A Discussion with Carole Rakodi, former Director, Religions and Development Programme, University of Birmingham

With: Carole Rakodi

October 13, 2011

Background: This discussion between Carole Rakodi (who was in Cape Town, South Africa) and Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski took place on October 13, 2011 by Skype. It was part of the preparatory work for the Berkley Center/WFDD conference on November 7 that took stock of research and policy work on development and religion. Carole Rakodi was the leader of an ambitious research program into the relationships between religion and development, based at the University of Birmingham. This program constituted one of the foremost endeavors in the world in the still young subset of the links between development studies and practice and religion. She reflects on the outcomes and results of the six-year program, methodological challenges of international research, sensitivities and challenges of the field, and areas she views as most relevant for development policy. Carole offers particular insights into the political and structural realities of translating faith and development research into policy and practice.

What led you into your fields of academic interest in development and your life-long focus on Africa? And how did you come to be involved with religion?

The immediate trigger for my involvement with religion was when I moved to the University of Birmingham (from a mainly UK-focused academic department to a development-focused department). They asked me to contribute to teaching social analysis for development at the Masters level. I had an interdisciplinary background in the social sciences, so agreed to do it. The syllabus for the module was structured in terms of axes of social difference, looking at how different dimensions of social difference have implications for the design and outcomes of development interventions. When looking for teaching material on the obvious axes of social difference (ethnicity, caste, gender, class, disability and religion), it became clear that there was almost no material on religion.

Two years later, when DFID [the British government Department of International Development] organized consultations on big themes for their next research programs, religion seemed to me a self-evident area that deserved focus. So I put it forward as a theme, never dreaming that the chickens would come home to roost. Development studies was my area of focus, and religion was pretty new, which was why the lack of material that I found in my initial forays had surprised me so much. I have been on a steep learning curve since I started to coordinate the research, but in some ways that has been an advantage. It allowed me to ask the elementary questions to which I needed answers, and in the process I realized that others needed to hear and address the same questions.

I took on the position as director of the Religions and Development Programme in essentially a research management role. In practice, however, it was not possible to carry out my position effectively without being involved with the academic agenda and academic leadership as well.

Some in the United States may be unfamiliar with the Religions and Development Programme. Can you give a brief outline?

DFID in 2004 sought proposals for what was to be a path-breaking and long term international comparative research program on religions and development and the University of Birmingham was awarded the contract. The project, though it was housed at the University of Birmingham, involved several partner research institutions, and especially, deeply embedded in the design, institutions in four countries: Tanzania, Nigeria, India, and Pakistan. The five-year program was to explore a wide range of ways in which religion interfaces with and affects development. Some of the specific questions the program focused on were:

• How do religious values and beliefs drive the actions and interactions of individuals and faith-based organizations?
• How do religious values and beliefs and religious organizations influence the relationships between states and societies?
• In what ways do faith communities interact with development actors and what are the outcomes with respect to the achievement of development goals?

The project produced a wide range of papers and reports, most of which are available on our website.

Where does the Religion and Development Programme stand today? The DFID support has concluded and the project is “closed” but do you expect the program to continue within the University of Birmingham or its partners, or within the four country institutions?

The project finished in March [2011], and we sent our final report to DFID in May, but there are still some outstanding publications in press. Those have been added to the website, with two or three exceptions that have not yet been finished. The website itself will continue for at least two or three years, and publications can be added to it; otherwise, it will not be actively maintained. Links to our departmental website and hopefully two or three other websites (including DFID’s R4D) will be there as well. There is a possibility of a web portal with the World Bank.

Towards the end of the program, it emerged that there was no prospect of a second phase, and there is currently no discussion of anything along those lines within DFID. Since I submitted the final report in May, I have heard absolutely nothing: no reaction whatsoever. It is quite stunning, and also disillusioning that our work has been given such little attention within DFID. I was frankly surprised.

As to continuity within the university setting, when I retired in 2010, there was no one else at Birmingham willing to take on the leadership of the research area. There was discussion of a possible center on religion and society, and one on South Asia, but in the end, the University did not back either. The people that were going to take the lead became disillusioned. The deputy director, Professor Gurharpal Singh, has gone to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, and has some hopes that SOAS may be a conducive environment to move this work forward in some form. There seems to be considerable interest there.

We worked, as part of the research program, with a number of people from other institutions in the UK, so even within the UK we were a fairly scattered research team. The original intention built into the DFID model was to develop a research consortium, on the slightly contradictory basis that the capacity of the departments located in developing countries will be built through their participation in the program, in order that they in turn would be a focus for ongoing work. We did not discover any research center in the four countries that was concerned centrally with the relationship between religion and society, which meant there was no nucleus of researchers with whom we could work. As a result, in all of the countries, what ended up was a core partner institution surrounded by satellites, a sort of network of people that hadn’t worked on the subject before, based in different institutions. It became clear over time that none of the partner institutions were in a position to develop a research center on religion, society, and development. They didn’t have the right nucleus of staff or the funding to take this research area forward, so the program instead focused on forming a network of researchers, which was to provide the nucleus of people able and willing to work on the issues going forward.

Whether that will happen, I have some doubts. I think the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies will incorporate religious issues into its general agenda of work to some extent. In Nigeria, there did seem to be some interest in trying to maintain and build a network, but that depends on potential sources of funding. There still seems to be some interest from the DFID country office. Overall, I am not optimistic that anything is likely to happen in the countries involved in the program, partly because it is so difficult to build a research center from scratch without at least a nucleus of staff and a research network. It just takes too long to do that, and we did not have the funding that such an effort would require.

In short, I see some real tensions between DFID’s expectation that there would be a consortium of equal partners, all of them equally capable of generating good quality research outputs, participating in research design and publishing, and building lasting institutions, and the department’s recognition that the capacity of the different partners needed to be developed (which was a fundamental project objective). DFID recognizes the tensions but did not tackle the problem.

When we last spoke, project outcomes were yet to be finished. Are there outputs still coming out?

Some of our research projects did not succeed in producing anything of publishable quality. There are, I believe, two reasons. First, if someone has a Ph.D., that does not always mean that they have the skills necessary to do good research and writing. Second, some researchers came from specific and different disciples—theology, humanities, etc.—and a bridge needed to be built to arrive at meaningful interdisciplinary mutual understanding. There were challenges working with people of other academic backgrounds; it was very difficult to find people who were willing to make the effort, and then to bridge, in order to work together.

This is partly because of the nature of comparative international research; it is a large concept to get your head around, and many start off with a mindset that does not take full account of the challenges and pitfalls of comparative work. It was difficult for some to get out of their country-based lens to see the benefits of comparative work.

Academic endeavors can have different outcomes in different political, cultural, and social contexts. We were trying to address the same research questions, or very similar research questions, with similar methodological approaches, in order to answer a question in different contexts, and that is actually quite tricky. The questions and lenses for analysis used were different, as well as how questions were answered in different contexts. It was difficult to get publishable outcomes from all the research teams from different countries involved in a particular research project in this environment.

Did the focus on religion complicate the research process further, given the sensitivities and complexities that religion inevitably involves?

I don’t think religion is necessarily more complex than other social phenomena, but I do think it is much more sensitive (particularly in a few cases). As is the case when researching gender, one of the things that makes it difficult is that everybody is involved. Everyone has a religious position of their own; even if it is a position of rejection or agnosticism, it is still a position and affects you in one way or another. In order to step back and have a social science perspective, people must possess a degree of objectivity in what they are doing, which is difficult. There are techniques and instruments that social scientists use to try to deal with this. I don’t think these solve all the problems, but they are very aware of the challenges, and have measures in place to reflect on their own positions. However, I do not think there is much available that reflects on this issue from the perspective of one’s religion. In anthropology, there is plenty on culture in general, and there is some work in epistemology, if you can find work that is accessible to the non-epistemologist, which is quite difficult, and work that deals with the epistemologies of different religious traditions, of which there seems to be little. Many of the tools that have been developed to help researchers deal with their own positionality and reflexive research methods do not seem to have been fully applied to people’s religion. They are more available with respect to gender. As a result, I think that does make it more difficult to deal with religion.

The focus on religion is also complicated by the room for subjective interpretation that comes with the very label “religion.” What we label as religion is very much seen through our own cultural and religious lens. The label religion makes it sound as though it is actually the same animal in different places, and in practice, it is not. Social scientists may not always understand this. There is a need to reflect on these issues.

What are the plans for conference papers produced for the final conference you held at Birmingham?

The original intention for the conference papers was to compile them as part of the planned Routledge book series that was to be a central part of the publication program. We encouraged all of the book editors to approach the authors of relevant conference papers and incorporate them alongside papers contributed by researchers in the program. That was the original plan and intention, but very little has happened. This is in part because people always overestimate what they can do, and partly because the REF (Research Excellence Framework) in British universities pushes researchers to publish in peer-reviewed journals. This creates a very biasing effect on what academics do, which has led to delays in the book series. Additionally, not all of the research projects at the country level generated publishable output, which means that some of the planned books may not have a set of publishable papers. No one has yet had the time to decide how to proceed.

In the meantime, the Nigerian journal Research for Development are going ahead with a special issue, and a special issue of Economic and Political Weekly, which has a wide audience in South Asia, is in the pipeline as well. I am working on a special issue of Development in Practice, to reach a wider practitioner and student audience. There is still space. If you know of any papers that are empirically-based, practitioner-oriented, less than 6,000 words, and about social science research on religion and development, providing that they are ready for consideration, please let me know!

One primary reason why DFID commissioned the program was to develop religious literacy within the development professions. What interest have you found from practitioners in learning about or using your findings, and what do you see as the best way forward to reach a wider audience?

Most of the interest has come from faith-based organizations, just as in gender programs most of the interest comes from women. From what I have gathered, FBOs are aware that they do not document their work well, and certainly not objectively, and they feel that having more systematic and objective documentation may be beneficial for them in improving interactions with donors. For example, I was recently invited to Sweden by Diakonia.It was part of their attempt to try to get SIDA [the Swedish government development program] interested in exploring faith-related issues, because they were being treated, essentially, as a secular organization. They would prefer to start dialogue on a better informed footing, at least that is what came through most strongly for me. I got the impression that there was great resistance within SIDA to grapple with the issues because of a determined secularism.

I would put SIDA at one end of the spectrum, representing a set of agencies that do not confront faith issues. In the middle of the spectrum, there are other donor agencies which self-identify as secular; although they worry about religion; they do not know how to deal with it, but they have not made any serious efforts to engage with the research. I would put DFID, the Dutch, and the Danes in that category. In the EU, there is generally very little interest. The Dutch probably have the most active interest in religion and development in Europe, but they pursue it primarily through their own channels (the Knowledge Resource Center). At one time, they were quite active, but I don’t know how active they are at the moment. Then there are government-based agencies which are theoretically secular but in practice engage strongly with faith groups, like the U.S. under President Bush (although my dealings with the U.S. were limited).

The primary difficulty for DFID may have been that they did not know where this research sat within the department, which I imagine is true in a number of agencies and governments. Even if there is staff interest, there is not an institutional home for our research, and no one to take responsibility for it. For the research to be taken seriously, DFID would have to designate a unit with policy responsibility for the issue, and this is not happening, either because the department is not willing to make the effort, or is not able to do so without a mandate from Parliament.

The program was commissioned by DFID’s then Central Research Department. I found that some country offices expressed interest in the program, but there is an uneasy relationship between central DFID offices and country offices. There is also a difficulty in terms of speed of progress: country offices want to see results quickly, and research programs have a much longer timespan.

How about in the four focus countries? Did the country governments express interest in a coherent way?

Yes, but in very different ways in different places. In Nigeria, things got rather derailed by national politics. Nigeria is an enormous country with major challenges, and what was happening in the national political process distracted the entire PRSP (Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper) and development process. It deflected attention away from thinking through the issues; rather, attention was focused on issues like, now that the president was sick, what will happen in the next elections? And how to allocate the federal budget? These political issues were foremost in the government’s attention, and made it difficult for our Nigerian team to gain interest and engagement from the government. Our team did have the backing of senior religious leaders with senior level political connections, but this did not seem to be enough.

There is a structural problem with governments generally, in the sense that they do not necessarily have the capacity to use research and evidence, unless it is very specific and operationally relevant. However, given the challenges, I think our in-country partner, the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research (NISER), was the best choice possible; it is a government think tank and is well connected to religious leaders, so it has both political sensitivity and potential access.

In Tanzania, the research produced very little in terms of results. The only arena in which the local researchers were able to link with the government was in their research on the roles of faith organizations in poverty reduction policy formulation, monitoring and management. In that one instance, they did forge a relationship with government. Overall however, the research in Tanzania did not succeed in achieving what it originally set out to do.

In Pakistan, reach was limited to certain elements within the government where specific Pakistani researchers had links to government officials. The relationship between academia and government in both India and Pakistan is one of public debate, rather than direct policy influence, as far as I could make out.

In India, there appeared to be very little scope for any direct involvement in policy discussion with the government, at any level. The question was more whether governments paid attention to public debates that take place around these topics, and their involvement in the debates of academics. I do not know if avenues for direct involvement were limited because of the sensitive topics we were dealing with, or if it is the same across the board.

At the last advisory council meeting we noted a few topics that seemed especially poised for policy action: corruption, Islamic Education and madrasas, and the PRSPs and poverty reduction instruments. A fourth area, that was less coherent from my recollection, was on participation and empowerment in practice. Would you still agree on these topics? How would you frame the question of their policy relevance?

My fourth topic, and another I would potentially add to that list, would be the work on the development activities of religious organizations, rather than empowerment. On the madrasa work, there is a book that brings together our research, and it is just about to go to press with Routledge Delhi. The work, of course, is very sensitive, and has met some resistance in policy circles; the researchers recognize that, and it is dealt with in the book to some extent. I do not personally agree with all the conclusions of the research, but it does have policy relevance. Above all, the research shows that we need a much more nuanced approach if policy makers are going to go down the route of supporting madrasa reform.

With respect to the work on faith groups’ engagement with PRSP processes, such engagement does not need to be confined to PRSPs. There will always be policy efforts on poverty reduction; PRSPs were the hook at the time. It was by no means an automatic success story. There were a large number of difficulties and challenges, but I think that on balance, the pilot project done under our program showed that it is possible for religious development organizations (mostly NGOs, rather than the churches or religious leaders) to work together to generate policy-relevant evidence and engage in dialogue with government. Governments in Tanzania and Nigeria have criticized religious groups for failing to cooperate, on the basis that if they cannot work together, how do organizations expect governments to talk to them? In Tanzania, we identified religious organizations that were established, and we did see a change in the perceptions of some government officials on the potential contribution of religious organizations. In Tanzania in particular, processes for the government to engage with civil society are in place, but there is still a real reluctance on the part of religious actors to work together with other civil society organizations.

In both Tanzania and Nigeria, a major problem was that religious organizations do not have the resources to carry out research and engage in evidence-based dialogue themselves. Our work, to some extent, did leave a model for working together and engaging with government that could be replicated, but resources, funds, and ongoing support are needed.

The work on the development activities of religious organizations came out rather late in the research program. There are useful things to say on this topic, though in each country the research took quite different forms. The results are in the process of being digested, and their implications for policy have not been fully discussed; Emma Tomalin and Martin Rew coordinated this work. The material is available and it does represent important contributions on how organizations are perceived, on different organizational forms in different contexts, the activities organizations are engaged in and how they decide upon those activities, how they operate in a given context, and what the factors are that influence the nature of their activities.

The Nigeria and Tanzania reports have different things to say about the distinctiveness of religious organizations. In Nigeria, the report touches upon comparative advantage, though it is a hard question to answer.

Progress with the work on corruption has been slow. The Nigeria work is only partially completed and there are challenges within our country partners of translating findings into well written analyses. Without the Nigeria piece, it is difficult to ascertain what the overall findings will be. There is potential however, to influence policy debates, and also for religion to be factored into policy.

There are other cross-cutting topics that have fed into our general material and research, including on gender and religion, and religion and politics. Political economy analysis, which is big with donors at the moment, is religion-blind, as far as I can see; our analytical framework could be used to inject some religious literacy and awareness into political economy analysis. My view is that religion could also be injected into gender analysis.

There is still much interesting work to be done, and given further opportunity, we would look into how religion manifests itself in faith-inspired organizations, as well as in organizations that identify themselves as secular NGOs. We would also expand the research to look at the congregational level (for example, at the development activities of churches or mosques). Like in much research, we have only made a small dent in what needs to be done. Building on our research in this area, it would be possible to construct a good focused research agenda; but in the future it would not focus on the roles of faith-based organizations in development, but would be a much more nuanced agenda.

OXFAM was attempting to take forward some of this work, but I am not currently in touch with them to know where that stands.

It is an interesting and in some senses a rather discouraging time for those of us involved in religion and development. Within international organizations, governments, and private foundations, the presence and interest in these issues is less than it was. What is your take on this trend, why do you think we are at this position, and where might it go?

I think part of the problem is that we started ten years ago from such a low point, in terms of tools, theoretical frameworks, and knowledge resources; building up the shared concepts and knowledge so that you can have dialogue is a challenge. Looking at another example, gender, it took about 20 years to come to center stage of attention and understanding, and it had lots of money thrown at it, and lots of interest. Religion has not had that. It may be that it will take another round of interest and research before religion can be mainstreamed in the development debate.

Part of the problem is that resources for this work must come from organizations that are themselves in a quite difficult place, politically and managerially. Among development donors, there has been a shift to focus on results, monitoring, effectiveness, and impact. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to sustain knowledge building programs that are inevitably long term. It is difficult for us to predict what the outcomes will be; we are still in the early stages of the field.

Some of the material that we worked on will contribute to improved general awareness, and gradually that will percolate to more people through training and education, and even more gradually into policy discussions. The links between research and policy are hard to pin down. The Overseas Development Institute’s RAPID program has done some work on whether and how research influences policy. The research showed that the most common pattern is a long-term, indirect process of percolation of new ideas until enough people become aware, and a change in mindset is created.

It seems to me that one thing that needs to happen is more mainstreaming. There are two ways of doing this (which also could have been a relevant follow-up for DFID):

1) Education and training on awareness of context, and training development professionals to be religiously literate. This is a very long-term process, however, and there is little money being invested.
2) Following up on work with more practical implications, and going forward with further research on the role of religion as part of research on specific sectors (for example, as one dimension of education research, or one dimension of health research). The challenge is how to move work on the links between religion and development forward: there still needs to be an explicit focus on religion and development, but religion also needs to be built into sector and other studies, for example how values affect motivations and how that plays out on a practical level, as opposed to looking just at religious organizations. Corruption is one area where this is relevant.

It is interesting that we both use gender as a comparator, but I think it is a very apt comparison, because it has such a personal link, as does religion and faith.

What else should we be thinking of as we look towards the finale of our program at the Berkley Center, and to the capstone conference next month?

There is some work to be done on theocratic states. What are the development outcomes? What actually happens and why? Are there differences between countries with different sorts of governments? My suspicion is that the correlation tends to be retrogressive, based on our small projects that looked at the outcomes of theocratic regimes, with respect to gender equality and achieving the MDGs, for example, as well as relations between different religious groups. There also needs to be work done on how these issues play out differently at different levels of analysis (the state versus the local level, for example). Political rivalry at different levels must be untangled. It would be an interesting angle, though it is very sensitive and must be handled carefully.

We did not deal much with education or health, because we assumed other DFID-funded programs on those issues would look at the religious angle, but not much work has been done.

You have done a lot of work on Zimbabwe throughout your career. As you find yourself in southern Africa at the moment, have you had much insight into the roles of faith organizations on the development scene there?

Faith groups are important in Zimbabwe. When we put the Religion and Development program together it was a very difficult time in Zimbabwe, so the prospect of doing research there was limited. Also, we were looking for religiously mixed countries, and Zimbabwe is predominantly Christian. There has been an incredible brain drain in the interim. I know, for example, that the Quakers have been able to keep some work going, although it has been a while since I have been there. We do have a paper on religion and agriculture in Zimbabwe for the special issue of Development in Practice, and I think it is becoming more possible to do development and research work there. For a while with exceptional rates of inflation, it was very difficult to keep any program moving. There are two sides to the coin when looking at faith organizations there: one is the political side, and the role of the churches in advocating for and protecting those victimized by the state, and the other is the development role. The role of faith is significant in both. It is also interesting to note the recent visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, to Zimbabwe, given the difficult history between Zimbabwe and the British.

What are you doing now in South Africa?

I have retired from the University of Birmingham. I am here through the Mellon Academic Mentoring Program. The University of Cape Town has various programs funded by the Mellon Foundation, one of which is an academic mentoring program in social sciences that pays for recently retired academic staff to come and spend a period of time in South Africa mentoring young academic staff here. I was invited to do that by the research center, African Centre for Cities.

What does the program involve?

I work mostly with research associates and fellows, talking with them and helping them to think through their career development. I am trying to help them get their research work and publications to a level where they can submit them for publication. For many, time management is often a struggle, so we talk quite a lot in practice about that. In the university as a whole and the African Centre for Cities also, the senior staff are very keen to move beyond the inherited academic structure, which is dominated by white males, and reflect the demographic diversity of the country in the staff. To do that, they really need to bring up their young staff, but like in most places, the senior staff is sadly overworked, so while they would like to do it, they don’t have time. This mentoring program gives the opportunity to use newly retired academics, of whom perhaps two-thirds come from overseas. It’s a very sensible program. It’s useful and something I enjoy doing.

It has struck me for many years that young academics in African universities are often seen as a threat by the older academic staff: they don’t get post-doctoral fellowships and there is no mentoring. Often the senior academics don’t even work with them to help them develop their research careers. They’re wholly unprepared at the end of the Ph.D. It is one of the many challenges to building an academic research community in Africa, a belief of mine that has been reinforced by many conversations with young academics over the years. Any programs that fill that gap seem to me to be a good thing, and this particular program does it. A senior academic from Tanzania who was attending a conference at UCT has returned to Dar es Salaam to see if he can start something similar there for his young staff. My position is funded for one year. I have been here for two visits of two months each, and I’m coming up to the end of the second visit. I will be interacting with the staff up until the end of the year, and then, to the best of my knowledge, I will have completed my time here.

What are your plans next?

As my position at the Birmingham Religions and Development Program has in recent years involved much editing, I would like to write some original pieces. I hope to write a comparative paper on interreligious conflict in Nigeria and India. After that I might be able to write a book. At the moment I am looking for feedback on our work, and ideas on the best paths on which to move forward. I may try to bring together my two interests as well, religion and the city (urban issues). Being recently retired, I am enjoying the luxury of not having to decide immediately, but we shall see what I have the energy for, both mental and physical, and what is useful for a retired academic to do. What I don’t want to do is just summarize old material; I want to do something that moves the thinking forward and makes a contribution.

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