Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Webs that Connect Development, Peace, and Religion

Responding to: Religion and Development: Building Partnerships to Fight Poverty

By: Katherine Marshall

July 12, 2016

“All countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership, will implement this plan. We are resolved to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want and to heal and secure our planet. We are determined to take the bold and transformative steps which are urgently needed to shift the world on to a sustainable and resilient path. As we embark on this collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind.”
UN General Assembly Resolution 70/1

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the global blueprint blessed by the United Nations General Assembly for the 15 years ahead, build on noble aspirations and hard-won lessons. The ideals they articulate: to free the human race from the tyranny of poverty and want (leaving no one behind), heal the planet, and secure peace, go beyond the post-World War II visions for a United Nations inspired by equal rights and opportunities. The concrete 17 goals—bolder and far wider reaching than their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals—reflect lessons learned and three central ideas. These ideas are the heart and soul of the Berkley Center’s mission and history.

First, global challenges, whether they focus on the broadest and boldest goals (ending poverty and preventable child deaths, equality for men and women) or far more specific targets (cleaner cook stoves, textbooks, and toilets for all) involve many sectors and institutions and the “stovepipe” approaches we are used to rarely work in addressing them. Complex linkages, say between fighting corruption and quality education or water supply and women’s empowerment, demand plans and programs that are attuned to different dimensions and actors. We understand better today how far security, prosperity, and protecting the environment, long treated as distinct fields, are tightly intertwined and demand common frameworks, at least in the many areas where they intersect.

Second, transforming the world to meet the ideals of justice and equity demands partnerships. Public-private partnership has a long history, and the call to partnership is something of a mantra. But the challenges that lie ahead call for bolder, far more inclusive efforts to harmonize collective action toward well-defined common ends. The vogue for partnership needs much more rigorous approaches that deal with, for example, asymmetrical power and different worldviews. In short, building better partnerships is a demanding task that needs fresh thinking and approaches.

And third, earlier hopes or beliefs that carefully tuned technical solutions offered the optimum path are largely discredited. The challenges that face humankind pose ethical challenges at each and every turn. That calls for a discerning eye to the tricky balance between the moral and technical dimensions. Examples where this tension emerges are climate change, where wise leaders argue that moral arguments are essential to mobilize action, and efforts to end corruption, where experience shows that balanced approaches combining technical and ethical threads yield the best results.

Religious institutions, beliefs, and practices come into the picture in all three cases. The Berkley Center’s work around three questions has highlighted and integrated the religious dimensions around each challenge: What does religion have to do with it? Why does that matter? And what policy implications follow from the conclusions?

Richly complex religious factors touch every aspect of global challenges. Name an issue and there is a religious dimension. And religious perspectives often link different sectors and issues in ways that can yield distinctive and valuable insights when they are explored and appreciated. The Berkley Center, working in partnership with the World Faiths Development Dialogue, has explored many development challenges, including energy access, maternal health, malaria, tuberculosis, housing, and countless other topics. In each case religious actors are involved and bring experience and opinions, with often quite fresh and significant perspectives. A recent example is the Ebola pandemic. We explored the complex religious dimensions involved, pointing to often hidden work. The direct link between religiously inspired burial practices and new infections highlighted the need to engage religious actors more actively. We have gained a much richer understanding of how intricately problems are linked and a growing awareness that religious actors are central to understanding most issues and pointing to solutions.

Demands for more creative and inclusive partnerships follow from this appreciation of linkages. Here a first lesson is that religious actors and perspectives, commonly set apart or ignored in the past, play important roles. They need to be engaged as partners in addressing virtually any of the SDGs. However, existing forms of partnership tend to be rather patchy and generate much grumbling, in part because they are colored by asymmetrical power and gaps in understanding on all sides. The Berkley Center works to mitigate the lack of knowledge, mutual unease, and practical obstacles like differing language that often stand in the way of common efforts to tackle even such tangible and well-agreed targets as keeping girls in school or fighting malaria.

Notwithstanding the views of religious optimists, religious leaders and communities have no monopoly on ethical behavior and understanding. However, the complexities of moral dimensions of challenges and programs are ingrained in theology and in religious approaches. Religious teachings and practice often highlight moral dimensions of an issue. Linking a change in behavior to underlying religious principles can inspire or goad people to action on widely different issues. Ancient religious traditions of altruism and love of neighbor are as much part of what is needed to achieve the global goals as an appreciation of the realities of economics or engineering. Two prominent challenges where the mobilizing, emerging force of religious teachings can make a difference are climate change and fighting corruption. Hopefully thoughtful engagement and dialogue can also highlight areas of tension and nuance and lead toward better solutions.

“Religion,” we are frequently reminded, is not a monolith or a tendency. “People of faith” are not a separate category of beings. No one is exempt from the search for meaning nor immune to the beliefs and cultures they inherit with their community. Each discussion that presses for more precise definitions of religion, faith, or spirituality underscores the diversity of traditions falling under these various headings. Efforts to pin down precisely what is meant and who is involved can be elusive. Care and humility are essential in engaging religious actors. Recognizing these complexities goads us to explore more creatively and deeply, because the religious dimensions, long ignored or distorted, shine light on the ways in which different elements of the web are connected.

During the 10-year Berkley Center journey, we were reminded constantly that, in relation to the global challenges of religion and world affairs, “religion is part of the problem even as it is part of the solution.” The dark side of religion is most evident in, for example, religious and cultural traditions that contribute to stigma against people living with AIDS or tuberculosis or LGBTQ people or fatalism in the face of inequity and injustice. With the sharp focus today on religiously linked conflicts, these dark sides are prominent. But the religious dimensions of global challenges highlight the enormous and often unappreciated value that religious communities and inspiration can and do bring. The bounties include insight and inspiration, courage and persistence, the mobilization of hands to achieve what seems impossible, a capacity to build richly diverse communities that include people from different faith traditions, and a joy that gives meaning and substance to life.

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Looking Back, Looking Ahead: Webs that Connect Development, Peace, and Religion