Book Review: Religion and Development
Religion and Development: Ways of Transforming the World, ed. Gerrie ter Haar Hurst 2011.
What on earth is spiritual capital? The short, but not very helpful, answer is a sub-set of social capital. “A type of power that enables people to take control of their own lives by reference to an invisible world...but it is also transformative power” gives a longer answer - from the editor of this collection of articles. But that might also apply to the power contained in the atom. What is the power in the particles whizzing round in the CERN reactor, the sub-atomic equivalent of the Alpenhorn, I hear the readers ask. And is the Higgs-Boson to be found in the visible or should we look in the invisible world?
The problem with using the concept of capital here is that is creates an extended metaphor. Very few people would recognise this metaphor as what they would want to say about their faith, or as expressing adequately their religious motivation. People “invest in their relations with spiritual entities with a view to improving the quality of their lives, a person who invests part of his capital in the invisible world can expect to profit from it in the visible or material world”. Really? Not in the world religions they don’t. Exception for the Prosperity Churches that is.
Anyway, “social capital” is in a sense a tautology. The notion of what is capital is socially agreed, a social construct; at its most recognisable a promise – to pay the bearer – might capture it’s nature. And promises are as social as it gets. Moreover, I am not at all sure Muslims would recognise their relationship with Allah in any meaningful sense as social. More like shirk, anthropomorphic religion, the sin of denying the total otherness of God.
We are getting nearer to what might be meant by spiritual capital when Gerrie de Haar writes about four kinds of religious resources. She surprisingly does not call them assets. Perhaps a more developmentally precise word, following Amartya Sen, would be religious capabilities: religious ideas, religious practices, religious organisation and religious experience. Nothing invisible about the last three and no real reason to give priority to the “invisible” world of ideas in defining the complex reality of religion and faith. Since most religious ideas move via oral traditions into written scriptural or philosophical sources even the belief system of a faith has a concrete visible dimension.
Nonetheless, there is a need for shared working concepts to inform discussion about religion and development. There are not many well elaborated generative ideas in this field. The concept of spiritual capital enables engagement with a secular discourse that rightly wants to know what religion brings to the party (other than the suspicion that it might be a lot of broken glass and trouble). The ability to discuss reasonably and respectfully what this might amount to, for example hope, compassion, trust, integrity, discipline, rooted staying power – it would be nice to write something on development that didn’t use the word sustainability – authority and so on, is vital to the realisation of faith communities’ potential in the realm of human development.
This is where Gerrie de Haar introduces a helpful distinction between additive and integral approaches to religion and development. James Wolfensohn, ex-President of the World Bank, who writes an excellent foreword to the volume, set the ball rolling for the multilateral donors in 1999 with a clear insight that the role of religion had to be factored into developmental thinking. Katherine Marshall provides a very helpful 25 page history of what came next focussed on the World Faiths Development Dialogue. But in most instances the reality was that, at best, donors added religion to a check-list of what had to be ticked if programmes and projects in the developing world were to be effective. You had to take account of all those people engaged in spiritual capital accumulation and socialising with the spirit world, or things might go wrong.
This meant also that funders had to move on from a default position, that only secular Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s) and some Christian ones were supported in their development efforts, to a wider appraisal of the developmental capacity of faith communities around the world, not least Islam. But, of course, religious organisations wanted to be taken seriously, not simply instrumentalised, or required to adopt what they saw as a diminished – secular- vision of human development. And they also wanted the money. Their dream was an integral approach in which religion was treated as a constitutive dimension of integral human development.
We have now reached a moment when a variety of faith inspired development agencies are glimpsing a commonality of purpose and vision. One of the benign bi-products of the tragedy of the AIDS pandemic has been a coming together of faiths around dealing with the HIV virus and its social consequences. This interfaith vision has now encompassed the prevention of malaria deaths, promoted for the past four years by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and by the Centre for Interfaith Action alongside partners in Mozambique, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. The assumption is that donors will feel more comfortable with such initiatives than with funding specific faith communities, and that such interfaith action has dual effects, a more effective response to the parasite and vector and greater social cohesion.
An integral approach to development as envisaged by the faith communities can, though, be a big ask for secular donors. They can live with delivering prayer mats on top of high energy biscuits in disaster relief. But to promote a holistic concept of health and wellbeing, that acknowledges and supports the development of religious or spiritual capabilities in communities, goes much further. The latter is a major demand in the secular culture of much of Europe. It seems much more obvious if you are sitting in an African or Afghan village.
Perhaps the best way to summarise this very diverse collection of articles is to say that they provide what amounts to sixteen different snapshots of the kind of questions and issues that have spun off the pursuit of additive and integral approaches to religion and development. It is heavily weighted towards Christian with some Muslim reflections. It’s origins in the academic culture of the Netherlands is detectable in the choice of contributors. But for those wishing to explore the investment climate for spiritual capital, you could do worse than dipping into it.
Ian Linden, Director of Policy