Fire source and peace force: The role of religion in development

Since 9/11, religion has been considered a source of conflict. But Germany’s Development Ministry wants to reevaluate the the positive role it can play in developing countries.

“Religion can build bridges and motivate people to work for the benefit of others and the environment. We have neglected this potential for far too long,” Development Minister Gerd Müller said.

Meanwhile, a research project conducted between 2008 and 2015 by the Hamburg-based Giga Institute found that, precisely in Africa, religion tends to play a more destructive role in 22 out of 48 conflicts.

However, the project’s director Matthias Basedau writes, almost no research has been done on the role of religion in coping with conflicts.

Basedau said he also believes religion is not only an accelerant in conflicts, but should be viewed as a positive force more often.

In a new research project, Basedau hopes to find out under which conditions religion strengthens development or tends to hinder it.

By the end of this year, the Development Ministry (BMZ) intends to develop a plan on how religion can be better used as a “positive creative power” for development processes.

For 50 years, the Ministry has been financially supporting church-related development efforts all over the world, with €218 million spent on such projects in 2014 alone. But now, for the first time, there is an interest in finding out what effect this support is actually having on the ground.

Last week, the topic was semi-publicly discussed on two occasions: at the KfW development bank and at Misereor, the Catholic aid organisation.

Martin Mauthe-Käter from the BMZ reported that the World Bank, the British Development Ministry and other global donors have, for several years, been devoting more thought to the role religion plays in development.

As a result, the German development organisation Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) has been tasked with identifying cases that demonstrate when faith-based development organisations are especially successful.

It is clear that aid organisations run by either churches or other religious communities often enjoy a special status in authoritarian and repressive states.

In this way, they are able to pursue concrete social and development work, even when secular NGOs can no longer do so – or when government development aid cannot be implemented for political reasons. Still, Bundestag MP Claudia Lücking-Michel, from the centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is certain that religion’s role is almost always ambivalent.

In many places, religion only fuels conflicts over resources such as water, pasture, land, oil, and minerals, or in political conflicts that often occur along ethnic divisions. Christians and Muslims often end up facing off in armed opposition or becoming victims of one another.

So far, the BMZ has not made it clear where it stands on Islamic aid organisations.

The British, on the other hand, screen each of these groups first for terrorist supporters.

If the BMZ hopes to re-evaluate the role of religion in development, it will not be able to avoid taking a position.

The EU is present in crisis zones around the world including Syria, Afghanistan, the occupied Palestinian territory, the Sahel region and many other parts of Africa, central and South America and south-east Asia.

It provides development assistance and humanitarian relief, with a stated focus on the full disaster cycle – prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. In 2012 alone, the EU provided assistance to 122 million people in over 90 non-EU countries.

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