Faith and Development Institutions: A Missed Partnership

By Kristin Jaffe
Contributing Writer
February 1st, 2017

As Katherine Marshall, the former Director of the Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics at the World Bank, once stated, “faith and development institutions seek to work with poor communities to improve… lives and ensure them a better future.” Faith and development institutions can work in opposition or in parallel. Only rarely do they work together to achieve a common goal. Through true cooperation, however, there are opportunities to benefit everyone.

Historically, development organizations have failed to work with faith groups because development organizations have concerns about the motives or methods of religious institutions. Many development practitioners believed that faith institutions stood against development goals or thought the religious agenda conflicted with the development agenda.1 While that view is less prevalent today, there is still a large concern that faith institutions serve followers or provide services only to gain converts. In addition, the current human rights approach to development tends to exclude religion because, from the point of view of Western development practitioners, religion should play no part in law.

This view, however, ignores that in many countries, people view their rights as God-given, not secular. Many development practitioners also assume that religion dies out as societies modernize, but that is clearly not the case. The number of religious practitioners has continued to grow as the world modernizes. The number of Christians and Muslims in the world greatly increases as more poor people are born into or find religion. The development world needs to work with faith institutions to better serve those in need.

Faith institutions are already helping to serve the poor through development work. They run hospitals, schools, and orphanages, protect forests and watersheds, assist during and after conflicts, and provide many other services to developing communities.2 In these endeavors, faith communities are often successful. For example, faith institutions worked together on Jubilee 2000, a global campaign coinciding with the Catholic Church’s Great Jubilee of the year 2000 to encourage restructuring or forgiveness of developing countries’ debt to help ease their burden and improve their chances of future development success.3

People trust faith organizations, and faith organizations generally have more access to communities than development organizations through existing churches, hospitals, schools, orphanages, and other services that are traditionally provided by faith institutions. As Gerrie ter Haar, the Chair of Religion and Development at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague, argues, “[p]eople’s understanding of human rights is informed and shaped by their own worldview, which is often a religious one.”4

Partnerships between faith and development institutions exist, albeit minimally, in the sphere of research and dialogue. While instructive partnerships, such as the World Faiths Development Dialogue, which was created by World Bank leaders, are very helpful in encouraging dialogue, more needs to be done on the ground. Faith and development organizations should work together to pursue practical, country-level development projects, with an emphasis on service delivery.5

While the work being done by many existing faith institutions is beneficial to small-scale development, collaboration with development organizations could help faith-based institutions provide greater and quicker change to communities. Collaboration would grant faith-based institutions a larger pool of donors, such as governments, as well as practical assistance from development professionals with a wealth of experience in the field. Development organizations, in turn, would gain increased access to the communities that they otherwise may not be able to reach. This collaboration would jointly help faith and development institutions advance toward common goals of reducing poverty, helping marginalized communities, and providing social services typically overlooked by developing countries’ governments.

Many of these ideas already are being put into practice, but not effectively and not at the scale needed to bring about real change. The World Bank has reached a consensus with many religious institutions on the principles of a global ethic, a collection of values and principles shared by many of the world’s religions, but the practical applications have been minimal. Many of the preconceived biases that development practitioners have about faith institutions, and vice-versa, still persist. It will take a concentrated effort to see real change but, if enacted, we could see real improvement in developing communities through increased and improved service provision.


1.Banchoff, Thomas F. Religious Pluralism, Globalization, and World Politics. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
3. Ter Haar, Gerrie. Religion and Development: Ways of Transforming the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. Print.
5. Ibid.

Kristin Jaffe is a first year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University studying international development.

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