Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button

73nd Annual Summer Conference, August 5–8, 2004

Where Did the Current Resurgence of Religion in Political Life Come From?

Speaker’s Notes:

The Causes of the Religious Revival:
Emergence of a Faith and Development Dialogue and the Challenges of Fundamentalism and Terrorism for Development Institutions

It is a pleasure to participate in the renowned Couchiching Conference and to engage with this distinguished panel. The topics before us – fundamentalism, secularism, and terrorism – could not be more timely.

I come from the world of development practitioners, and have spent virtually all of my career in what I term the ‘front-line operations’ of development, working in villages on agricultural projects; with slum housing problems in urban areas; dealing with economic crises, the East Asian Crisis for example; grappling with the practical consequences of strategic choices for countries like Bolivia or Mali; working on debt issues; tackling the challenges of HIV/AIDS; and addressing the many links between development and the role of women.

Until very recently, this kind of ‘front-line’ development work, as carried out by development institutions such as the World Bank, was consciously very secular and there was little direct engagement with the worlds of faith, spirituality, and organized religion. My comments today speak to this divide, its possible consequences for the topics on today’s agenda, and the broader importance of bridging these worlds, above all building on the ‘resurgence’ (or “revelation”) of the ties between faith and development, the importance of which has become so much more clear in the post-September 11th world.

The central message and conclusion is that it is critically important to open our eyes and ears, to see and understand more clearly the complex ways in which the worlds of faith and development intersect and can engage together; a part of this challenge is to open channels to dialogue with these worlds. For some, those engaged in work with poor communities all over the world, this challenge and alliance may come quite naturally if a sense of common purpose can be defined; with others, deeply suspicious and hostile to what they see as the purposes and directions of international development work, the task is much more difficult. Great creativity and commitment will be needed if we are to find ways to bridge the divides.

Development and Faith in Separate Worlds

Joint reflection, dialogue, and research between the worlds of faith and development in the late 20th century were patchwork. Institutions like the multilateral development banks, which interact with governments as a matter of basic institutional structure, traditionally found limited vehicles through which to interact with civil society institutions, religious institutions among them. The vocabulary and approach of spirituality often, though not always, seemed inimical to the technical and hard-nosed approach of development practice.

This divide is remarkable not only because it reflects conscious intellectual and emotional traditions regarding the separation of church and state. It is also unrealistic and untenable: the worlds interlock and intersect in countless ways, and each individual, each community, each business, and each nation retains links to both the secular and spiritual worlds.

Despite these links, much international development work – whether it entails introducing new seed varieties, encouraging development of cooperatives, planting forests, extending loans for small business, building village water pumps, or vaccinating children against polio – has taken little overt account of the world of religion. Yet religion is such a pervasive and vital force, at both the individual and community level, that the tendency to ignore it has had important, even grave consequences. Blinkered visions have left large areas of human endeavor – some very tangible, including religious provision of social services and religious roots of social tension – largely unexplored.

The inverse applies to many faith institutions, which have often cast a wary eye on the work and debates of development institutions. It is illustrative that a booklet prepared by the World Council of Churches as a reflection on dialogue with the World Bank and the IMF is titled “Lead us not into Temptation”. Faith institutions are quite prominent among critics of globalization and development work, and are among key leaders throughout what some term the “movement” for social justice.

More broadly, the complex issues of social justice and the links between social conflict, social cohesion, and change – seen by many as the root causes of fundamentalist movements – suggest powerful ties between modernization, development strategies, and religious thinking and institutions. Karen Armstrong sees 20th century fundamentalism partially as a reaction against scientific and secular culture: “Modernization has always been a painful process” and “fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their sacred values.” Indeed, the fear that Karen Armstrong sees as perhaps fundamentalism’s most salient characteristic is reflected in the disarticulation between the world of development (which has much to do with scientific and economic progress) and religion.

Bridging Faith and Development

Yet divisions between these visions and arenas for action are narrowing profoundly and rapidly. The history of the past decades, especially the enterprising transformation of global civil society, the end of the Cold War, and the tragedy of September 11, 2001, has highlighted how extensively the seemingly delineated worlds of faith and development are profoundly intertwined, in both concept and practice. September 11th underscored starkly and in a new light the powerful links between religion and modernization. We face a host of new questions about how the links operate and how thinkers and actors should respond.

At heart, the strongest link between faith traditions and development institutions is their deep, common concern for improving the lot and prospects of poor and excluded communities around the world. This is a thread that can be found near the center of virtually every spiritual tradition. It is also the primary raison d’être for development institutions; the World Bank’s guiding vision is best expressed by a phrase engraved in marble at the main building’s front entrance: “our dream is a world free of poverty.” That vision links virtually all development actors at some level. Whatever cynicism may suggest about other motivations, such as self-interest, power politics, and ideologies planted in pursuit of wealth, at their core and at their best the development institutions – national, like CIDA; nongovernmental, such as Oxfam and Frfee the Children; and multilateral, including the World Bank, UNFPA and ILO – aim to foster greater social justice.

Five years ago, Jim Wolfensohn, the World Bank’s President, deeply convinced that we in the development world were missing out on critical issues and partnerships by ignoring the world of faith, asked me to lead an initiative essentially to foster dialogue, alliances and partnerships between the world of development and the world of religion. Among other actions, he has co-chaired with George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, three meetings of leaders from faith and development communities to reflect on both common ground and divides. The conclusion has been a heightened emphasis on the vital importance of bridging the divide and forging new and creative partnerships based on much greater common understanding and respect.

Why is this so important? First and perhaps foremost, surveys of poor communities the world over show remarkable levels trust in religious institutions – generally higher than others like government, media, and police, and NGOs. So, if you are to work effectively in poor communities, some kind of knowledge of and engagement with faith leaders is imperative.

Another very practical issue is the substantial role that faith institutions play in providing social services in many poor communities. The numbers are not well known but in many countries more than half of health and education services are provided by faith communities. They play vital roles in many sectors including protection of natural resources and care for those in trouble, including during major crises. In the countries left behind – the failed states – it is often only faith institutions who are left behind with the poor communities.

Another reason for the dialogue is the heritage and vocation of many faith traditions for the quest for ethical and values dimensions of actions. Thus it is striking how far many churches, preachers, imams, Buddhist monks, and people in various congregations have been vocal in their criticisms of the work of development overall. This is most powerfully, and positively, exemplified in the Jubilee Movement, one of the few campaigns in development that has truly captured the public mind. It was a process that was truly educative on both sides, helping households, congregations, governments, and international institutions understand the complexity of debt and its human face; this movement has helped to transform public policy over the years.

Other critiques are more overtly negative, or more difficult to respond to, like those that address structural adjustment, materialism, environmental destruction, or cultural globalization. These critiques have revealed a need for communication, particularly because it seems to many of us who work for development institutions that we share many of the same ideals as religious organizations: compassion for the poor, a sensibility and drive towards social justice, etc. yet seem cast on opposite sides of a vital and complex debate.

And there is the potential for mobilization and alliances in positive directions. The plans for an unprecedented focus in 2005 on global poverty, the MDGs, and global social justice (now under discussion inter alia in the UK, with the Action Aid team, and in the Vatican) engage many faith leaders in central positions, with compelling conviction.

Complexity of Bridging the Divide

We need to begin with a respectful and sober consciousness of the complexity of relationships between religion and development. Issues of boundaries between church and state are forged in long history in each nation and evoke many sensitivities and legal ramifications. The Stassi Report in France, which underlies the current actions on manifestations of religious practices in state schools, devotes major sections to the history of church state relations in France; it is striking how distinct this history is, and thus the solutions, even in neighboring countries of Europe which share so much culture and similar challenges in engaging with migrant communities, are remarkably different. As we review how different countries engage in the process of reflecting on poverty reduction strategies, the constitutional approach to engagement with faith communities varies widely from country to country. This in turn affects how faith communities can engage and on what terms.

Similar complexities arise in dialogue between faith and development institutions, beyond national boundaries, on many issues. It is particularly striking how far the overall atmosphere and receptivity to dialogue in many quarters is affected by the history of tensions, within and between faith traditions and between them and development institutions, on questions of women’s roles, rights, and reproductive health. This points to the vital importance of engaging in more thoughtful dialogue on these issues, even in sensitive and hostile turf.

And a personal observation: there are some topics which few people approach with technocratic objectivity, among them gender and religion. These topics, which evidently have objective elements (for example the undoubted benefits of educating girls), affect virtually every human being at a very personal level and it is rare that this personal dimension does not enter into at least initial debates.

Poverty and Instability

An already sensitive set of topics and concerns is rendered infinitely more complex in the current environment of concern about global instability. How, indeed, does religious fundamentalism fit into this picture? Does it or could it change the course of the dynamic change process we call globalization and the development of market economies? How far might it contribute to instability? How is the situation of global poverty – so often evoked as a symbol and symptom of the “seven sins” of our times – related to the rise of religious fundamentalism? How are concerns for a broader social justice related to the anger that is often linked to instability? Is it possible to achieve the global goals set forth in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in an environment of fundamental questioning of the basic premises of a global economy where economic growth is for many the number one barometer of progress? Can social services with access for all be achieved in an environment where there is fear and hate?

We have, in the development institutions, devoted much thought to the links among these issues, including a basic question of how far poverty and instability are related. We have focused, but much less sharply, on the more complex question of how both poverty and instability are related to religious fundamentalism. What follows are some tentative thoughts on how the World Bank is reacting to instability and to the challenge with which we associate ourselves, of stemming the causes of instability. As a first rather simplistic comment: poverty, instability and terrorism are NOT directly linked – it is obvious that most poor people want peace and stability as much if not more than anyone else, equally obvious that most who generate instability, who demonstrate most vigorously, and who are terrorists are not poor. Yet, equally obviously, there are links, most closely tied to the basic concern for social justice and that very basic anger we see where people are convinced that they are facing unfairness. There are also links between the velocity of change that comes with modernization and disruptions of traditional societies, including their conflict prevention mechanisms. In short, we cannot dismiss the links but need to approach them with sober care and appreciation of their complexity and multiple roots.

It is also worth underscoring that the development institutions, including the World Bank, have engrained in their very architecture and sense of mission a keen awareness of the links between conflict and poverty. This has historically led to a focus on post-conflict reconstruction (indeed the World Bank is in reality called the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development because its original purpose was to support post World War II reconstruction). Today, the World Bank still views conflict prevention and post-conflict resolution as critical to its mission of poverty reduction. A Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction Unit works to design development efforts specific to conflict-affected countries, and a special Post-Conflict Fund provides financing for physical and social reconstruction initiatives in post-war societies, with the Bank currently playing a role in Afghanistan, Africa’s Great Lakes region, the Balkans, Iraq, Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and the West Bank and Gaza.

At present, there is an increasing focus on understanding better the causes of conflict, including finding ways to link development strategies to strategies that promise to avoid or reduce the sources of conflict. There are some areas where we can cite evidence and hypotheses on how poverty and violence are and are not linked:

  • A 2003 World Bank report on conflict underscores that, contrary to much stated opinion, ethnic tensions and ancient political feuds are rarely the primary cause of civil war. Rather, it is economic forces, such as heavy dependence on natural resource exports, that are usually to blame.1
  • Research on how poverty itself and instability are linked is patchy and rather inconclusive. Most poor people in the world use their energy in the struggle to secure food, income, and opportunities for their children. And surveys like the Voices of the Poor exercise highlight that poor people suffer the most in situations of instability and from violence, whether war, crime or domestic violence. We can hypothesize how and how far in situations of dire poverty and struggle – when medicine and food are out of reach – roots of hatred are developed for peoples and societies who seemingly control disproportionate shares of the world’s resources.
  • Development institutions play a multitude of concrete roles around conflict resolution, despite their apolitical mandates, and these roles are increasingly understood and appreciated. Eradicating poverty, promoting stability, inclusion, and social justice, are all related. The marginalized need to be brought back into the mainstream economy and society to provide the foundations for stability and peace.

An example of a critical issue that links poverty, stability, and peace is education, and it also highlights the complexities and interconnections facing the development world today. One of the development imperatives that has arisen in the post-September 11th world is the urgent need to put a positive and creative spotlight on the challenge of education in the Muslim world. Despite the deep and long traditions of educational leadership from Fez to Timbuktu, Al Ahzar, and the Library of Alexandria, there are fundamental challenges, beginning with reflections on the boundaries and synergies among religious and secular education. There is a broad engagement, also lining up with the MDG challenges on Education for All, to build education systems across the Muslim world.

An immediate and illustrative dilemma and issue is how far development agencies can and should engage in the critical issues around teaching of civic values, including, on one side, respect and tolerance and conflict resolution, and on the other the teaching of intolerance and hate? In supporting education for all and financing teacher training and textbooks, how far is it possible and wise to extend in commenting on certain values and avenues? To what extent should the Bank get involved when funding textbooks, in deciding the content of those textbooks? And in deciding who is schooled? This issue comes to the fore with discussions in the media about madrassas, a term often used (over simplistically) for Koranic schools, which indeed encompass vastly different kinds of schools and programs, from Koran studies for small children once a week, to the more radical schools we have heard so much about in the Western media these last few years, to higher education for Islamic scholars.

A clear and logical avenue is to support the many positive initiatives and partnerships that are underway. One illustration is the Aga Khan Foundation’s work with madrassa pre-schools in East Africa, a creative partnership to ensure that education promotes peace. The Aga Khan Foundation also funds alternatives to madrassas in Pakistan, as do several development agencies, including USAID. But there is much more thought to be given to the relationship of outside donors to education and curriculum development – should single organizations, institutions, or governments be charged with deciding the fate of traditional Muslim schools? In this case, it seems that change would best come from within countries, with country leaders working to set some guidelines for what should be taught in religious schools, and partnering with outside institutions in order to provide students options in education. This leads to broader issues of ethics and education. The role of women and girls in society, as reflected in education systems, and how we handle standards and diversity are all issues that lend themselves to reflection and dialogue.

Preventing conflict will come in many areas beyond education. Take the problem of water shortages, which poses a challenge to development and peace in North Africa and the Middle East. In response to this water crisis, the Nile Basin Initiative is a coming-together of the ten countries of the Nile River Basin, providing a vehicle for cooperation on a program of sustainable water use and development. This is a good example of multilateral action to prevent conflict and to work directly for poverty reduction.2

Development institutions also have a clear role to play in post-conflict societies, helping to promote inclusion, ensuring citizens opportunities for gainful employment and working to prevent wide income inequality, which threatens social stability. Inclusion is about ensuring that people have access to health care, education, basic services such as clean water, sanitation, and electricity. Inclusion is also about empowerment, enabling people to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

One issue that crops up again and again in dialogue with civil society and faith institutions is corruption. It reflects both a profound pattern of unease with public institutions (in itself an issue that deserves concerted and careful attention) and a conviction that, in the words of one survey question, “most money going for poverty alleviation is wasted” or goes to corrupt purposes. It is of vital importance to address this issue head on, both as a systemic issue and in practical terms, to find ways to ensure that funds are well and honestly used. Stopping corruption and money laundering (including sources that finance terrorism) is an area where the World Bank and its partners play an increasingly active role. Annually, US$1 trillion dollars is laundered, using increasingly sophisticated methods. These distortions and diversions have a multitude of negative effects on poor communities, and threatens to stamp out any progress that has been made through development. The World Bank’s Financial Market Integrity Unit thus offers technical assistance on anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism in client countries.3

In sum, the relationship between faith and development is one of great importance and working for an active dialogue on critical issues is of great urgency. This was highlighted this week with the declaration of an urgent alert naming the World Bank as one of the targets of Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. The survival of our own institution depends critically on helping to stamp out terrorism and to prevent it from happening. Setting the groundwork for stability, inclusion, and empowerment in the countries in which we work is key. This is work that must be a collaboration between development and faith institutions.

Minds, Hearts, Soul and Hands in the Fight Against Poverty

What lies ahead is an immense challenge of building new alliances between faith leaders communities and development practitioners and institutions that harness the visions, ethical principles, practical experience, energies, and resources of different institutions and communities. A vital part of this challenge entails bridging the worlds of faith and development so they work together toward common goals. Mind, heart, soul, and hands, in harmony, are essential to this fight.

We need to use our minds, above all, to sustain a more respectful, informed, and probing dialogue. A first step is to move beyond sterile debates to committed exploration and learning from experience. Religious leaders and institutions – from the village level to world summit meetings – have been among the most vocal and vehement critics of development programs and institutions since the 1980s. Particular areas of contention include structural adjustment policies, family planning, debt, and cost-recovery policies for services like health, education, and water. These critiques reflect sharp views of development philosophies (driven by materialism, for example), mechanisms for implementing those philosophies (negotiation of conditionality, that may set unrealistic parameters ill adapted to local circumstances, for example), and operating styles (capital-city focused and finance and efficiency driven). Even as they stung, these critiques stimulated deep reflection within the development world and significant efforts to change practices, open up new voices, and find better ways to respond to social imperatives, especially in times of crisis. Likewise, faith institutions have much to learn from decades of hard-won development experience and analysis.

The call from faith institutions for a real, rich interdisciplinary approach to development thinking and practice is an important and valid insight. Many people in development institutions also highlight the importance of crossing professional boundaries, but technical specialization and the complexity of each field militates against efforts to reach beyond. Those working at the community level, including faith institutions, nevertheless contend that efforts to compartmentalize – whether separating spiritual from material, gender roles from access to water, education from government budgets, or access to credit from ethnic background – open the door to serious perils. This important lens suggests broad application.

The challenge of development and the fight for social justice also require the passion that comes from the heart to ensure that practitioners translate numbers into faces and consider the impacts of policy tradeoffs on people’s lives. Never should we lose sight of the importance of the most basic of human challenges: to make sure that no one goes hungry, that all children receive an education, and that societies prevent disease. Concern about poverty and social exclusion binds different institutions, gives meaning to these tasks, and informs the quality of the resulting programs.

What of soul? Soul evokes spirituality and the quest of each human being for meaning in life. It evokes also the core values inherited above all from faith traditions that remind us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, to work with honesty, and to look always beyond the material for deeper meaning. Without this sense of purpose, without recalling the basic wisdom of the ages, without working with wise leaders from faith traditions, development practitioners will surely lose sight of the meaning of the work we do.

Finally, the covenant of humankind to fight poverty and work for a just world calls for action that translates ideas, words, and ideals into action – with the hands. Commitment, persistence, and courage in the face of adversity are all essential to winning results.

Mind, heart, soul, and hands – each suggests qualities held in trust by the world’s faiths as well as development institutions. If we work together harnessing all these critical attributes, surely we can succeed.

End Notes

  1. Collier, Paul et al, Breaking the Conflict Trap: Civil War and Development Policy, World Bank and Oxford University Press: 2003,
  2. “Fighting Terrorism and Poverty,” James Wolfensohn, The World Bank Institute, Fall 2001,
  3. “Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Fighting of Terrorism,” The World Bank,