achieved lower rates of education, health care, infrastructure development and the like.
In the regional as well as global development endeavors, religion plays its own indispensable role. Concerning its big and very influential role on the society in every corner of the world, Karl Marx defined religion by his famous words as “the Opium of the world”.  The economic development history books recorded the role of Protestant Christianity for the emergence and development of the industrial revolution in Europe and Islam for the development of commercial and entrepreneurial skills of Muslim traders.
Faith-inspired or religion-based institutions also played their own tremendous role for societal and country development in their respective area of involvement throughout the world.  Different governments and community leaders well acknowledged the important societal and country development role of religion and religion-based institutions. However, there are still some pressing issues which sometimes created frictions, in the policies and practices of development activities by the religion-based organizations.
The issues includes, among other things, accommodation and entertaining of the development interest of other religious groups and the development policies and interest of the religion-based organizations and that of the national government. Due to this fact, many long started inquiring to well understand the intersecting paths between religion and development. Over the past decade, important changes in visions and practical approaches about global poverty and equity have generated new connections among very different institutions. Initiatives by global institutions, the impact of new technologies, and the blurring of lines among hitherto segmented disciplines, sectors, and institutions such as public and private, security and welfare, all part of the globalization revolution, are transforming relationships within the world of international development. New approaches to the roles that religion can and should play in development are an important part of that transformation, as religions also take on different forms and engagements.
Faith-inspired organizations have become far more directly involved in development thinking and work, with roles ranging from global advocacy and mobilization on issues like poor-country debt and rights to health care to community-level programs such as education, health, water and sanitation, food security, capacity building, and the like. And secular development institutions, national and international, are today far more open than they were even fifteen years ago to cooperation with religious groups and to their ideas.
This trend has provoked debates within the development world and tensions also within and among faith institutions, even as it promises to open new avenues for action and common engagement about global poverty. The links between fighting poverty, development work, and religion appear strong and obvious to some observers, but for others the merits of yoking two historically differing fields and worlds in any systemic way are doubtful. And, indeed, wide gulfs have traditionally separated both intellectual and practical work by secular and faith-inspired institutions even work directed to similar ends, like policies and programs for education, health, water and food security.
The burgeoning of civil society, at global and national levels, and the broadening of national and international public sector approaches to encompass new disciplines and partnerships have radically changed the policy landscape. Still, specific links between faith and development practitioners have proved particularly complex to navigate. This is in part because deep historic, sociopolitical, and even emotional backdrops surrounding relationships between secular and religious worlds color contemporary debates and approaches.
Recent debates about the benefits and risks of bringing faith and development work closer together highlight both these new dimensions, the product of contemporary world political forces and the increasing pluralism of many societies, and the core ethical issues that are evoked by global poverty and inequity. 
In this regard, the underlying argument is, first, that the changing roles of religion in the public sphere are linked above all to heightened global concerns about poverty and, more complex still, global balance, equity, stability, and social justice, and second that the global tendencies toward different forms of partnership change conventional sectoral and disciplinary approaches.
As explained in the above, the wide array of faith-inspired institutions and development agencies across the world share a central focus on poor people, concern about social exclusion, and a searing disappointment in the face of unfulfilled human potential. This common ground involves both communities in the strengthening of global consensus that bolder and more concerted action is needed to address these issues.
That common spirit and action engagement underlie the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which grappled with the core issues facing humanity at the turn of the millennium, and they open opportunities even as they pose practical challenges. Religious and development institutions have traditionally operated largely in different spheres and have been cast in separate roles even separate dramas.
This generalization applies to widely different institutions, albeit with some noteworthy exceptions, including the array of institutions within the United Nations system working on development issues, most bilateral aid agencies, and the growing body of secular nongovernmental organizations. The World Bank, as a leading development institution working within the United Nations system, offers an interesting illustration of both separation and engagement.
The common ground between faith and development institutions that arises from their shared concerns about poverty and equity was far from universally appreciated even at the time of the Millennium Summit held at the United Nations in September 2000. At the same time that common declarations of purpose and commitment pointed to an exciting new global engagement to address poverty issues, frictions came increasingly to the fore about the roles that religion played in development work. These were colored by many developments, including the evident resurgence of religion in many settings including U.S. politics, in the Islamic world, and across Africa and the heightened concerns about terrorism, especially after September 11, 2001.
Many practical and normative arguments support a sharper focus on faith roles in development. There is no doubt on the fact that faith-based institutions play and have long played large and varied roles in development work. Their pivotal roles in developing education and health services in many countries, their continuing roles in both fields, and their special roles in addressing specific threats to development have great importance for the central task of human development, widely recognized as lying at the core of development success.
Faith institutions often play critical advocacy roles, mobilizing support for programs to fight hunger and poverty and, more broadly, to promote social justice. They also have deep involvement in many poor communities and thus can contribute their knowledge and understanding about the needs and aspirations of poor people.
Faith institutions have unique knowledge and experience, an often different set of insights and approaches to policy issues, and extensive operating networks deeply engaged at the community level. Their knowledge can help in laying a solid foundation for sustainable projects and programs and avoid a raft of potential pitfalls.