Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, leads the center’s work on religion and global development. She is also a professor of the practice of development, conflict, and religion in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, teaching diverse courses on the ethics of development work and mentoring students at many levels. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, an NGO that works to enhance bridges between different sectors and institutions. In September 2022, she was appointed as a member of the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Marshall has five decades of experience on a variety of development issues in Africa, Latin America, East Asia, and the Middle East, particularly those facing the world’s poorest countries. She was a World Bank officer from 1971 to 2006, and she led the World Bank’s faith and ethics initiative between 2000 and 2006.
Granted, education and health fit uncomfortably in a discussion framed as world politics or international affairs. And granted also, each of Banchoff’s challenges relates to education and health in a complex web of ways (notably in the disparities that are the essence of inequality). But the argument I make is that human welfare is what will truly make the difference in world affairs, even if the diplomats see matters differently. And the capacity of great religious leaders and traditions to keep pace and respond to rapid changes especially in the realms that affect how people live can be seen as a make or break question for the future.
When the Treaty of Vienna was framed, few would have hesitated to assign to religious institutions the primary role in running schools and universities, providing such health care as was then available, and assigning proper roles to men and women, in families and in society. Education and health care systems were for the most part geared to the social and economic elites. The heat of industrialization, scientific advances, ideological challenges of all sorts, and the crumbling of cultural and national boundaries changed that situation dramatically. Education and health are seen today as basic human rights and a responsibility of the state. Religious institutions play greater roles than is generally understood but rarely at the leading edge. For example much religiously run education and health care has limped behind in recognizing the revolution of women’s equality. But at their finest religious institutions press to reach the disadvantaged and to serve “the least among us.”
The world order has been transformed (and is still being transformed) by extraordinary increases of population numbers and life expectancy, fueled by the health care revolution, and by the remarkable improvement in human development that is in large measure seen in dramatic changes in school and university attendance. It will be shaped in the future by the ways in which education systems adapt so that they transmit the best of core human values (which indeed are reflected in the core understandings of human rights) and keep their spirit alive. That presents a quintessentially religious challenge, not religious alone, but with religious institutions serving as part of a multi-faceted, constantly challenging balancing of the pragmatic and the ideal, the local and the universal, and diversity with a shared sense of humanity on a common planet. Religious beliefs, leaders, and institutions have vital roles to play as prophets whose vision is focused on individual and community, linking what is local with what is global. And it is in the realm of human welfare, exemplified by education and health, that these ideals will be put to the test.