A Discussion on Faith and Human Development with Quentin Wodon, Advisor, Human Development Network, World Bank

With: Quentin Wodon

October 7, 2011

Background: This interview, on October 7, 2011 at the World Bank offices in Washington, D.C., with Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski, was part of preparations for the Berkley Center/WFDD conference on November 7 that took stock of research and policy work on development and religion. Quentin Wodon’s leadership in this work in the World Bank is an important part of the recent history of such endeavors. He reflects on progress made, on issues that confront the efforts, on what led him to do this work, and on future prospects. The usual disclaimer applies—Quentin’s opinions need not necessarily represent those of the World Bank, its executive director, or the countries they represent.

You were asked about three years ago to lead the World Bank’s work on development and faith. How did you come to welcome this challenge?

The issues of values and ethics in development have long interested me, and that is why I wanted to take on this role. One important impetus was that I worked with the ATD Fourth World Movement, or in French, ATD Quart Monde, for several years, before I became an economist. I joined ATD Quart Monde after my university studies in business in Belgium (my home country) and some years working in business.

ATD Fourth World was founded in 1957 by a Catholic priest, Joseph Wresinski, in an emergency housing camp near Paris where 250 families lived in a muddy field with quonset huts. The movement grew and now works with the extreme poor in about 25 countries. ATD Fourth World is an NGO but it has some distinctive features in the way it works. It focuses on the ‘extreme poor,’ which requires a different approach than that of many other development organizations. It does take longer to get to know people who are extremely poor, to gain their trust, and to support them. While ATD is not faith-based, for many of its staff there is a spiritual dimension to what they are doing. For the Christians, many feel that the poor are at the core of the teachings of the Church; for people of other religions as well, many are motivated to work with the very poor because of their faith. But there are also others in the organization who are not motivated by faith, but simply by a belief in the need to restore the dignity of the extreme poor. All staff, or ‘permanent volunteers’ as they call themselves, work for the same living stipend and are united around a common mission and purpose, that is, to work with the very poor, and to restore them as full members of society.

Joining ATD Forth World was a key decision in my life. Previously, I was working with Procter & Gamble on marketing for consumer products, but I felt that I wanted to devote my professional life to working with the poor. When I left ATD, I went on to get a Ph.D. in economics with a dissertation on poverty, and after teaching in Belgium, I joined the World Bank, an organization that, in principle and hopefully in practice, is devoted to poverty reduction. Working on values, faith, and development at the Bank was a way to connect again, albeit indirectly, with the type of work that I had been involved in with ATD.

Where did you work with ATD Fourth World?

I was physically based in Belgium, France, and the U.S., working directly with poor communities. The organization made sure that all of its employees, no matter where they were, worked directly with poor families. I initially worked for a few months on what the organization calls ‘street libraries,’ bringing books directly to children in poor neighborhoods in Belgium. But the experience that marked me the most was when I worked next in Noisy-le-Grand, the town near Paris where the organization was founded, and where ATD managed a shelter for homeless families, which provided also education, youth, and employment programs. My job was to find permanent housing for the families when they were ready to move on, and to select new families that we could welcome when one of our apartments became available. We had 600 to 700 applications a year from homeless families looking for our assistance; I would meet with about 50 families a year, typically the 50 poorest among the applicants. That experience—meeting these homeless families, wherever they were, all around the greater Paris area, and then supporting those that we could welcome with the other members of our team—was what really taught me what poverty is all about.

Why did you go on to study economics?

I had done some economics and business work as an undergrad, along with engineering. After four and a half years with ATD, I felt that it was a good time for me to move on. The Ph.D. was an ideal way for me to gain some technical skills, while also having time to reflect on what I should do next. The ATD experience was so special and intense that it would have been difficult to move directly into another organization. I decided to study in Washington because of the proximity to the World Bank and the IMF, as I thought that perhaps I might be able to contribute to poverty reduction in the developing world after completing my studies.

When did you join the World Bank? How did you find ways to apply your experience from ATD?

I joined the World Bank in 1998, and initially focused on Latin America, working on advising governments about poverty reduction in a half dozen countries. I kept up my contacts with ATD, but the work at the Bank was very different, and it was not easy to bring to bear the experience that I gained with ATD. In the Bank, we try to conduct serious and objective, analytical work to inform policy, but that does not mean that we can change people’s hearts and minds. In all organizations, including the government ministries we work with as well as the World Bank itself, it is rare that you truly change somebody’s mind with a piece of detailed analytical work (quantitative or qualitative). In my experience, you have to touch your intended audience in a personal way to change how that person thinks. Of course, if you have a policy maker who is well versed in the pros and cons of a particular intervention, then yes, you can convince her through data analysis—A is better than B because of certain outcomes associated with A and not B, but that is not necessarily changing how one thinks about the extreme poor. It is only providing information for a policy maker to use with the same rationality that is not necessarily informed by the day-to-day life of the poor. To change somebody’s mind and heart about the issue of poverty, something more personal is often needed.

In any event, I have tried to remain faithful to the ideals that had led me to quit a business career and work with the poor. But this is not easy. I am concerned as an economist about the distance that can separate policy analysis and discussions from the realities in poor communities that I had witnessed in ATD Quart Monde. With ATD, we were expected to live in poor neighborhoods and to build over time a relationship with the families we were working with. At the Bank, in contrast, it is rare to have occasions to discuss the personal dimension of our work. And even in our analytical work, an understanding of what a very poor family actually goes through is rarely a key part of a Bank report. Our analytical and operational work tends to stay very much at the policy and aggregate level. This is one of the reasons why it is difficult to reconcile both perspectives.

Over the years I have continued to work occasionally with ATD. One of the studies we put out together involved an analysis done by ATD staff of how very different types of institutions had succeeded in changing their attitudes towards the poor, and how that happened. The study included a useful conceptual framework. You first need to be able to encounter the poor, the study noted. It is actually the same with the world of faith: you need to take the time to encounter and meet people of faith, before you can interact in a fruitful manner. Next, examples of more than a dozen organizations that had changed their attitudes towards the poor were presented, including a church, a small firm, a national electricity provider, a union, etc. The authors described the long process of transformation through which these organizations changed their policies and ways of behaving towards the very poor. When the Bank’s Chief Economist for Latin America mentioned the study at one of our large meetings, he emphasized the personal commitment needed on behalf of staff and leaders of organizations to serve the poor. In particular, if you do not have champions in an organization to help the organization go through the process of encountering the poor and developing partnerships with them, programs reaching out to the very poor are less likely to work. So again, when we advise countries, it probably should be at least as much about building commitment as it is about good analytics, but that is not easy to do.

What led you to want to take up your position leading the faith and development work at the Bank? It was always clear that this was not an easy challenge!

Why did I apply for the job of heading the Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics unit at the Bank? In part because I hoped that the position would make it easier for me to make a stronger link between what I had learned with ATD and the work I could do at the World Bank. I am convinced that many (albeit not all) NGOs and faith-inspired or faith-based organizations (FBOs) do great work with the poor around the world, but this is not sufficiently recognized at the World Bank and other international organizations, in part because we work first and foremost with governments (although the IFC works with the private sector). I was hoping that by taking this job, stronger links with these organizations could be created, and that by documenting their work, the Bank as well as governments in developing countries could learn from those organizations and build stronger partnerships with them.

Relating these experiences to the MDG challenge, I recall (because I was part of the event) that in 2005 around World Poverty Day, you helped to bring a group of very poor families who had worked with ATD 4th World to the Bank, trying to bridge the gulfs. What was the assessment of the families? Did they leave very frustrated, or did it confirm the kinds of intuitions that you have been describing?

Indeed, in 2005 we welcomed a delegation of families who were living in poverty at the Bank, after their visit to New York where they had met with the Secretary General of the United Nations. As far as I know, the families did not leave frustrated. The families had been chosen as representatives of the very poor from various countries and continents. For the families, it was perceived as an honor to be welcomed at the World Bank and to be able to provide testimony on behalf of the poor. I don’t think that the families expected that huge things would happen as an immediate result. We published various contributions that had been prepared for this event together with other studies in a small book entitled Participatory Approaches to Attacking Extreme Poverty. But what was more important is the fact that several key persons from the Bank came to the event, including several Directors. Whether the event changed anything for my Bank colleagues, I don’t know, but for the families involved and for the Movement, it was important in a symbolic way, in the sense that the movement has always tried to make the voice of the poorest heard in international organizations. This was a small step along a very long road.

We hear quite sharply contrasting views about the MDGs, with some faith-inspired organizations seeing them as an organizing framework, and the international community saying that it is time to move on and look to next steps. What are your thoughts?

With only three to four years left to the MDGs, I think both views are right. I understand why some people might say that the MDGs are in the past, and that we have to move on. At the Bank though, the MDGs remain very important. But international organizations work with a long term horizon; it often takes them one year to prepare an operation that will be carried out for three or four years. We know that many of the MDGs will not be met, and we need to think about what targets to set for ourselves after 2015. It does not mean that people do not consider the MDGs important, but they will now see some of the MDGs through a different lens. For example, for the MDG on primary education, which seeks to ensure that all children complete at least primary schooling, many are now emphasizing more the need to improve the quality of what is taught, and to measure learning. Both getting the children in school and ensuring that they learn are important.

Looking through a faith organization’s lens on the other hand, it is clear that the MDGs remain highly concrete and relevant to the realities of their work (education and health are at the core of the MDGs, and these are areas where FBOs are especially active). But unless there is a clear successor to the MDGs, there will not be an accountability framework for what remains to be done.

One should also recognize that there has been at least to some extent a shift away from a focus on human development (education, health, social protection, etc.) towards a greater focus on issues such as infrastructure, financial sector reform, and so on (and some of this for good reasons). This greater emphasis on those sectors should, however, not lead us to lose the global impulse that was catalyzed around the MDGs and harness this energy towards next steps, given that the areas covered by the MDGs are of great importance for the daily lives of the poor.

How about the Poverty Reduction Strategies?

Many of the first wave of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) were about human development and poverty reduction, but the second wave has also seen a shift towards more infrastructure, productivity, and growth related programs—again, not necessarily for bad reasons, but there is that shift. When the PRSPs first came out, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm and hope; in organizations such as the World Bank, substantial efforts were made to help countries prepare, implement, and monitor their first PRSP. Today, a dozen years later, there is less focus within the Bank on the PRSPs and probably also within the countries, in part because those have become well established, but perhaps also because some of the priorities have shifted, which can also be seen in the contents of many PRSPs. The good thing about the PRSPs is that they were to be country led, and they helped different parts of the government to work together and develop joint priorities. I do believe that overall the PRSPs really increased the visibility of the poverty reduction agenda at the country level, there is no doubt about that; in that sense, they fulfilled their roles and expectations. They were also done, however, so that countries could benefit from debt relief. Now that debt relief has been granted, there are few direct financial rewards for countries to invest a lot in their PRSPs, unless this has become a country-owned process that truly informs decision making within the country. So in a way, where they truly matter, PRSPs have become part of a process that is more indigenous, which is good, but it also seems that PRSPs do not any more garner the same level of attention than when they were first launched.

How did you see faith-inspired organizations involved in the PRSP process?

When I joined the Bank 13 years ago, at the time the first PRSPs were being launched, there were a lot of country efforts to have a strong participatory process—to listen to NGOs, FBOs, civil society, the private sector, and of course, the population. This was a new and very helpful development. One problem with the PRSPs, however, was that because they were aiming to be participatory with inputs from many different constituencies, they were also often very broad, described by some as ‘Christmas trees’ that touched on everything, but without clear priorities, as such priorities are often difficult to establish through a broad participatory process. Incidentally, this also meant that governments and donors could in fact justify almost any intervention on the basis that it supported some objective set forth in the PRSP.

I mention the above because I am actually not sure that the PRSP process is the best way for faith groups to have a voice. Because the PRSPs are so broad, and because the faith groups do not deal with all of the development priorities in the country, maybe the PRSPs are not the best tool to give faith groups a voice. For example, faith groups are far more likely to be effective if they tackle specific issues in which they have a lot of experience and clout, if only through the large networks of service providers that they tend to manage (in health, education, and social protection for example). While faith groups should try—as any other constituency—to be involved in the PRSP process at some level, they may be able to achieve more when discussing specific sectoral strategies at the country or local level, especially in education and health where they are important service providers. The impact that they may have on these sectoral strategies can then be integrated later in the broader PRSPs.

What do you see as the best channels, more specifically, for faith groups to engage at a development policy level?

Consider as one example the case of Ghana, where there is a large network of faith-based health service providers federated through the Christian Health Association of Ghana, or CHAG. CHAG is now recognized at the same level as the public Ghana health service, and they have a seat at the table for policy discussions. This has been feasible thanks to a long process of discussions and negotiations between CHAG and the government which led to the adoption of a Memorandum of Understanding between both parties. CHAG is now recognized not only for the services that its member clinics and hospitals provide, but also for its broader expertise. This is a very good example of fruitful collaboration. But the extent to which faith-based organizations have a voice does vary significantly by country and between sectors.

Speaking with some senior World Bank officials, they have recommended trying to bring faith groups into the global aid harmonization discussions, such as the upcoming meetings in Busan, South Korea. To date, this community has not been involved, yet aid fragmentation is a central characteristic of the work of faith communities in many places.

As is the case for other stakeholders and service providers, faith groups should indeed be brought into the harmonization discussions. And you are right that because of the multiplicity of faith groups, a substantial degree of autonomy in many of those groups, and the fact that relationships between faith groups and the state are not always smooth, there has been too much fragmentation in the work of faith groups. At the same time, in some areas, faith groups have been successful in coordinating their work and discussing with governments. The example of the Christian Health Associations that are functioning in more than a dozen African countries shows that this can be done.

Now, for harmonization to really happen and improve the impact of aid, it has to be done at the country level. It should also be noted that harmonization has potentially both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ consequences for faith groups, or perhaps good consequences for some, and more difficult trade-offs for others. It seems clear to me that some of the faith groups have to change how they operate in order to become better integrated in country level networks and systems, but some groups resist such changes because of their desire to maintain their autonomy. What can be said here is that integration in country systems need not imply a major loss of autonomy, but it does imply a certain level of accountability.

One issue in many ways at the core of the faith/development debate is child marriage. As faith leaders are often the ones presiding child marriages, they are very much driving the practice, and thus the potential for them to have a positive impact is much clearer than in many other areas. In your research and analysis on child marriage, how have you treated the issue of religion in your approach and thoughts?

We indeed started a research project on child marriage. While much of our work has dealt with faith-based service delivery in development, I have always believed that the issue of the impact of faith on behavior, and how that in turn influences development, is at least as important, if not more important, and the case of child marriage is a good illustration.

Practically speaking, we set out first to better measure the extent of child marriage, next to understand some of its determinants or drivers, and finally to assess some of its impacts. There is substantial evidence that these drivers of child marriage are both economic and cultural (which would include aspects related to faith, but also culture more generally). There are also issues of education, health, and violence in the home. We find, for example, that child marriage is having a very large impact on decreasing girls’ education, and increasing infant mortality. The data show that succeeding in reducing child marriage would generate large gains towards the MDGs.

It is not easy, however, to find the right way to deal with the issue of child marriage. The incidence and depth of the issue is much more significant in some communities than others, controlling for socio-economic indicators. Some countries have tried to implement family law reforms, and have failed due to the opposition of some religious groups. In many countries where laws have been adopted to prevent child marriage, enforcement and the impact on the ground of such laws has been less than satisfactory. Legal measures are needed, but we also need a combination of sensitization campaigns as to the negative impact of child marriage on girls, and economic incentives to help families avoid the need to marry young girls.

In general, where do you see the faith/development agenda? If you had a magic wand, what needs to be answered, and what would you do?

Well, one should recognize there are some topics with religious dimensions that international development organizations, such as the World Bank, typically will not deal with, which are major topics: terrorism, for instance. But there are two or three things that come to mind.

First, a decision was made at the Bank to mainstream the work on faith and development. What this means, from an operational point of view, is that the role that FBOs play in specific sectors in terms of service delivery must be considered as part of a broader set of issues linked to non-state sector service delivery. There is always a risk when mainstreaming that we are actually simply diluting an issue, and only time will tell whether this will be the case here. But it does make sense to me to think about the role of FBOs as part of a broader system of service provision, where policy makers are trying to serve the population in the best way they can, relying on both public and private (especially non-profit) service providers. In most cases, the processes through which one can establish collaborations between the state and non-state actors (including FBOs) is not about faith, even if the faith dimension has to be considered (regarding, for example, what can be taught in publicly funded but privately managed schools). That does not mean that faith is not key to the roles that FBOs play. It is just not practically relevant to the coordination issues around service delivery. Faith matters and empirical work shows that faith-inspired organizations are often providing services of higher quality. Part of the quality of their service is due to their ethics. But from the point of view of the government, it does not matter where the service comes from, as long as it is quality service. The challenge is to harness these activities within the MDGs and development strategies. I think we are moving in the right direction within the Bank on the service delivery angle.

The other aspect of the faith and development nexus that I deeply care about is that of the influence of faith on behavior; that is a more complicated issue. First, there are sensitivities involved, and second, it is not exactly clear what an organization such as the World Bank can do in a direct way about those issues. We discussed child marriage earlier. Even if one is convinced that child marriage is a major problem, and, to take the example of Muslim communities, that it is not sanctioned by Sharia (Islamic law), it might still not be appropriate for the Bank to enter in a direct discussion with faith groups on that issue. The Bank may not have a mandate to do so, nor does it have a comparative advantage to tackle such issues. What can be done is probably more indirect—it is first to better document the negative impact of child marriage on education, health, and well-being, and next to provide incentives for girls to go to school or even not to marry early (several countries have done this). Because the Bank works with governments, many of which are sensitive about these topics, this is not easy area to work on. Still, after three years of work and discussions with colleagues in this area, I am convinced that the issue of faith and behavior is at least as important as the issue of faith-based service delivery.

Behavior (as related to faith and culture) is particularly pertinent to issues such as child marriage, but it matters also more generally for gender equality, girls’ education, women’s labor force participation, and many other issues. It is sometimes difficult to do something about these questions with the traditional instruments that the World Bank has at its disposal, so to some extent we (and donors more generally) are avoiding some of the ‘big elephants’ in the room because we do not know how to deal with them. Yet even when we do not have appropriate lending instruments to deal with specific problems, we can at least inform policy makers through our analytical work.

Can you expand on the data and evidence on the intersection of faith and development that the World Bank has been able to collect? Do you think we know enough to find our way through the complexities and the issues?

There are actually a lot of data sources that are available, but few people are using them. At the Bank, we are finalizing several studies on education, health, and social protection. For example, we are looking at the market share of FBOs, whether they reach the poor; whether they cost less or more than other service providers; whether they provide services that lead to higher satisfaction among users; and whether there are more or less instances of corruption among FBOs. We also look at how FBOs are funded and how they use their funding and whether this differs from other providers. All of those questions can be analyzed with the data that is at hand, especially using nationally representative household surveys.

When data are lacking, it is often feasible to collect new data. One example is a pilot survey we implemented in Yemen to measure zakat (alms giving in Muslim communities)—who was giving and receiving zakat; what were the perceptions about zakat, etc. I think that the issue is no longer about data, but about the fact that too few people have incentives to look at the available data sources and conduct serious empirical work on faith and development. Apart from multi-purpose surveys, information is also available in more specialized surveys, for example on attitudes and preferences, and how this relates to not only a person’s faith affiliation, but also her level of religiosity, for example. And administrative data are also becoming available in many countries on the role of FBOs in service delivery, although efforts should be undertaken to make such data more widely available.

Are there important gaps in data?

When I took on the responsibility for the faith and development work at the Bank, and looked at how many detailed empirical studies existed on issues related to faith and development, I was surprised that so little was available. Even in academia and think tanks, the area of faith and development is still a very fragmented field, despite advances on data. But I have noticed that there is more interest today in these issues, and the evidence base is slowly building up.

Still, it seems that there are important gaps, both having to do with transmission mechanisms from faith to behavior and with development outcomes. On the service delivery side, even if you find that FBOs perform better, that does not help you much for policy. The more important question is why do they perform better, and how could what they be replicated elsewhere? How would you replicate the success of some FBOs in the much larger public school networks? And what kind of system would you need to put in place to get the same benefits elsewhere? Is the success of a faith-based school related to the fact that they have more inputs or resources, or to the fact that they are better at using those resources, or to something still more intangible which relates to the spirit of the school? If it is the latter, how do you replicate that in the larger public sector?

On the faith and behavior side, one issue is that there are different types of data and they are not easy to reconcile and link. One source of data is national surveys which give only very broad aggregates of faith, without providing important nuances. The data might suggest that faith does not matter for “x,” when in reality there are important links, but these can be uncovered only with much more detailed, local-level data. A classical example is that of the use of condoms or, more generally, sexual behavior. We looked at condom use and sexual behavior in different countries using national surveys. Typically, if you just use the broad categorizations of faith in the data (say, Christian versus Muslim or Hindu), you will not see a statistically significant effect of faith affiliation on behavior. But in fact, there is often an impact, but it only comes out of more nuanced qualitative data, or much more detailed quantitative data that looks at within-faith groups, the salience of the faith for an individual or her level of religiosity, etc.; but these data are often not easily available, and when studies rely on small sample qualitative evidence, few people trust such studies enough to make major decision based on their findings. So how can we bring local or sub-group level findings to the macro or national level in order to influence policy? There are ways to do this, but too few people are working on them, unfortunately.

Turning to education, James Tooley’s book “The Beautiful Tree” points to huge numbers of entrepreneurial private schools in the poorest communities, in many cases providing quality education, utilizing performance evaluation techniques, community engagement, and incentive structures. Some, though not all, of these schools are faith-linked. His story is that institutions like the World Bank categorically refused to look at and deal with this evidence. Are you familiar with this line of argument and the underlying trend?

I am surprised that observers would argue that the Bank refuses to look at the evidence. We are an evidence-based institution, and many of our efforts in the last few years in our work on faith and development were precisely to build stronger evidence of the links between faith and development. But what is correct is that there are lots of new schools for the poor that are being set up. India is a good example, though I have not used the data there much yet; in Africa, we have done a few case studies on faith-based schools to see how they were set up, who they serve, and how well they do. It seems to me that within the established Christian denominations, which already often have large networks of schools especially among Catholics, there is less creation of new schools (or clinics and hospitals) than among some of the expanding Charismatic and Pentecostal groups. Among Muslim communities, there seems to also be significant creation of new schools, and it must be recognized that in many countries Muslim schools tend to reach the poor more than other groups, and thereby provide an important service. Our work also shows that for parents sending their children to faith-based schools, faith is in itself a key factor in that decision, while faith per se matters much less for patients who choose a faith-based clinic or hospital for their care.

This all means that the creation of new faith-inspired schools clearly responds to a need and a desire among at least some parents for a stronger emphasis on faith and values in the education received by their children. But it remains essential to find a way to integrate these new schools into national education systems, so that quality and accountability can be monitored. There is a lot of heterogeneity between faith-based service providers, including in terms of the quality and cost of the services that various schools provide. We do need to make sure that new players provide adequate and good quality services at an affordable cost to families. Integration of these new schools in national systems also provides a way for the government to support these schools when their performance and what is taught in the curriculum is adequate.

With extraordinary energy and commitment, you are pursuing a Ph.D. in theology and religious studies at the same time you are working on your demanding World Bank job. What led you to decide to do this and what is your dissertation topic?

There is nothing extraordinary here—I was fortunate to be in a position to do this with my family being supportive despite the time demands and costs it implied. My director at the Bank was also supportive by allowing me to go to classes and work more in the evening or during the weekend to compensate. In any event, I decided to do this for two reasons. First, at a professional level, I felt when I took this new job at the Bank that I needed to acquire formal training in the field of religion, and this seemed the best way to gain that expertise. But in addition, I was also interested in this at a personal level and I really learned a lot through the experience. My dissertation is on faith, human development, and service delivery in Africa—not path-breaking work, but hopefully something that will be useful for others to build upon.

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