Understandings of Development Should Encompass Religion

Responding to: Globalization, Governance, and Norms

By: James D. Wolfensohn

June 21, 2016

The challenges of development, religious harmony, and ending conflicts are so intertwined that the separate approaches to each facet that are so commonly followed make little sense. As president of the World Bank (1995-2005), I worked to expand and redefine our operations in this common spirit. Forging links among three areas proved especially controversial: stepping up action to respond to conflicts and natural disasters; dealing with the overhang of indebtedness; and engaging systematically with religious institutions. That peace and religion are both at the heart of development was even more obvious during my work in the Middle East as the Quartet’s representative from 2005 to 2006.


Reconstruction after conflict, especially in developing countries, needs to be swift, purposeful, and undertaken with an eye both to urgent needs and long-term strategies. Wars and conflicts, like those that raged in the Balkans during my term as World Bank president, leave people in parlous circumstances. Speedy response is essential so that, within the limits of what is possible, hardship is alleviated and reconstruction can advance. Rather surprisingly, many members of the Board of Executive Directors, who represent the World Bank’s member countries, questioned this extension of our reconstruction work, arguing that we should engage in physical reconstruction only when peace was firmly in place and formally established authorities explicitly invited us in. We should only launch programs with this formal structure as the task of immediate intervention belonged to humanitarian agencies that typically responded quickly (but with inevitably limited scope and means). Board members were especially wary that we might be forced to take sides between parties where religious tensions were involved, worrying that we would be caught up in difficult political and diplomatic issues.

We did step up our response to reconstruction and other interventions in fragile states (with strong and courageous staff support). In the Balkans we moved quickly into conflict areas as soon as fighting had nearly stopped. We made great contributions to saving human lives and establishing the foundations for peaceful reconstruction. The Red Cross and similar institutions were already engaged in the last stages of conflict and religious organizations often played positive roles. None of the existing players had the same capacity and experience as the World Bank. By moving quickly we were able to accelerate progress and move toward real development.

Our work in reconstruction around the world and the intensive debates and ultimately transformative action involved in efforts to address poor country debt (where religious organizations were deeply engaged) confirmed my long-standing sense about the importance of religious actors in development—a blind spot for many of my World Bank colleagues. Under my leadership, the World Bank began to engage religious groups not just in reconstruction but in combating poverty and promoting development more broadly. One source of inspiration came through my friendship with Monseigneur Paglia and his colleagues from the Rome-based Community of Sant’Egidio, whose rich experience coincided with my initial thoughts. My next step was to contact the renowned Protestant leader, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, who was keenly interested in these issues. I spoke to my longtime friend, the Aga Khan, to get a sense of possible Islamic reactions. Finally, Cardinal McCarrick of the Catholic Church, in Washington, gave me a sense of Rome’s interest in the close connection between religion and development.

After these preliminary discussions, George Carey and I convened a conference with a range of senior religious leaders in February 1998 at Lambeth Palace in London, to test out the idea of launching a bold dialogue among faith and development leaders. We had to determine how world religions could be brought to support a common plan to reduce poverty that would link faith-run programs with the many other civil society initiatives. The idea was to build mutually supportive programs that would have a large and lasting impact on poverty. George Carey and I convened a further conference in Washington in November 1999 to develop specific plans to engage a larger group of religious leaders. We agreed to establish a modest institution to build solid and creative partnerships. But rather to my surprise the World Bank’s Executive Directors raised a host of objections. After extensive consultations we moved forward but were frankly stymied by the hesitations that the very topic of religion unleashed.

On September 11, 2001, the terrorist attack aimed at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, ironically, made leaders of countries and institutions more responsive to bringing religious leaders together with civil society. Thus we organized a third meeting in Canterbury (the largest so far) in October 2002, with more than 50 religious leaders. On the first day, there was much apprehension and some tension. It was a first ever where such a wide spectrum of leaders engaged on issues of alleviating poverty and responding to conflict. After 24 hours, the group came together in an exceedingly constructive way. Many joint initiatives followed. What was most important was that in individual situations local religious leaders were able and willing to work constructively with each other as well as with civil society and aid organizations. This was something quite new and potentially of immeasurable value.

The group’s final meeting took place in Dublin in January 2005, on the invitation of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. He, George Carey (no longer archbishop of Canterbury), and I shared the chairmanship. We reviewed what we had achieved and gave a final push to both religious and lay leaders to come together to their mutual advantage. We agreed that the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), led by Katherine Marshall, should have its base in Washington and should pursue the initiative, albeit cautiously and often under the radar given manifold sensitivities. I am deeply pleased that WFDD, under Katherine’s dynamic leadership, and from its base at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, has pursued both the ideals and the practical opportunities it offers.

I left the World Bank in June 2005 to take up my position as the envoy in the Middle East. My task was to do all that I could to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians together to their mutual advantage and to encourage the other Arab nations, with whom I had been privileged to have great contact while at the World Bank, to join in the international peace efforts. Much could be said about that situation but it would take a new book. Suffice it to note that once again the situation offers great positive potential. Sadly, instead of working for common benefits for human life and the dignity of those concerned (political and civil society, secular and religious), the negotiators have yet to find common ground.

Finding this common ground and the creative approaches that can come from breaking down the walls among different sectors and approaches lie at the heart of what is vitally needed to bring about peace and truly improve people’s lives. The experience of the past two decades of working to build partnerships with a wide range of religious leaders and institutions is a testimony to how much more can be achieved when this common ground is defined and when there the different parties listen and learn from each other.

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Understandings of Development Should Encompass Religion