A Discussion with David Steinberg, Distinguished Professor, Georgetown University
November 16, 2009
Background: This discussion took place in preparation for a consultation on faith and development in Asia held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on December 14-15, 2009, an endeavor of the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, with support from the Luce Foundation. Its aim was to take stock of the wide range of ongoing work by different organizations that are, in varying ways, inspired by religious faith; but more importantly, to explore the policy implications that emerge from their interactions with development organizations. This discussion took place at Georgetown University, between David Steinberg and Michael Bodakowski. In the interview, Dr. Steinberg offers a comparative view of the influences of faith in Asian societies and development, and contrasts western and Asian ideas that drive development work. He explores the question of faith influences on societies in different circumstances. He speaks to the role of the U.S. and Korea in Southeast Asia, how they structure their aid programs, and on roles currently played by faith and faith-inspired actors from both countries. Lastly, he explores the tensions that development can uncover within society, and how faith reacts and adapts in the face of societal change.
How did you first become involved in Asia?
When I was in high school, I read a book called The Importance of Living. It was on China by a very famous Chinese author named Lin Yutang. I thought it was not the most profound title and very simplistic, but nonetheless, it fascinated me. I went to my high school history teacher and asked, why is there is nothing on China in our history books? He said that was a good question that no one had asked him before. My teacher went ahead and got me a book on China to read in my study time, and I did.
At Dartmouth, I was a philosophy major, and I took a couple of courses from a very famous professor on Confucius’ philosophy and other topics related to China. We used to talk after class, and I read a lot, but did not really understand much at that time. One day he said to me, “How would you like to spend your junior year in China?” This was something I had never thought of, and over the objections of some of my professors who wanted me to wait until graduate school, I said yes. My parents were very supportive of my decision. My father was a doctor and we were an upper middle class family in Boston, but did not have any connection to China. Nonetheless, I went, and it turned out that I was the last exchange student on mainland China before the revolution of 1948/1949.
I returned to Dartmouth to finish my senior year, but in many ways was disappointed with what I came back to. Dartmouth was too beautiful and too isolated, and I saw so many things going on in other parts of the world. This prompted me to change from a philosophy type to an activist type.
After graduation I had some scholarship money left over and in the summer of 1950 I went to study Chinese at Yale, three days before the Korean War started. Then I spent a year in the China program at Harvard.
I came to Washington after my time at Harvard and worked for the National Security Agency and then went on active duty, where one of my jobs was trying to read Chinese codes in Korea. There were only eight of us at the time in the U.S. military officer corps that had cryptographic Chinese as their military specialty. Only eight, though there were a half a million Chinese in Korea!
I returned to Harvard under the GI Bill to complete my M.A. program in Chinese, and then studied Burmese and Southeast Asia in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. After a year in London, I returned to the U.S. and heard about an Asia Foundation program officer job in New York City. I took the job, and after a year in New York the Asia Foundation president asked me if I would like to go overseas. I asked where, and the answer was Rangoon…
I spent four years in Rangoon, 1958 to 62, until we got kicked out of the country. I then went to Hong Kong for a year and a half; then on to Korea for five years. Following my time in Korea I returned to the U.S. to open the Asia Foundation office in Washington, DC, and then shortly thereafter joined USAID, first as deputy director of technical assistance for Asia, then managing a foundation for USAID in Bangkok, then serving as director of technical assistance for Asia and the Middle East, then as the office director for Philippines, Thailand, and Burma affairs, and finally as an evaluation officer.
I retired, “technically,” in 1986 and became president of Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs. In 1990 I came to Georgetown where I have been a professor until today (with the exception of a three year interim to return to Korea with the Asia Foundation.)
Through my career, I have lived in Korea, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, and Japan, and have done field work in Indonesia, Cambodia, Philippines, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Based on your wide ranging experience, especially in Asia, what do you see as the most significant ways faith and development influence each other?
I think faith influences the development process in a lot in practical ways, not necessarily only in philosophical ways. First, however, let me address the philosophical influences.
For a farmer living in a traditional Theravada Buddhist society, what would your expectations be for what the government is supposed to do for you? For the farmer, his/her salvation comes through his or her own efforts. It is not the government’s responsibility to take care of the farmer. In philosophical terms, Buddhism is very individualistic. There is a Buddhist cannon of 10 precepts of good kingship and government which says that the government is supposed to provide you with the minimum means by which you can improve your own reincarnation. But, we expect the government to deliver more. In development terms, we have a public view of the responsibility of the government for development.
That is a simplistic view. There are: urban elites, rural elites, international elites, cable television, and international expectations of foreign governments, interfering with traditional elements of government. That causes problems and there is a certain amount of conflict.
In Muslim societies it is a little different. What is the role of Sharia law on development? Can you charge interests on loans? What is the role of Islamic banks in a strictly Islamic society? What is the social role of the Imam (or if in Buddhist societies a Buddhist monk)?
Moving to the Philippines, what is the role of the Catholic Church and its say over the issue of birth control? This question can have numerous developmental effects. As you have more people in rural areas (those least affected by birth control), there is increased competition for irrigable agricultural land. This it turn creates a population push, pushing some into the urban areas, affecting the government’s attempt to deal with urbanization, and others in search of irrigable land for agriculture. The only land in most cases is further up the hills. The land at higher elevations is less fertile and less irrigated than the lower fields, and the farmers do not know how to properly farm them. Furthermore, the agricultural techniques they use are not environmentally sound in their new surroundings. In addition, as farmers move higher into the hills to find new land, they displace and push minorities or other peripheral social groups (that are already in the hills because of previous subjugation) further away from irrigated rice fields. Thus an ethical and religious position may compound both environmental degradation and social unrest.
Another example is: When does the government use religion for political purposes, and do those uses have positive or negative effects on development? In Burma, the military uses Buddhism for legitimacy purposes. In Indonesia, there are also legitimacy issues surrounding the use of Islam.
If we are going to talk about religion and development, we also have to talk about an historical factor that some people deplore: using public money to build pagodas. It should be understood that pagodas are centers of economic and social life as well as well as religion. But historically, there is a cyclical issue that rises around pagoda construction and maintenance. In the past, kings have gone to war to get people to act as “pagoda slaves" (or workers). This was especially prevalent in sparsely populated areas where there was a labor shortage. In addition, monastic and pagoda land falls outside of the tax registry, so government income decreases as pagoda construction costs rise, eventually leading to crisis. In that situation, the king is likely to be overthrown, and the new king will want to purify the Sangha, and build more pagodas both for his and the regime’s legitimacy; and the cycle repeats itself. So Buddhism, in the way that it is used by the leadership, affects the financial wellbeing of a state, as well having the capacity to lead the state to war. This example shows that religion can have many implications on development. Yet the areas around pagodas become the centers of trade, commerce and social interaction, in much the same way that the medieval cathedral was in Europe.
In Southeast Asia, along with the major religions we have already discussed, it is important to take into account people who are animists. How much of their crops, land, livestock, etc., do they have to sacrifice to placate the spirits, and what implications does this have on development?
In Christian societies as well, tithing interferes with development. The money given to the Church could be saved in the bank, used for developmental purposes, invested, etc.
Another side of the equation is the mobilization of clergy in development efforts. This I know from personal experience. In Thailand and Burma there is the social service Sangha, and in Bangkok, Mahamakut Buddhist University trains monks to have a social function, as well as a religious function on development issues.
As you can see, there are many aspects of religion that affect development.
From your experience, do secular agencies and the government recognize the implications of religion on development?
Secular agencies and the government do at times recognize the religious aspects of development. For example in Burma, when the government demanded that farmers sell their rice to the government at a low price, they allowed farmers to keep a certain amount of rice for personal consumption, as well as some to give as donations for the monks. The role of religion in society was recognized in this case.
I see you have worked for the U.S. government in Thailand among other countries in Southeast Asia. Can you speak to the role of the U.S. in development in the region, and also how religion and faith-inspired organizations play a role?
You have to distinguish between International NGOs (often faith-inspired) and direct contact with religious groups in society. The Asia Foundation is funded in large part by the U.S. Congress and local USAID missions, and often implements programs directly with religious groups. The programs are things that the U.S. government usually does not do directly, but it can through organizations such as The Asia Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, etc. These organizations can carry out activities and programs that the government can’t or won’t do directly.
The other side of U.S. involvement in the region is what I call cascading influence, which is detrimental. This is true in religious groups and NGOs, as well as other kinds of organizations. To ensure their own intellectual focus, monitoring and evaluation, and prudent use of money, the donor demands certain procedures be followed or certain institutional arrangements be formed by the international NGO community. These in turn demand similar obligations from local NGOs, in many ways undercutting their viability in the local community by insisting on these foreign demands.
At the same time there is a need for an intermediary. There was something in England and Australia called the University Grants Commission. How it worked is that the government gave money to the University Grants Commission, and they allocated it to different universities. On the contrary, when you have the government directly giving money to universities, it becomes necessary to establish arbitrary guidelines on the whim of a particular Congressman or woman. Some of these guidelines may be sound, but if you search through Congressional records, you will see dozens of earmarks on how the money has to be spent (both by categories and by amounts), because there is a lack of trust in the government agencies to do the work that Congress feels needs to be done. This is all detrimental to the development process, and to faith based-organizations as well.
Sometimes faith-based organizations receive a subsidy that is important to them as an organization, but it is not always the best for the overall development strategy. For example, some American international faith-based NGOS receive subsidies for shipping relief and education supplies and food (such as Catholic Relief Services) but are then obligated to fly on U.S. airlines and ship goods with U.S. carriers. The U.S. companies are at times much more expensive, but CRS uses them as a way to get certain activities done. There are lots of implications of the U.S. government acting on FBOs.
Now a question about Korea. Both Korean ODA and faith-inspired aid work (especially Christian) are rising and becoming more influential. Can you talk about this trend?
Korean foreign aid (KOICA) started in 1991 and is still not very large. When the Koreans were starting their aid program, I knew the actors personally. I told them that they were starting an aid program and basing it on a Japanese model; a model that doesn’t work. That does not mean they should have based it on the U.S. model, but neither should they have based it on the Japanese model. The Japanese model was a separation of loans and grants, with loans under the Ministry of Finance, and grants under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The program started as reparations for WWII in Southeast Asia, but also aimed to redevelop industry in Japan, tying it to Japanese goods and services. This was the Japanese model, and it doesn’t work.
I was speaking from experience as one of three Americans that had ever evaluated the Japanese aid program. I evaluated an export promotion program for the Japanese in the Philippines. As one interesting anecdote from this time; I was being debriefed by the Japanese Deputy Chief of Mission at the embassy in Manila, and I told him that their program was essentially not sustainable without continuing subsidies (which he thought was a bad word as the Japanese press would not like it). I said, “You have no plan, you have a lot projects, and then you develop a plan.” He said, "That is the trouble with you Americans, you always want a plan, and then you have projects. We have projects out of which will evolve a plan.” So I said we have two different suppositions. Your supposition is that there is money available and mine is that there isn’t.
Despite my hesitations, Korea said they would try this model regardless, and if it does not work they would change it. I knew this would not be feasible, for once a program starts in the bureaucracy, it is difficult to change it. Korea went ahead regardless and modeled their aid program after the Japanese.
As a large part of Japanese industry was initially spurred by the foreign aid program, so did Korea as it copied this model. Much of the supplies and technical material for the Korean aid program came from Korea. They conducted their training and capacity building programs modeled after the Japanese as well. In one case, I found over 350 people from Southeast Asia ASEAN countries trained in aspects of nuclear activities because, I believe, that Korea wanted to win contracts for nuclear power plants in the region.
Apart from the above aspects, the Koreans and the Japanese actively engage Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs) and the NGO community in their aid program for program implementation.
With regards to faith-inspired activities, Korea is the most rapidly Christianizing (Protestant) country in the world. The Korean Christians send out more missionaries than any other country in the world besides the United States, often with little previous thought to the implications and dangers of their decisions (eg. sending church groups to Muslim countries, where it is illegal to send missionaries, under the guise of community development workers). Part of the missionary trend is that large churches get youth together and send them abroad, which is fun for the youth as well. The missionaries also become active members of the church and spread the word of Christ, which is what the Church wants.
Studies have been done on Korean missionaries, and the studies show that the training the missionaries receive before going abroad is very poor. There is no language training and very little social or cultural training. Korean missionaries are disliked in many places, such as in Cambodia, but Koreans comprise the largest single group of tourists in the country, and in the Philippines as well, which is important for local economic development.
Generally, the Koreans have begun to recognize their increasing role in the region. This year they established an ASEAN center in Seoul with three million dollars being provided by the foreign ministry. However, Southeast Asia is still an area where the best people do not what to get involved. They prefer to go to the U.S., EU, China, or Japan—posts that offer the greatest career advancement.
What trends do you see for the development agenda in Asia over the next 20 years? Will religion and faith play an increasing role?
I am not sure if religion will play an increasing role or not, but it will play a different type of role. We are talking about development, and we are talking about development as a very unsettling experience—altering the traditional order of society. A lot of people are feeling insecure about job security, changing values (particularly among youth), etc. It is in this situation that you see a return to traditional religious values. If you are going to talk about development and faith, you have to also talk about anti-development and faith. You have to take this issue into account.
As development agencies advocate change, the rise of nationalism becomes very important as a force against them. Nationals of a developing country have to be careful not to be too closely associated with foreigners and development agencies. In the new constitution of Burma for example, if you receive money from a foreign organization, government, or entity, you cannot run for public office. This is illustrative of a growing fear of foreigners and foreign influence in that country (and perhaps in others as well) leading to the tainting of local leadership and the unsettling of traditional values.
Development agencies are more sensitive to these issues today than they were in the past, but there are still many roadblocks and challenges to avoid. Some development agencies and governments enter a country and say, “You have to have democracy, good governance, stop corruption (with a pre-set outside definition of corruption), etc.” All of that is very understandable, but at the same time, it leads to tensions in the society. That is one of the things that I want to stress.