A Discussion with Ian Linden, Director of Policy, Tony Blair Faith Foundation

October 19, 2011

Background: This discussion between Ian Linden (in London) and Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski (in Washington, D.C.) took place on October 19, 2011 by telephone. 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. In this interview, Ian Linden reflects on the nexus of religion and development from his seat within the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. He sees religious communities as potentially a key force to push central development challenges, but notes significant political sensitivities that often hamper their systematic engagement. Malaria, he says, is one area where religious leaders have been instrumental in bringing about important behavioral changes. He touched upon the processes of bringing religion into the U.K. development discourse, and cites many bureaucratic challenges preventing more mainstreamed religion and development policy. Linden highlights health, education, and gender as three areas with significant potential for increased engagement of faith-inspired actors in development policy.

What first brought you into this work at the nexus of religion and development?

I started working for a Catholic international development agency in 1979-1980. It had an interesting and unique character because many of the programs were British government-funded and, as such, were secular in their nature where staff and program design were concerned. Other programs, however, were based on Catholic social teachings applied to an international order. What resulted was a rather perennial dialogue between secular approaches to development and religious approaches that had come out of the Catholic tradition. As director of that organization for some 15 years, I had constantly to try to navigate between secular and religious positions, while getting to know the landscape of multilateral and NGO-type interventions in the developing world. I also got to see some of the lacunae in thinking about them.

That was the origin of my interest in religion and development. Another factor was living in Africa and seeing the work of faith-inspired organizations and different churches working on the ground in various quite distinctive countries.

Looking back at that operational period—do any particular points stand out as particularly important?

Intellectually and theoretically, one of the big ideas that came into the development world with a vengeance in the 1980s was the importance of literacy. Another was recognition of the fact that development had inextricable political dimensions and connotations. Being in a Catholic outfit, and influenced especially by the experience of Latin America and of the Catholic Bishops there, like Dom Helder Camara, played important roles in the way I came to understand the problematic nature of development. That Latin American experience was quite seminal.

Talking to people in Oxfam, I realized that they also recall well how some of those new ideas first entered the development discourse, and over time how participatory methodologies became fairly normative. A lot of this understanding, one way or another, came out of being plugged into the church circuit on a global level. My institute worked in parts of Africa and Latin America, as well as in the Muslim world, for example programs related to primary health care in Yemen. Working in these different cultural contexts allowed me to see the Muslim side of the religious divide as well, and the way in which some of these ideas were being taken up by progressive Muslims and the types of conflicts they were getting into with some more conservative Muslims, for example, in Yemen’s Ministry of Health.

Did you come across Denis Goulet during this period? He was an important figure in IDEA, the International Development Ethics Association.

For several years I went to Notre Dame University every summer to participate in the African Institute, and was introduced to Denis while I was there. He was, of course, a great figure. Professor Peter Walshe, who is best known for his background in South Africa, was my main contact at the Institute.

Carole Rakodi (director of the Birmingham Religions and Development Programme), responded when we asked her recently about DfID reactions to the final reports submitted to them, and summaries of the project’s conclusions, that to her surprise she had received no reactions. We (KM and IL) were colleagues [on the project’s Advisory Council] in what truly was of the bolder global efforts to address issues of religion and development. What is your understanding of what happened?

That is an important question. My own take is that the original funding for the consortium research on faith and development was initiated by Paul Spray, who worked with me at Catholic Institute for International Relations before he later moved to Christian Aid. I think his Quaker background gave him an opening into appreciating the importance of different aspects of religion and development. He supported the funding of this major project. Unfortunately I have found the DfID programs have tended to be rather person-specific, so when Paul left, the level of interest in religion and development was reduced. I would say that your [Katherine Marshall’s] and Jim Wolfensohn’s work with the World Bank and WFDD through the late 1990s had an impact on thinking in the UK. By about 2004, I came back into the DfID orbit to do a piece of work that explored the ways in which funding of secular organizations and indeed some Christian organizations had fallen into a default position. We concluded that it was because they had little confidence that they knew how to deal with the organizations of other faiths (Muslim or Hindu). It underscored how far they did not feel comfortable with religion.

Through the Birmingham project, that issue was raised again in a research context. One thing that stood out to me as I reported back verbally to different program administrators on issues ranging from gender to conflict, was how personally people took anything to do with religion and development. You could tell just from body language that people wanted nothing to do with aspects of religion. They thought it was a very bad idea for government agencies to get involved with interreligious relations and development. There were others who were more open to the idea, but many were frightened of Islamic extremism and not knowing the nature of the Muslim organizations they were dealing with. People carried much personal baggage with them into their professional work as civil servants in the government ministry.

In contrast, when it came to the Foreign Office and preventing terrorism, people were much more aware that it was time to understand the dynamics of extremist Islam and how to deal with it. There was a very different dynamic there. Arms were not crossed. People were much less awkward about confronting religion, whatever their personal background, because they knew they had to know and understand it, regardless of their personal opinions. Thus one dimension is that personal issues appear to have played a large role in the neglect of these issues under the Religions and Development Project. That is a great pity, because the project really needed a closer level of interaction with DfID to achieve what it set out to do.

I have a contemporary comparator: I was on the board of the DfID Crisis States Program that was run out of the London School of Economics by James Putzel. There was a much higher level of DfID interest in the results from this program, largely, I believe, because of strong Foreign Office involvement. There was a recognition, in this instance, that the collapse of states was a major foreign policy as well as a development issue.

Yet the total silence from DfID concerning the final report is startling. Perhaps something to consider is that there were not many shattering conclusions coming out of it, although some interesting papers were produced. It is possible that people just did not see many policy implications emerging. One thing the Crisis States Program did, that perhaps the Religions and Development Consortium did not, was to “feed the policy animal” in a skillful way, recognizing that they needed to be given policy-friendly material. In this case, the policy implications were not as obvious.

One policy-related conclusion from the Birmingham reports was that the bloom on the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) rose and particularly enthusiasm for active participation by civil society has rather faded. The poor country debt issue has also moved into much more complicated territory. Thus, some of the previous tangible policy issues may no longer be as tangible as they were when the project was designed.

Another issue that emerged was a rather more nuanced and complex perspective on a set of concern from DfID around proselytizing as a stereotype of religious intervention. They saw it as deeply divisive, and there was some suspicion that it cannot be in harmony with government policy. That suspicion is quite strong and perhaps they did not see clear policy conclusions emerging to confirm or temper it. Likewise the gender issue was part of a package of anxieties regarding the funding of religious organizations and they did not see specific confirmation or denial.

A classic example of how these concerns are fed comes out of radical Muslim women’s groups who argue against funding religious organizations because in their view doing so simply increases the strength of patriarchal systems designed to oppress women. That argument rings bells in certain corridors of DfID—and not unreasonably so; there is an argument to be made.

What about the current UK government? How are they approaching the religion issue?

The current UK government has a talented minister of state at the Department for International Development. The whole context of thinking about religion comes very much within the prime minister’s vision of “the big society,” which is a concept related to the role of civil society and the shrinking of the state related to an older style, conservative Tory party policy. It’s really a concept of subsidiarity, based on an understanding of an activated and mobilized civil society at work. In that context, religious organizations are seen to be big players in the major charitable and urban work of civil society.

To give an example: five million pounds have recently been made available by our local government and community's governmental department. However, it is being passed through the Anglican Urban Fund, which has a very good track record of Anglican Church involvement in inner-city poverty areas in the UK. That same focus and perspective extends itself internationally. There is now a greater interest in religious organizations as an agency of international development than there was under the Labor government, despite the presence of some very religious people in key positions within the Labor government.

But this ideology does not penetrate down to the bureaucracy?

It certainly doesn’t, and that, I think, is a weakness in any professional organization. What I suspect is going on is that people’s individual inclinations are getting in the way of their professional responsibilities.

I (KM) see a similar pattern in the World Bank.

Turning to your present position at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation: How were you drawn into that role? Where do you see the issues evolving and the emerging agenda? How has the TBFF vision evolved over time?

At the personal level, one of the things that Tony Blair did almost immediately after leaving office was to make a commitment to have a faith foundation come true, and to go about this through very prolonged and intensive consultations with a wide variety of people, from religious leaders to religious studies people. It was through that route that they reached me. I had an interesting discussion with him and Ruth Turner, talking about what sorts of program the Faith Foundation might follow. I felt then, and still do feel, strongly that some of Blair’s major contributions in office had been through the African Commission’s work, that he promoted and led, his work on international debt, and major global forums like the Gleneagles conference. He had been a friend of Africa and the developing world as a UK prime minster.

The logic of this was that his foundation should do work on the Millennium Development Goals, which encapsulated a lot of his own vision, as well as the visions of like-minded people.

As it was to be a faith foundation, we felt that the “name of the game” should be the increased mobilization of faith organizations around the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. He was always very clear that the advocacy role of faith leaders had played a key role in efforts by progressive leaders to increase the budget for international development and to move towards a government commitment of 0.7 percent of GDP earmarked for development, as well as to devise more effective strategies for development interventions. He also stressed the importance, given the infrastructural realties of the faith communities, that they could play a more coherent and significant role in the actual achievement of the Millennium Development Goals through their work in education and health. I became more involved in the Foundation about two months after those discussions after Ruth invited me to head up a program along the lines we had earlier discussed.

A core experiences in the early days (2008) was the need to make the case for faith. I think everyone was aware that religion was a contentious issue, but the case was a long way from being made that religion was a force for good in the world—that religion could make and was making significant poverty contributions in both health, education, and in other areas. That case still had to be made, and that was part of foundational vision. One of the Foundation’s purposes was to design programs and projects that would enable that case to be made more effectively.

Yet that very aim also confronted us with a foundational dilemma. If we were seen, as an organization, to be an advocate on one side of a quarrel, but at the same time trying to present objective evidence-based material to the world demonstrating a fact, rather than an opinion, we would, in a way, be shooting ourselves in the foot. Thus we are today very clear that we cannot, as an institution, present ourselves as an advocate outside of giving evidence and proving it beyond a reasonable doubt. This has involved us increasingly in research, looking at and promoting projects where the faith involvement was palpably for the good, and also generating our own programs and our own projects, which symbolize that reality. Thus at the least an observer could look at the results and say, “That was pretty impressive. These religious folks are making a difference that is important. I may have my prejudices, but that particular work is very important.” That balance between truly ferreting out the facts and showing and demonstrating a positive spirit was the original vision, and we have stuck to that quite carefully as time went on.

You have done a substantial amount of work on malaria.

The most important insight we have gained, at least for me, came in discussions with the World Health Organization (WHO). We very quickly decided that we wanted to work in the health area on malaria because it looked as though one big push might make a massive difference on a global scale. Indeed, the mortality numbers are now dropping annually by about 100,000 a year. It looks like it is one of the MDGs which could very nearly have an impressive result. We thought that adding the power of the faith communities, even in the small way in which we could influence it, would push that along even further, though the whole area of health was key.

Our discussions with the World Health Organization were very interesting; they clarified for us the heart of the problem: that the World Health Organization fundamentally could not, would not, felt it should not, as an inter-governmental organization, talk about religion.

The only place in it where religion was allowed to even markedly rear its head was in the NGO unit, and in the NGO unit we had some interesting discussions. What came out of it was that the whole area where we felt the faith communities did have some sort of unique selling point, comparative, additive advantage was in health messaging, and that was an area where the general opinion of the World Health Organization was that nobody knows how to evaluate or measure the impact of behavior change. Out of that came firm determination on our side that we would try to overcome that and do some very rigorous evaluative work both in Uganda and in Sierra Leone, to demonstrate that we could measure behavior change, and we could introduce quantitative measures of the significance of religious leaders instructing and passing messages through the faith community to their participants.

Another thing we felt strongly about in the Foundation was that we needed to have something visible, something that “ordinary” people could see, that was outside the norms of the relatively elite, development community. Our fellowship program, where we paired together people of different faiths, was designed to show people that (a) young people were religious, (b) that they could work in an interfaith context, and (c) locally they could work for the common good, and locally they could mobilize people around the Millennium Development Goals. That was the vision behind the two cohorts of faith fellows that we created.

The third plank of the program was to try and develop an international campaign around the achievements of the Millennium Development Goals, with a particular focus on malaria. That involved using our really good communications workers; we were good at getting publicity—whether it’s the sort of in-built publicity of Tony Blair saying something or just getting little stories into the local press about the work of the faith fellows, right across that spectrum of public relations. This modest publicity has helped to make the case about the significance of religion.

So we have stuck quite consistently to those three components of the Faiths Act program up to the present.

The work you’re doing now, Katherine, in partnership with us (a literature of faith health assets in Africa) at Georgetown is part of that research area. We also have a universities program, and we have wanted to make a contribution to defining what big questions in the terrain of religion and development at a research level need asking. We could not do that in a meaningful way without doing a thorough bibliographic scan.

That is a summary of where we are at the moment. But I would say that the whole work has to be put into the context of the other side of our work, which is education for religious literacy and building a harmonious set of religious relations between young people of different faiths, at the school and university level. Those two dimensions of the Foundation’s work link up in different ways.

Our Capstone conference on November 7 and the work that we have been doing at the Berkley Center are part of the Luce Foundation Initiative (a series of some 35 grants looking at the significance of religion). Georgetown, as I understand it, is one of the few places where these issues are embedded enough in the philosophy of the university that research will continue, but as we saw in Birmingham, though the work is important and scholars are interested, it is hard to keep momentum moving on these issues.

What is new for us at the Foundation, and certainly for me, was to see in Sierra Leone the Ministry of Health and faith leaders working together in a very effective way. This happened provided that you broke down the kind of natural division between government and religious organizations. Sierra Leone is, in a way, a special case. First of all, there’s a very good interreligious council. Secondly, it’s a small country. Thirdly, there are good relations between people in the government and religious leaders. Nonetheless, all those assets notwithstanding, when the Ministry of Health was rolling out a major program on free health care for pregnant women and under fives, it was only late in the day that religious leaders were brought into the conversation, and they were brought in when it was done and dusted. The government came to the realization that here was a group of people ready to work for the common good, ready to participate in government planning. The needed, however, to be brought in a bit upstream and treated a bit more spiritually. What has emerged is a wonderful relationship between the Ministry of Health, the Christian Health Association, and Muslim organizations involved in health.

My current impression is that such a structural coming-together is a prerequisite for really effective primary healthcare work in the country. We get remarkable articles and letters, particularly from imams, saying, “we’ve been preaching now using malaria, and it’s had a massive impact, and the people are very excited, and this is what happened and so on.” It’s quite exciting to see people so mobilized, with a dawning realization that lots of people don’t inevitably have to get malaria. It is not as much part of the woodwork as people think it is. That lesson is certainly replicable. Obviously, other countries would not necessarily have the same good relationships between religious leaders and the government; they wouldn’t necessarily have good Muslim-Christian relations, and they might lack some of the dynamism that some Sierra Leonen religious leaders have displayed; but I think it is an implicit potential asset anywhere. It should be replicable, though you would have a tougher time in other countries. It’s cheap, it doesn’t cost very much.

The most difficult thing is that it is a form of volunteerism. You’re asking people to volunteer to look after their own health. In many West African countries, people expect to have some sort of small stipend if they are engaged in public activity. There are issues as to what extent in a very poor country you can expect to get very altruistic volunteers for what has become a health good.

In recent meetings at the United Nations in New York, rather different viewpoints emerged about the MDGs. One priest from New York said, “We’ve finally got on board on the Millennium Development Goals and we truly understand that the churches can make a huge difference.” To the contrary, a UNDP officer basically said that this is a bit ironic because within UNDP the MDGs are now sort of passé; we’re already thinking beyond 2015. Have you come across any such dichotomy?

Yes I have. You’ll find in the UK that some of the international development NGOs take an attitude to the MDGs that is not dissimilar to the one you described. But I can’t see, other than taking up a slightly ideological position, or taking up a position which is rather oppositional, what the problem is. It’s perfectly obvious that everybody needs to be thinking about what comes after the MDGs. But, also obviously, the MDGs have been and may continue to be until 2015, an important checklist that the international community has put together.

If you want to be romantic or religious about it, you could call it a covenant with the poor made by governments. The covenant has an end date, but we haven’t reached the end date yet, and to walk away from it, or be seen to walk away from the covenant at this stage is to break a firm ethical promise to the poor. So you can’t do it. Moreover, you cannot let more than a few of the MDGs be an abject failure, because there’s the danger that some people will say, “Ah, everyone was focused on the MDGs, governments committed to it, and it was all completely hopeless. It’s all a waste of time trying to relieve poverty in different countries around the world. Let’s just get on with our own problems in the European crisis and to hell with wasting money on backward countries around the world.”

Thus it is vital that there are a few big wins coming out of the Millennium Development Goal vision at the end in 2015. Malaria will be one of the big wins. But what worries me is that I think a lot of the gender-related ones aren’t looking like they will be big wins. What we need to say is, “Let’s do what we can to make progress for 2015. Let’s see where we failed, and let’s make the next phase focus in a far more effective manner on the key areas where failure is palpable,” and, as you said, I think gender is one of them.

The post-2015 processes are getting going. One is within Civicus, the global NGO coalition, and a second involves Rorden Wilkinson, University of Manchester, and a poverty task force he launched. Surely these are processes where voices from faith institutions should try to contribute in an effective way.

Perhaps we should think about trying to create some kind of a parallel process that is thoughtful but also inspirational. Post-2015 needs to incorporate some very serious reflections around human well-being - not along any fluffy lines, but along the lines of the work that Sabina Alkire is doing. Let us listen to the top items that the poorest around the world wish to have sorted out and resolved, rather than marching in with our own agenda. Concerns for a variety of different aspects of well-being, at different levels of income and wealth, are actually a significant thing to think more about, whether or not you can operationalize it in any way. There is a risk that such activity could just drive everybody to a big fluffy debate that will never go anywhere. Nonetheless, the whole well-being debate is there on the table. There are huge resource restraints now on what is possible, and the good, old economics of “enough” link in quite well with a well-being discourse.

Another emerging question is about gender. As a result of the economic successes of the People’s Republic of China and Rwanda, there is a marginalization of the importance of democracy at present. It is not usually as the headline but maybe in paragraph ten; it’s there behind the scenes. That is something to keep an eye out for: how important is participation in democracy for development? The argument that “we don’t care if the opposition are all in jail or the government is corrupt, the country is developing very well” has made a dent. What do you want? Do you want the people to eat and have clean water? Or do you want all the trappings of Western democracy? That debate is one that has not been had yet. But whether or not we want to surface it is another question.

The Elders Group [a group of elder statesmen/women including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter] want to do two things: (1) to reach out and do more on gender issues rather than the conflict issues that have dominated their early years and (2) to reach out to religious communities. They came up with an initiative on child marriage, which they’ve launched recently at the UN General Assembly in the form of “Girl Not Brides.” But they are working to develop a strategy to approach the religious angles. We are allied with them and have suggested that we try to come up with a list (perhaps of a hundred) religious leaders who could potentially make an impact in this area. What ideas does that suggest to you?

I agree that this is a very important issue. It could be a kind of gateway issue into many others, but it is very important by itself. It fits in very well with maternal health and so on because there are dreadful realities for young brides in childbirth. Yemen is of course one of the worst cases. So I agree that it’s a very good approach, though I’m not sure how exactly to do that. It will be interesting to get some key religious leaders talking about it.

What about the role of business in this work? A colleague, Jean-Francois de Lavison, who was a Merrieux [large French pharmaceutical company] is interested to bring religion into major global health initiatives. An emerging issue there is how to involve business schools and corporations.

In the European Union, some of the best things that have been done are innovative schemes with the pharmaceutical companies. They subsidize their research in exchange for agreements to distribute to African countries at a very reduced price, and similar schemes. Some projects are showing good success; I think Glaxo Smith Kline has done that with the malaria vaccine. The business angle is quite important, especially when you think of the problem of distribution of diagnostic kits, for example. When people know how to get Coca-Cola into the most distant bits of a war ravaged country, they will know how to get malaria diagnostic kits in as well.

A final question: looking at the MDGs, the focus of our capstone conference, what you think are the main areas of intervention where faith-inspired organizations can be most effective and most policy relevant?

The first obviously is to increase the effectiveness of programs that touch their current interventions in health and education, which are of course a key part of the Millennium Development Goals. The second would be to act more effectively to change the gender relations in areas of great poverty and around the world. Of course, the problem is that most of the faith communities do themselves sustain patriarchal relationships, which would make it much more difficult for them to both change themselves and to change the societies in which they are embedded. However, I believe they have the capacity to do so, one that would be second to none if they set their minds to doing it. If you are living in an area with child brides and/or where there is serious violence against women all the time, religious leaders could make an impact in that area by bringing about behavior change. A famous saying of a sociologies of religion suggested that the Evangelical Church in Latin America was the domestication of the Latin American male—cutting out the drinking, cutting out the behavior that messed up the family—those are marks of evangelical Christianity in some countries. That hints a way at which sets of religious belief and religious leaders can change behavior, and, also, alter things right down to family income. Because if the man is drinking everyday and the Evangelical Church manages to stop that through rather heavy and effective sanctions and preaching within the evangelical community, it make quite an impact on the development of the country and the family.

Opens in a new window