The importance of involving communities and civil society organizations in development features prominently in the discourse of international agencies. Community involvement is vital, we hear, to reforming dysfunctional education systems, fighting disease, and overcoming corruption. But we hear much more about communities than from them.
How to reach the communities, and how to know if they have been reached? The answer, according to the Most Reverend Njongonkulu Ndungane, the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, is involve churches, mosques and other religious institutions as core partners, for implementation of programs and for monitoring of the development process. In Africa, he argued in a well-attended CGD event last week, religious life is a fundamental dimension of people’s lives. Houses of worship, however humble, provide education and information, community cohesion, and defense against the vagaries of government. (See One Year After the G8 Gleneagles Summit: Implementation, African Development and the African Monitor for transcript and video of the event.) Faith-based institutions can play a vital role in promoting development, and will do so more and more, as the Archbishop implements the African Monitor, a home-grown effort to track the effects of development policies at the local level through the region’s network of religious organizations.
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Illinois) made a similar point in an NPR interview on Friday about his recent call to involve religious groups in social and economic development. “We make a mistake when we fail to acknowledge the power of faith in people’s lives,” Obama said, discussing politics and religion in the U.S. Instead, he said, people who want to make the world a better place can work collaboratively across religious perspectives to tackle hard problems of the day: the environment, urban poverty, international protection of human rights, the AIDS crisis in Africa and many others. Instead of being distracted by the political use of religion as a source of division, Obama said, “we need to forge some working coalitions that actually get some things done.”
After years of ideologically polarized debates about religion in public policy - both within the U.S., and in relations between the U.S. and the developing world - it is refreshing indeed to hear such constructive discussions about how spiritual and religious life and leadership can contribute, at both global and local levels.