Background

The debate surrounding religion and its importance to a country’s development (and consequently to the success of development policy) is not new. In recent years, traditional reference works on the sociology of religion have been supplemented by numerous studies on the role played by religion in politics and society. We can also draw on many recent empirical analyses of global shifts in values, different forms of secularisation and the impact that religious perspectives on the modern world have on development processes.

It is only in the last few years, however, that attempts have been made to incorporate the formative potential of religion into development work and to systematically expand cooperation with religious partners. Religious organisations (ROs) occupy an important position in many societies. They maintain lasting relationships with people at the local level, predominantly in the form of grassroots movements and often in places where state and private development cooperation agencies have not established a presence. The work of religious organisations is based on their credibility, acceptance and legitimacy. They tend to focus on education, health and emergency aid, and increasingly on efforts to promote greater understanding between different social groups.

Many religious organisations do not systematically evaluate their work, so there are few reliable statistics with which to assess their specific contribution to development cooperation. Based on initial surveys, the results achieved by such organisations are similar in terms of their overall success rate to those achieved by secular organisations. Religious organisations should not be seen as morally superior but instead as development partners whose contributions are of equal importance to those of other organisations. Further research is required in order to establish whether and to what extent ROs can typically add to the wider effort to promote sustainable development.

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Facts and Figures

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Size of Major religious groups

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Importance of Religions

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Age distribution of religious communities
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Stakeholders and international partners

It is only recently that systematic attempts have been made to harness the potential of religion for development purposes and to incorporate it into German development policy. Other donors have treated religious organisations (ROs) and religious communities as ‘agents of change’ for some time. For several years, the World Bank, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs have devoted considerable resources to the issue of religion and sustainable development. Among other things, their experience over this period has shown that:
  • religion is a key element in the lives of very many people and influences the way they act;
  • religion and politics are interconnected in the minds of many people, sometimes in a way that gives cause for concern;
  • in many societies religious organisations are very important and highly regarded as agents of civil society and providers of services;
  • the development results achieved by religious organisations are similar in terms of their overall success rate to those achieved by secular organisations; religious organisations should not be seen as morally superior and their contributions are of equal importance to those of other organisations;
  • past approaches to development have failed to take sufficient account of the importance of religion to individuals and societies;
  • very little information is available on the cooperation between development actors and religious organisations;
  • greater expertise is needed when dealing with religious actors and issues (religious literacy) in order to harness the potential of different religions more effectively; this should be a particular focus in the training of development personnel;
  • although it is often unclear who the legitimate representatives of a religious community are, it is important to identify them as they are the most suitable development partners.

Summary Status quo report (pdf, 1.04 MB, EN)