A Discussion with Michael Roy, Asia Facilitator, Anglican Alliance
June 25, 2014
Background: Michael Roy, Asia facilitator for the Anglican Alliance, has worked for many years in governmental, bilateral, and multilateral organizations in Bangladesh. In this interview with Nathaniel Adams, he describes how Anglican Alliance assists the Church of Bangladesh Social Development Program (CBSDP), piloting a range of programs in women’s empowerment, community-based health support, combating human trafficking, defending rights of garments workers, disaster risk management, and climate change. He argues that Bangladesh offers a unique context to develop innovative development strategies that could be successfully replicated throughout the Asian region. He reflects on the challenges that corruption presents in Bangladesh and on the threats of violence against Christians throughout the region. He highlights the Christian mandate of love and service and the advantages that come with approaching development from a faith-inspired perspective.
How does your faith inform the work that you do professionally through Anglican Alliance?
I am a professional development practitioner, but my family has long been involved with faith-based activities, so these are my roots. For a long time I was working within governmental structures, both bilateral and multilateral organizations. I have always said that if I take a different approach or have a different perspective it is because I am Christian. That is actually our Christian mandate to do something for the poor.
In development I think that there are many comparative advantages of faith structures, in terms of what they can do better than secular organizations. Some of the advantages come from the approach. If you want to do something that is effective to assist the poor, you need love. In fact, the Bible gives you that spirit of love. Of course it is not going to be easy, but I have always believed that you can get results if the spirit is there. That is why this has been such a great opportunity with Anglican Alliance. Now I can really put my experience and my perspective together to really work on new and exciting development programs. In South Asia a Christian approach is important because there is a lot of poverty in Christian communities. If you look at India, who is poor? The Dalit. And many of them are Christians. If you at Bangladesh, you see many Christian poor, particularly those coming from indigenous backgrounds. These Christians are the underprivileged minorities in their countries, and they are suffering a lot. If you look at the constitution you see equal rights for all, but if you look at the reality there is a lot of suffering among the minorities.
Have you found this role more personally rewarding than your previous roles?
It’s definitely rewarding and my role is much more articulated. I know what my focus should be and I know my mandate. I know how to do it with love. If I can put this love in to my work I know the outcome will be something special.
You are Asia facilitator of Anglican Alliance, why do you think the experience of Bangladesh is important for the rest of Asia?
If you look at development indicators, Bangladesh is doing much better on many of them than some other countries in the region. They have made a lot of progress in several key areas. This is because there is a lot of innovation. We can practice here. This is why Bangladesh has the Anglican Alliance office for the Asia region.
The Church of Bangladesh Social Development Program has some great projects and I think we can use this as a sort of laboratory. We can then replicate successful initiatives and approaches in other areas. I am lucky to have this opportunity to test ideas that could be useful in other countries. As the regional coordinator, I have the opportunity to share experiences widely across the Asian region. The Anglican Alliance has a strong network, a strong platform and a strong mandate. So I feel that this is an excellent role for me.
Christian organizations have been very influential in development historically in Bangladesh. How have their roles changed since independence?
After Liberation in 1971, Caritas was the biggest organization operating in Bangladesh. They created some of the first development platforms in the country. Now we have seen the rise of many secular NGOs such as BRAC, which has become one of the largest and most respected NGOs in the world. Compared to that we are not doing much, of course, but still we are doing the work with faith and love. I am moved by the community development approach and I think this is a strength of the Christian development community.
In what ways is a Christian approach different than that of the big secular NGOs in terms of strategic approach of focal areas?
For a start we do not support microfinance. Of course Bangladesh is famous for microfinance, but we think that it is a bit exploitative in nature. Our church has always thought that it is a bit difficult to support. Often the money overrides everything, including some of the morality. Our approach to microfinance should be different from the business model and here is the challenge. In this area you see that the church is not doing very well compared to the other organizations. Microfinance requires an organization to develop a business-like approach. Many NGOs have adopted a major focus on sustainability, including organizational and financial sustainability. Faith structures have always operated more like charities, but increasingly they are thinking about how they can maintain their sustainability as well. In the area of sustainability, the church is still a bit weak. That is why you see other organizations flourishing and church organizations running into some problems. All donors are focusing on sustainability, no matter whether you are faith-inspired or not. But for the church, we have to work with the expectations of the congregations and they prefer a charitable approach.
Would you say that there is a more grassroots emphasis in the development work of the Anglican Church?
Yes absolutely. We are currently developing a cooperative model. The Anglican Alliance is trying to capture some competitive funding to better understand the capacity of grassroots cooperatives, including some funds from the Commonwealth Foundation. Bangladesh is the pilot program where we are developing an advocacy program based on cooperatives for women’s empowerment. We selected one Christian community in the coastal area to build this cooperative; we wanted this to be entirely grassroots. We are also integrating some other initiatives such as improving health infrastructure, addressing climate change, and adapting technologies particularly for women’s empowerment. The cooperative would also work for financial empowerment. With these ideas we are trying to give shape to this as an alternative approach.
We are building these cooperatives from local faith structures. Before these only hosted religious discussions and prayers and small savings groups. Now we are adding many other activities. There is a great potential to build from these faith structures. We are getting this spirit from the Bible. That is what drives the advocacy and lies at the heart of these new institutions. Soon I think we can show something new, something that can work in a remote underdeveloped region like this. I think this has great opportunity to be replicated.
Is the environment a focus of the Anglican Church in Bangladesh?
We are created by God at the same time and in the same way that nature is created by God. Thus we have some responsibility to work to help humanity survive, but at the same time help the planet to survive. Right now the Anglican Alliance has a big focus on climate change as well as food security. If you think about the fact that women are suffering disproportionately from these challenges, you need to ask how we can address the problem in an organized manner. Cooperatives, I think, are a model that has the flexibility to work on advocacy and directly on the issues. They can also work on issues important to their communities. This is a sustainable framework in which to work.
When you are working on issues such as women’s empowerment, do you see faith dimensions to that challenge, such as imams speaking out against changing social roles for women?
I don’t see this as a major challenge. There are just a few imams who speak out against women’s empowerment. These are the extremists. It is a challenge, but these voices are in the minority. Most imams that I interact with are not against women’s empowerment. It is an issue, but I think it can be solved from a Muslim approach as well. Bangladesh is a moderate Muslim country and in some ways this is a great benefit for development outcomes, particularly for women. If you look at India or the Philippines, for example, when women earn some money they might spend the money in a very nonproductive area, perhaps buying wine or some other things. In this country if you give money to a woman, a Muslim woman, they take the money and they use it in productive areas; education, buying land, home improvements, making investments. I think in many ways this is a great development resource. If you look at Indian Dalit women, they often don’t spend money on the same areas. Of course extremism is a problem, but moderate Muslims who have a religious focus are not against other religions and economically they are inclined to do things towards development goals. I have seen this in practice.
We are looking at corruption and good governance as an issue where the potential for faith actors to have an impact is high, but not many are currently engaged in the issue. Why do you think this is?
Even in faith structures there is corruption; we are well aware of this. It’s part of the social fabric and caused by some of the economic challenges. Anglican Alliance arranged a meeting here following the C20 meeting and in preparation for the G20 meeting. We discussed governance extensively there. The question was raised, how can we create effective programs in partnership with the government in a context with high levels of corruption. We need to think about this at the local, regional, and national levels; each has its own challenges. Together, of course we should raise our voice. It is an issue for governments and faith institutions everywhere around the world. Corruption and the political system is a huge challenge for Bangladesh now. The political environment is not good. Young people are not going into politics now. Politicians are just coming from the same families. They are not experts, and they are just doing something for their own benefit and the party’s benefit, not the country’s benefit. Whenever the Awami league says something the BNP will oppose it and vice versa, even if there is some good in it. They are not coming together in a positive way to address the real issues. I think after a generation the system will be totally broken. Young people today, when they sit around, never discuss politics. They talk about their professions. When life is getting hard they are talking about the economy, they are much more interested in building a vibrant economy than fixing politics. When they are strong enough this era of politics will be over. Now, with better education and the international flow of information, views are changing. They are much more exposed to things happening in other countries. This was not the case before. Things are much more globalized. This will change things; good politics will be in place at some point. Education is vital.
I know 2013 was the bloodiest year since the Liberation War and much of that violence was directed towards religious minorities. Are Christians worried?
Of course. You see what has happened is Peshawar and Sri Lanka against Christians. They are suffering a lot. Many are crying in their hearts, but they are afraid to be vocal on these issues. In Sri Lanka there are many who are afraid to talk about what is happening. So we need to join together to try to figure out what is going on. It is not just the Christians; Hindus are also suffering. We need to work on behalf of all religious minorities. This is a problem of all humanity. We are doing some things, we have had some marches here, but I think still we are not very articulate. We need to do this through a network and join voices with others.
All developing countries are reliant on external funding. There should be some conditions on funds if these countries cannot curb the violence. There should be international agreements that this type of violence should not be happening and if it continues the country will not get assistance. Those type of agreements should be in place. But still that alone is not enough. We need religious leaders to raise their voices. It is the culture that has to change and that needs to be changed through religious structures and through schools. Government can guard churches and temples, but that is only protection, that is only temporary. Government needs to focus on trying to change the culture.
How do you make use of international networks for funding and information sharing?
We are active in the ACT Alliance, which is an alliance of NGOs, mainly faith-inspired organizations that cooperate to mobilize funding. They make appeals where necessary. In Bangladesh, there are 12 or 13 organizations in the alliance. They are headquartered in Switzerland. Church of Bangladesh Social Development Program is raising funds from different donors and Churches and some money is coming with demands related to Church affiliation. They also take money from bi- and multilaterals such as DFID and Christian Aid, ICCO, Bread for the World, TearFund, and PWRDF.
Anglican Alliance is an important and very strategic international platform and we interact with many partners through that. I think it is a very unique structure particularly in building on the leadership in faith structures.
Are local faith networks important?
The church has a network, but it is not so effective now. Not all the reverends are active on social and communities issues. We want to make this network more effective and more active.