May 1, 2008

Religion as a Bridge to Development

Several weeks ago a good friend was kind enough to invite me to have lunch with him and a colleague of his who is the development specialist in his department. It was a chance to bounce some ideas around about the possibility of future study, future job options, etc. One of the things that we talked about was my desire to serve as a bridge between faith based NGO's and those of a secular bent so that each can benefit from the other. It doesn't take much of an argument to convince anyone that the faith-based end of the spectrum can benefit from having access to the expertise and resources of the invariably better funded and staffed secular NGO or development agency. The harder case to make is that the reverse is also true - that these, often, incredibly well funded, imminently staffed NGO's have anything to gain from partnering with faith-based organizations, other than a headache from all the perceived baggage that they must bring with them.

The case I made that day as we talked over lunch was that if there is any one nigh unto universal institution that can be found in the developing world it is that of religion, it is the "church." In places where there are no roads, no phones, no sanitation, no infrastructure whatsoever there exist networks of profound depth and breadth, already entrenched in peoples lives, that can serve as the vehicle of transmission for development projects which otherwise would take years to accumulate the credibility necessary for adoption - networks of faith. Other than those groups partnering with faith communities to take on the herculean task of hospice care for those suffering from AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa I haven't been able to find many examples of this or even many instances of a call for this type of partnership at a grassroots level. So, I was especially glad to see this post over at the Next Billion blog which stumbles upon almost the same realization in the form of a question:

. . . . I would like to suggest that we have left out of the conversation a very important component of culture: religion. It is a subject that is very polarizing and often taboo to discuss in business. But it is important to bring up because religion is very important to people in the communities that we in the NextBillion community are trying to serve.

Recently, this dawned upon me as I listened to a presentation by some MBA students from the Ross School of Business on improving the penetration of insecticide treated nets in Ghana. One recommendation that particularly jumped out at me was the following: leverage the church's influence. The presenters noted that in Ghana, Christianity is widely practiced, and as a result, the church is a very powerful and influential social institution.
. . . . Despite this, the fact of the matter is that religion plays a huge role at the BoP. Let's take for example Christianity in Africa. Though the faith has been dwindling in Europe and North America, it is exploding in Africa and Asia, regions of the world where there is a substantial BoP population. In Africa alone, there are approximately 380 million Christians, an unbelievable number considering that there were only 9 million Christians in Africa at the turn of the century.
. . . . If faith is such an important part of the social structure at the BoP, the question that inevitably arises: Should a BoP enterprise involve or partner with religious institutions? And if so, how should BoP capacity builders (i.e. funders, supporters) from the West respond?

This follow-up question is very important because many large aid organizations and foundations from the West would find it very difficult to support an enterprise that incorporates religion. But should this be the case?

These are indeed weighty questions, but they are necessary to raise as the BoP movement continues to grow and mature.

Weighty questions indeed, so in the weeks ahead I'll try to unpack what I see as some of the barriers to these type of partnerships, some of the changes in perspective that may be necessary on both sides and what I think are the tremendous benefits that could emerge out of them.

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