Friday, September 4, 2009

Christianity and Development, Part 3: Inclusiveness

Here's an obvious statement: religion plays a major role in the lives of most people on earth; especially so in the developing world. Customs and habits have been formed and deeply ingrained because of particular religious beliefs. For many, the desire for a better life is intricately linked with their faith. And yet many NGO's that address development issues are completely secular. But this is for good reason.

Fundamentally there are two reasons why religion and development have a difficult relationship. The first and most serious issue is that of inclusiveness: what happens when the communities you're working in aren't one (or one particular kind) of faith? If I enter into a split Muslim/Christian community (quite common here in Uganda) with a Christian agenda, I will likely exacerbate an already tenuous relationship between the two groups. Even if my aim is not strictly to proselytize, I have to be extremely careful about how I conceive and implement projects so as to work towards community development, not estrangement. For example, I have a friend working in eastern Congo, who told me of a conversation she had with a Muslim family in Ethiopia - the father said simply, "I'll be whatever religion they want me to be if they will feed my family." In a situation like that, not only are these people hungry, but they are forced into the humiliating position of lying about their very identity just to survive. This is not treating your neighbor as yourself.

Secondly, when addressing religion (whether through a secular organization or not) one must be well versed in exactly what that religion looks like in that community. Even global religions (such as Islam or Christianity) have been deeply morphed to fit a local context. For example, the saint's days prevalent in Latin America were used to incorporate pre-Christian beliefs into the new religion. If an organization enters a community with a pre-conceived notion of what the people's faith is about, they're bound to make some pretty serious mistakes when attempting to address religion in their projects.

But if religion is not constructively engaged, then a central part of a community's identity is missed. Change, even for the good, can breed resentment if it is not framed as a religious imperative. I've had several conversations with Christians here in Uganda in which the speaker has bemoaned the fact that development has simply brought more bars (now I think a great bar is a wonderful thing, but then again I'm not a Ugandan).

I've been thinking about these issues as I consider how to holistically engage a small community in the process of development. Many organizations address a particular issue - AIDS, water, nutrition, conflict, micro-finance, etc - at a worldwide level. They work in particular communities, but primarily to address whatever issue is their expertise. However, some (mostly smaller) organizations do the reverse - they work on many issues but only in small communities of which they have a great understanding. Both models have their place, but as I said above I'm personally more interested in working on many issues in a small community. And when that's your model, the role of religion in the community becomes a huge issue.

So what is the answer? Um right now I'm still thinking about it. But two organizations I've been associated with in the past are doing a great job trying to address this issue. Agros and Amextra, both working in Latin America, attempt to address a wide range of issues in small communities. They are motivated by a Christian belief, but they do not proselytize. Because their staff are mostly (though not required to be) Christian, they have an understanding of how to work with and respect the local community as it works towards its own "transformation."

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