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Nagging Tensions Around Development and Proselytizing

By Katherine Marshall


Last March the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Development, and World Affairs published a series of short papers about proselytism in their publication Cornerstone. Each author was invited to respond to the following statement:

The Effects of Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies

The relationship between religious proselytism and development is sharply contested. International covenants recognize that religious freedom includes rights to personal religious conversion and public religious witness. But critics claim that proselytism can violate the rights of affected communities to maintain their traditions and can sow division in fragile societies. Cornerstone asks writers to discuss the social, political, and economic consequences of proselytism.

Four of those responses are reposted this month in TIO as an introduction to a complicated interreligious subject, proselytism and religious freedom.

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In an eight-year review of the development work of faith-inspired actors in six world regions and of more than ten priority sectors and topics, proselytizing came up again and again as a concern. It’s time to reflect on why, and above all what, might be done to address both real concerns and myths. The questions come in various forms and from different directions. Some are quite readily answered while others look to deeper and more complex topics. In some areas the “rules of the game” are quite clear, but elsewhere there are fuzzy boundaries.

World Vision emergency food provisions – Photo: World Vision To summarize briefly, a central concern is that assistance provided by religiously motivated or connected entities comes with “strings” or conditions. It may be offered as an inducement to hear a religious message or to convert, or may favor one religious group over others. The often tacit assumption of significant groups within the international development field (bilateral and multilateral organizations, foundations, or nongovernmental organizations, just to name a few) is that faith-inspired entities often have conversion as an objective, even if they deny it or fail to appreciate the impact of their symbols and actions. This can be a significant impediment to breaking down barriers in understanding among secular and faith-inspired actors and thus to forging stronger partnerships (a central objective of our work).

A further set of questions touch on the impact of actual or perceived conditional assistance; some argue that proselytizing linked to various kinds of programs (education, health, humanitarian, child welfare, to take a few examples) can disrupt fragile social situations and even exacerbate tensions or contribute to violent incidents and spreading conflict.

First, it is important to distinguish the development and humanitarian linked concerns from broader issues of religious freedom and its role within human rights. The fundamental question for development work turns on imbalances of power that reflect access to resources: financial, political, and knowledge. Admittedly, the lines can be fine ones: Religious liberty implies a freedom to practice and share. That might be construed as freedom to finance. Most observers, however, agree that the practical and ethical issues are different when one party holds the purse-strings or even has a large educational advantage.

Humanitarian aid from UNICEF waiting to be deployed – Photo: Wikipedia

That observation leads to humanitarian relief, defined here as support in emergency situations: after an earthquake or tsunami, for example. There is wide and almost (but not quite) universal agreement that conditioning aid to victims of disasters or favoring some groups over others in such situations is simply and baldly unethical. Principles of neutrality that cover religious aspects are part of humanitarian international law. Issues do arise in each emergency as to where the boundaries lie. Following the 2004 tsunami, for example, groups on the ground worked out explicit codes of conduct with respect to religion after tensions arose. These reportedly worked quite well.

The far broader development arena poses larger and more complex issues. Development involves a myriad of actors, working in many different settings, in virtually every sector of activity. Faith-inspired actors are involved in almost every domain. Rules of the game with respect to religion are nowhere spelled out explicitly. There are codes of conduct, but these are not enshrined in law nor are they accepted by all, much less adhered to. Thus the debates continue, sometimes overtly and acrimoniously, sometimes masked and simmering.

Examples of tensions include debates around orphanages and trafficking. In both cases faith-inspired actors provide remarkable service in many places. Some come with defined “theories of change” and ideas on solutions. Others approach complex situations more organically and pragmatically. International and national norms are shifting also, with new “expert” views on what is appropriate, and this generates lively debates. Both topics evoke strong emotional reactions, often tied to religious beliefs. These are just two examples. Equally complex issues arise with respect to education and social assistance programs. Health care can involve tensions, though generally these are more readily addressed. Rural water supplies may be uncontroversial but water policies raise ferociously complex issues.

The most complex situations arise in fragile and conflict situations where religious tensions are significant. There the most neutral, saintly, insightful development actors whose religious affiliations are obvious can encounter problems, including accusations of hidden motives and unintended harm. In several situations, wise faith-inspired observers argue forcefully that development and evangelical activity must be totally separate. They argue this to ensure that there is no exacerbation of tensions. They also argue that the work of development can only succeed if it is grounded in real respect for those who are to benefit, and that means respecting, deeply and truly, their culture and religion.

There are some measures that could advance what is often a veiled set of debates.

  • First, more facts would be helpful: Where are tensions and suspicions most pronounced, by region and sector? This calls for both surveys and case studies. Generally, both “religious literacy” and “development literacy” (both of which need to be defined better) would help.
  • Second, what codes of conduct are proving most successful and which are not? Where are the gaps?
  • Third, transparency in this area, as in so many others, is a vital tool. Often tensions arise when hidden agendas, real or perceived, spark conflict.
  • Fourth, a robust analysis of links between development work and religious tensions (as well as the role of restrictions on religious freedom) is well overdue.
  • Fifth, the role of finance, both as an inducement to those who benefit and in relation to funders who support development work (what are their expectations and assumptions?), deserves careful reflection.

Finally, it is important to recognize the complexities involved. At issue in many cases are both individual and institutional motivations: What leads an individual to move to a far-away country to work with vulnerable children, for example? What leads a child to seek English or computer lessons offered by a church? Motivations and beliefs are almost always multi-layered. What we need to look to is behavior, and there is room there for far better knowledge and far clearer standards.

This essay was originally published by the Berkley Center’s Cornerstone.