On this Easter weekend I thought I would write about a subject that I have debated internally and externally many times. A subject that I am not sure there is a correct answer for. A subject where I am not sure I have a conclusive opinion on (something that may shock those of you who know me best.) The role of religion in development.
This Easter Monday I was invited to my director’s prayer group for their “late lunch”. The afternoon and evening were very enjoyable with many asking questions about Canada, mostly about grizzly bears, snow and native Canadians. Once we moved on from how grizzlies hibernate, most wanted to talk about their Easter weekends, and to Kenyan politics. The evening ended with some amazing singing of Ugandan hymns. What struck me (but didn’t surprise me in the least) throughout this experience (and similar ones I have had in the past) was the dedication and unquestioning devotion to god (everyone was Christian of some persuasion.) All this despite the fact three had children who were significantly ill and one had lost a cost family member on Friday and had buried him just yesterday. How do we as western program officers consider this devotion when we are designing culturally sensitive and sustainable programming?
Let me start with a caveat, I am not religious, I have faith that we are all judged by ourselves and by our peers, I have faith that when we die we are united with those who have loved in our lives, and I have faith that each and every person on this planet is created equal. While I was exposed to religion throughout my childhood, I was never raised religious. While I may not have gone to church every Sunday it is not the reason I am not religious. I feel strongly that life events (eighteen year old Graham would smack 28 year old Graham for using this phrase) have had a bigger impact on my religious viewpoint. In my life had the opportunity to travel and see other cultures been devastated from natural plights on their societies. I have had the opportunity to work in a secular school that still to this day believes because a person is a cook or a cleaner she is less important than a headmaster or a teacher. In my life I have had the opportunity to meet and call dear friends those who are considered “outsiders” by mainstream religion because of their sexuality. But above all, I have lost two very close family members well before their time, and to me, God, of any shape, size or force would not have this as his plan.
I also take issue with religious principles on a grander scale. I refuse to believe that God would decide that 1 billion people in this world wouldn’t have safe access to clean drinking water. I refuse to believe that war, and physical and emotional remnants left behind are part of a greater plan. I refuse to believe that any God would wish his followers to fight one another to prove their loyalty.
At times in my life I have attempted to looked at religion from an outsiders perspective trying to understand and relate to what religion and church brings to different people. Is it the feeling of being part of a community? Is it about tradition? Is it a genuine belief that somehow if they don’t perform the duties and rights of passage that somehow they won’t be let into the good place when they die? I’m not sure I have found the answer, nor am I sure that there is an answer, to each person religion and church means something different. While I may have differing views on the role of the church in our lives, I respect each of these positions. I have at times in my life called myself atheist, while at other times referred to my beliefs as agnostic. Like my political views I fall somewhere in between the well-defined categories.
Now to the crux of what I want to discuss. Religion in development is a tricky thing. In most underdeveloped countries religion and faith play a massive role in people’s day-to-day lives (I would argue larger than many in the west who would consider themselves devout). People who have very little can still participate in religion and still believe that in the eyes of god they are just another person. In religion there is no geo-politics, there is no (or less) corruption, and in most cases there are no barriers to entry. I respect this devotion greatly. I look around here in Uganda, and see the staggering poverty surrounded by the great wealth, yet the majority of the population go about their business doing their part for the community and the country. This was the same in Kenya, and Tanzania where I have traveled before (I can’t say for certain but looking back to my trip to Belize at the age of 13 I am sure I would have seen the same thing.) Unlike the World Vision ads on TV, or the countless sponsor a child booklets we receive in the mail each year in Canada, people are not sitting in the streets crying and looking for a savior. People are faithful that if they work hard, remain religious, and follow the chosen path, they will be “saved” from HIV/AIDS, be safe from water-borne illnesses that revenge the population, and find the necessary food they need to survive. I find myself wondering what would happen if in Canada we had such high rates of corruption, or such high discrepancies in income. I can only believe that we would be angry and we would show it.
As I say, I respect this religious and the community centric philosophy on life and I would never question their right or their strength in belief. I do wonder though how it has historically influenced their society. And more importantly is it something that needs to change or accounted for going forward (one way or the other)?
Religion as we know, has come to Africa with colonization and the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of missionaries that came with (and continue to come on every flight that lands ). I have two first hand examples in the past year of witnessing large American faith-based organizations boarding planes in Europe bound for Kenya and Rwanda. In both cases, these groups arrive with their airplane pillows, their matching t-shirts and bags, their iPads, Kindles and Cameras, and their Bibles. In the development sector we often criticize the concept of voluntourism and say that development is too complex and too interconnected and must be left to the “professionals” (we say this rightly or wrongly and this blog post would be too long to get into that conversation). We never however, confront the issues of western religious influence in development or more broadly in the human rights discourse other than to say that each person has the right to live free of persecution. We don’t do it in our academic institutions (speaking broadly of course, I have never read a paper or discussed these issues in 5.5 years of development and human rights schooling), we don’t in our newspapers, and we even shy away from it in our program development (or at least as much as I have been exposed to).
Anyone who has ever looked for a job in development will know, there are countless development organizations from varying denominations (although mostly Christian) that offer very attractive job descriptions and even more attractive benefit packages. Many of us have had the moral dilemma of needing a job, and wanting to help, but being very aware of organizations who state outright in their job listing that you must be a devout ______ in order to work with them.
These organizations, like the broad sector have seen successes and failures. The Aga Khan foundation (technically a religious organization, but one that does not require a strict adherence to the organizations religious philosophy’s) has become a leader in development work. Meanwhile others such as Oxfam have intentionally steered clear of religion, and have in some cases such as the one here in Uganda tailored their programming to fit with the country’s ethically questionable laws (I am speaking of course of making homosexuality a crime, and restraints on woman’s empowerment movements.) Others still (who will remain nameless) have used religion has call to action for massive “development” programing that in reality works to pay bills at home more than it ever helps on the ground.
Is there a right answer? Should there be a balance (or more importantly is there already one)? Is there a right way to work around the elephant in the room? Should our programming be more or less religion based?
I don’t know, but I would love to hear your thoughts.