Sunday, February 4, 2018

Aid Groups Need to Pay More Attention to Religion: Duncan Green

"We never talk about religion in the aid business . . . ‘why not?’”

In the world of international relief and development, Duncan Green is a rock star.

Author of the acclaimed book How Change Happens, Green has been Head of Research for Oxfam in Great Britain since 2004.

It’s a job that enables the highly-respected former aid worker and journalist to travel the world researching, writing and speaking about the best ways to alleviate poverty and combat injustice.

His popular blog, from Poverty to Power, is a must-read for people who work in the relief and development industry.

So when Green—who describes himself as an atheist—says that aid groups, and the governments that support them, need to pay more attention to the role of religion in eradicating global poverty, people take notice.

Religion, he says, “is central to the lives of poor people in a way that governments, aid and NGOs are not. All the research shows that poor people trust religious organizations, turn to them in times of need.”

Research on how poor people see their lives, he adds, “shows absolutely, without a doubt, that the institutions they most relate to . . . are faith organizations.”

When Green was in Winnipeg last fall to launch his new book, I had a brief chance to talk to him. Since our time together was short, we continued via e-mail.

During our exchanges, he noted that one of the first places people often turn to for help during a disaster are “their churches and mosques.”

He shared an example from Indonesia, after an earthquake in 2006.

In one village, Oxfam aid workers asked residents what they most needed to start the rebuilding process. Their answer? A new mosque, to replace the one destroyed by the earthquake.

This wasn’t what the aid workers expected. But they did it—and it made a big difference.

“The community in question was one of the success stories,” he says, noting it rapidly recovered from “both in terms of rebuilding its infrastructure, but also social cohesion and healing after the psychological trauma of the earthquake.”

Religion is also important when it comes to development—something aid groups spend a lot of time thinking about.

What are the best ways to help people change the structures and systems that oppress or prevent them from reaching their potential?

"As we think harder about how change happens, religion keeps cropping up,” Green says.

For him, this includes how religion influences social norms around things like the role of women. 

“Through worship and education they [faith groups] already play a major role in shaping and reshaping norms,” he says.

It is easier for faith groups, which are already respected by poor people, to change behaviours of their adherents than it would be for “secular aid agencies.”

Religion is also important in fragile and dysfunctional states, where government services are absent.

In these situations, “the role of non-state actors such as faith organizations becomes relatively more important in running society,” he says.

Faith groups, he adds, “are more likely to be in the really remote bits of those places, where the state barely penetrates.”

Of course, it’s not all good news; religion can have both a positive and negative impact on aid and development, he says.

Despite that, “if we [aid groups] are serious about development, we need to understand much more about the diversity, divisions and debates within each church on things like women’s roles.”

This is true, he says, “even if, like me, you are a devout atheist.”

But if religion is so important in development, why does it get so little attention in the international aid community?

“The aid system has a secular way of working,” he says, explaining that it has “an enlightenment, secular, rational worldview.”

As a result, the secular presuppositions they operate under can make “automatically alien to the majority of the people we claim to be working for and with,” he says. “There’s a profound contradiction in the secularism that is so deeply rooted in the aid business.”

The way aid groups ignore the role religion plays in the lives of the majority of the world’s poor “has always struck me as profoundly odd,” he says.

"We never talk about it [religion] in the aid business. The question I have is, ‘why not?’”

It would be interesting to hear the answer.  

From the Feb. 3, 2018 Winnipeg Free Press. Photo Credit: Xavier Cervera.

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