Religion is 'indispensible' in development

The role of Christian organisations in advocacy was highlighted in last night's Westminster Faith Debate on religion and international development.(Photo: Christian Aid)

A panel of academics and international development experts met in Whitehall last night to discuss the role of religion in international development and lifting the world's poorest people out of poverty.

It marked the fifth of this year's Westminster Faith Debates, chaired by ex-Labour MP Charles Clarke and Professor Linda Woodhead of Lancaster University, and provided a fascinating insight into the way that the current cultural climate implicitly suggests that a secular approach to development is not dangerous, while a religious approach is.

In an unprecedented move, however, all four of the panellists seemed to disagree with this assumption. Each suggested that religion and faith-based organisations do indeed have a vital role to play in campaigning and advocating for the rights of the oppressed, as well as in the practicalities of delivering aid to those most in need.

Indeed, Robert Calderisi, a Canadian expert and author on aid and international development and himself a Catholic, praised the way that the Church has led significant campaigns to end world poverty and for its work in education, health services and advocacy.

For example the Jubilee campaign to reduce global debt "lit a fire under Western governments", he argued, as he noted that Catholic aid organisation Caritas International is the second largest private charity on earth after the Red Cross.

"The role of the Christian Church in international development is unobjectionable and indispensible," he insisted, although he made clear Christian organisations were not called to only help other Christians and that there were dangers in using aid as an opportunity to force vulnerable people to accept a certain set of beliefs.

He added that this rarely happens, however, quoting Pope Benedict XVI's assertion that "the Church cannot neglect the service of charity any more than she can neglect the sacraments and word...Love is free. Practicing charity never seeks to impose the Church's faith on others".

Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, lecturer at Oxford University and expert in refugee studies, was next to take the floor, and expressed the need to "challenge the implicit assumption that a secular approach [to development] is normative and successful".

"There is a danger in privileging the secular viewpoint," she added. "Secular development and humanitarian approaches can lead to a reproduction of a different form of patriarchy and inequality which can hinder development. We must interrogate the secular responses, as well as the religious."

Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander then shared about the power of faith and its ability to affect advocacy, underpin values and drive the delivery of development.

"It is important to recognise the centrality of religion to many of the events happening around the world," he asserted.

Alexander was keen to promote the key role that churches and faith-based organisations have to play in advocating on behalf of the world's poor and fighting for real justice. Christian witness in the public square is "fundamental" to these organisations, he said, adding that there is "a long and proud heritage of religious leaders being a prophetic voice in the public square on issues of poverty".

"Local churches are the best equipped to meet need," he said. "We can't overestimate the value of the Church. We need to challenge the lazy and erroneous supposition that the Church only has a place in times of crisis; if we're serious about the task of reconciliation and the value of human life, we have to look to the Church."

Last to address the room was Loretta Minghella, Chief Executive of Christian Aid, who immediately stated her belief that the benefits of religious involvement in development far outweigh the dangers.

"If we're serious about development and not just giving things away, but actually engaging with people's whole lives and their wellbeing, then we have to engage with their faith. The question is, how do we do that effectively for the best kind of development?" she asked.

She noted that while religion has been "invoked in the cause of conflict", it is also capable of resolving it, providing "a framework for organised grappling".

"Faith organisations have a fabulous infrastructure and a global reach, with a network of agencies around the world," Minghella reasoned.

"Churches bother to go to the end of the world, and they're in it for the long haul. They're there when everyone else has left."

She also noted the Church's unique ability to tackle culturally sensitive issues such as HIV/AIDS, and grapple with other sensitivities.

"Poverty is an issue of injustice and abuse of power. It is about inequality; 70 per cent of those in poverty are women and girls," she concluded.

"We have to tackle the structural causes of poverty, and our Christian faith drives us to do that; to speak out and be a prophetic voice in driving change. We have a deep theological's impossible to do development without religion."

The follow-up question and answer session brought issues such as faith literacy, the need for greater dialogue, and good relationships between different faith groups to light. The panellists concluded that sustainable development systems must be developed in partnership with governments, and that conversations about the political interpretation and ideological framework of religion, and the implications of that for development, need to be opened up.

In his final remarks, Calderisi served a fitting conclusion for the way that any organisation can best approach development. "Charity can only do so much," he said. "Justice must come first."