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Towards a broader research agenda in religion and development

Date:10 December 2015
Author:Religion Factor
Community members in Lupane ADP, Zimbabwe. Image: Brenda Bartelink
Community members in Lupane ADP, Zimbabwe. Image: Brenda Bartelink

In our previous post, Erin Wilson and Brenda Bartelink shared a summary and preliminary insights from a pilot study on spirituality and development transformation. In addition to the project specific findings, their research has also highlighted additional areas of focus for research on religion and development more broadly. In today’s post, they discuss these additional insights, developing suggestions for a broader research agenda on religion and development.

Building on our research on spirituality in development transformation, we have identified 14 considerations for researchers, policymakers and practitioners that we suggest should be a more significant focus of ongoing research projects and development policy and programming. We are not at all suggesting that we are the first or only people to emphasise these points, simply that these are issues we encountered and we feel should be implemented and attended to more explicitly in studies and programs on religion and development. We are developing a number of different proposals for our own research on these topics, but hope others will as well. If researchers and practitioners are interested in partnering together on these issues, we hope you will get in touch.

1. Role of media and messaging

Much public debate and policymaking is shaped by how events are reported in the media. It is therefore important to encourage journalists and news programs to be more nuanced in their reporting on issues where religion is entangled, if we are to extend public debate, policymaking and analysis beyond dominant assumptions about religion as dangerous, irrational, pre-modern, contributing to oppression and violence, or as a useful tool for the pursuit of secular development goals.

2. “Positive” and “negative” views on religion colour our discussions

Much of how we think and speak about religion in the media, in policy and practice is couched in terms of religion being either “good” or “bad”. Implicitly these value judgements about religion are made on the basis of predominantly secular criteria – does religion contribute to furthering secular goals of progress and advancement or not? Policymakers frequently ask, “What is religion’s added value?” This reinforces the dominance of secular assumptions at the same time as trying to encourage greater consideration of religion. It is important to find a way to speak about the place of religion in development that does not simply fit with and thereby reinforce secular criteria and assumptions. An additional problem with speaking about religion as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is that it ascribes agency to religion, when it is people who have agency. People make choices to interpret religious texts in particular ways and act in particular ways as a result of those interpretations. It is not the belief system itself that necessarily causes them to act in the way that they do. Researchers and practitioners should be careful to ascribe agency to people rather than to ‘religion’ as such. At the same time, however, it is important to take seriously that some people and communities believe that there are spiritual actors who have agency in the world, whether that is gods, demons, spirits, ancestors or otherwise, and not dismiss these beliefs as traditional, old-fashioned, unenlightened. This is a delicate balance, but it is important to find ways to do this, otherwise there is a risk perpetuating forms of injustice by subordinating and marginalizing the ways of thinking and knowing of people in developing communities.

3. Changes need time, making them difficult to measure

There is an overwhelming demand by policymakers for ‘evidence’ that ‘proves’ that particular approaches to development are ‘effective’ and ‘successful’. Efforts need to be put into capacity building in local contexts around training for this type of data collection and record keeping.

4. Broader understandings of leadership to be more inclusive of women, non-traditional faith leaders and those with leadership potential

Many efforts to engage with religious actors, including those by faith-based development agencies, are focused on engaging with religious ‘leaders’, who are often predominantly male. Women leaders should be addressed as women and leaders in their own right, not only as spouses of male leaders, for example. This may also require a broadening of definitions of who is a leader to include lay leaders and also those with potential for leadership.

5. Rethinking Power

In much policy and development work, there is often an assumption that projects must target people in positions of power in order to effect change, including those with government positions, those who are dominant in communities. While this is definitely an important way of affecting social and political change, another important dimension is to focus on different kinds of power. It is important to be clear about how we understand what power is, engage with those who do not (yet) have power, or who may possess a different kind of power.

6. Understanding ‘power’, ‘gender’, ‘development’, ‘change’ in context

Concepts of development, transformation, gender, power and so on do not have single, universally agreed on definitions but carry different connotations and assumptions in different contexts as a result of influences from history, culture, politics, religion and influence from actors across different scales in world politics – global, transnational, regional, national, civil society, local. When working with people in developing communities it is also important to understand how they perceive these concepts and how dynamics beyond the community may be affecting their perception and engagement with social change activities.

7. Local knowledge/perspectives matter

This should be the primary source of inspiration for social transformation programs, but also building on ways to make local knowledge and perspectives more integrated within the dominant discourses on development and social transformation.

8. Global problems, not development problems

It is important to begin building networks for mutual sharing and knowledge transfer across traditional binary divides of North/South, rich/poor, developed/developing, ‘Western’/’non-Western’ and ‘secular/religious’. Problems such as gender-based violence, climate change, food insecurity, poverty, mass displacement, pluralism and governance are not problems that affect only one part of the global population, they affect all parts, though to varying degrees.

9. Personal transformation generates ownership

Previous research has emphasised the importance of personal experience with suffering and injustice as part of altering attitudes and behaviours and contributing to social change.[1] The experiences of World Vision staff and CoH trainers provides additional support for this argument. A key area for future research, then, is to explore how this aspect of personal experience and exposure could be transferred and utilized in other areas and issues important for social transformations.

10. Personal and social transformation are relational

Personal transformation does not take place in a vacuum. It is not a purely personal process and often takes place over time as the result of a series of experiences and encounters. Often, religious authority and religious texts are significant components of both personal and social transformation in the contexts where World Vision and other development agencies are active. It is possible that secular sources of authority, such as, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, have similar impact. This offers another area for fruitful research.

11. The power of moral discourse

Moral discourses that contain normative judgements form a large part of discourses on development in a number of contexts. These moral discourses stem from both secular and religious perspectives, yet the impact of secular discourses of morality is arguably far less researched than that of religious discourses.

12. The Human and human flourishing

Another key underlying assumption of development approaches relates to our understandings of the human and of the conditions that are necessary to facilitate human flourishing. What are the different conceptions of the human and human flourishing that exist within secular and religious approaches to development? What are their points of commonality, divergence, agreement and tension? How might understanding these tensions and agreements further contribute to enhancing equality, justice, participation and human dignity across diverse contexts?

13. Relationship between “religion” and “culture”:

Culture and religion are terms that are used frequently within development discourses, yet the precise ways in which their relationship is understood are often unclear. Is religion part of culture? Are they different separable components of human experience? How are both terms utilised strategically and politically within development discourses? These are all important questions to consider.

14. Inequalities in ways of being and knowing

Within the current global climate and contexts, with Western secular scientific discourses dominant in the majority of global governance and civil society fora, it is unlikely that alternative worldviews and frameworks will be equally valued in the immediate term. A first step is to encourage the acknowledgement that the secular is a worldview, just like any other, that it is specific to a particular place and time, not universal. Acknowledging this opens the way for greater critical self-reflexivity and engagement with the different ways in which people from different cultures and holding different worldviews make sense of and engage with the world around them. For scholars, policy makers and practitioners, the challenge is to balance the demands of secular scientific discourses for evidence of ‘success’ and ‘effectiveness’ with advocacy for the acknowledgement of the value of different forms of knowledge and ways of being in the world.

Erin Wilson is the Director of the Centre for Religion, Conflict and the Public Domain, Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen 

Brenda Bartelink is Programme Officer, Knowledge Center Religion and Development, Stichting Oikos, and Fellow of the CRCPD.

[1] Thomas Mertens, “International or Global Justice? Evaluating the Cosmo- politan Approach”, in Andreas Follesdal and Thomas Pogge (eds.), Real World Justice: Grounds, Prin- ciples, Human Rights and Social Institutions (Dordrecht: Springer, 2005), p101; Ashis Nandy, “The Beautiful, Expanding Future of Poverty: Popular Economics as a Psychological Defense”, International Studies Review, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2002), p. 111; Paul Slovic, “If I Look at the Mass I Will Never Act: Psychic Numbing and Genocide”, Judgement and Decision Making, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2007), p. 79;


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