By Olivia Wilkinson, Emma Tomalin and Jennifer Philippa Eggert
This blog post is the first one in a series that captures some of the learning that took place during three roundtables that we organised at the Annual Conference of the Development Studies Association in June 2021. The roundtables brought together researchers, practitioners and theologians from Africa, Asia, Europe and North America who work at the intersection of decolonisation, development and faith. Our work also builds on the Fair and Equitable Initiative of the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities.
Dominant approaches to decolonisation and development: is there space for faith?
The last year has seen a renewed focus on the question of decolonising development; however, debates about decolonisation and development are not new. What do we mean by ‘decolonising’ development? How do we decolonise development? Is it possible to decolonise development given entrenched systems and unwillingness to cede power? A range of different actors have been involved in discussing these questions in recent years. However, most of the time, debates about decolonisation in general and decolonising development in particular tend to be dominated by secular approaches. In that regard, they are similar to mainstream development spaces that also often exclude and sideline faith actors. Where faith actors are part of development debates and approaches, the most local faith voices have been marginalised.
Where faith actors are part of development debates and approaches, the most local faith voices have been marginalised.
Preference has been shown for faith actors with global links who are already embedded within the international development machinery. These international faith actors become part of the development system that can oppress and discriminate.
Faith actors’ contributions to decolonisation and development
Despite this secular dominance of international development spaces, faith actors are integral actors in development and humanitarian action, tend to be deeply rooted in their communities, and many of them have been at the forefront of developing, advocating for, and practicing more fair, equitable and locally-led approaches to their work - even if they do not necessarily refer to this work as ‘decolonisation’. The majority of people worldwide identify with a faith. The role of faith is often particularly strong in the so-called ‘Global South’. In many contexts, local capacities, social capital, leadership, expertise, networks and service provision are faith-based. Ignoring the contribution of faith in development and humanitarian action devalues pivotal dimensions of people’s lived experiences and diminishes their sources of power, legitimacy, accountability and resilience. An inability to speak authentically as faith actors contributes to the erasure of non-white cultures and non-Western faiths.
Ignoring the contribution of faith in development and humanitarian action devalues pivotal dimensions of people’s lived experiences and diminishes their sources of power, legitimacy, accountability and resilience.
Complicity of faith actors in racism, white supremacy and (neo)colonialism
Yet faith actors are not immune from anti-racist and decolonial critique, and often have complex and contested histories that involve colonialism, missionaries, and conversions. Faith communities have a mixed record when it comes to challenging racism and other forms of systemic discrimination. Faith-based organisations perpetuate the same racist and (neo)colonial development and faith legacies as the broader aid/development sector, by failing to acknowledge colonial legacies, neo-colonial practices, the dominance of Western theological constructs, complicity in broader racist structures, and hierarchical power dynamics.
Engagement on what terms?
Part of the argument about engaging with faith actors in development has often been about decolonisation in the sense of recognising alternative epistemologies reflected in religious traditions alongside the liberal secular tradition. However, it seems as though the engagement between religions and development in the last 20 years has often been on the terms of the secular liberal tradition and is being funnelled to reach secular neo-liberal goals (i.e. co-opting faith actors to reinforce and implement secular development goals) – thus reinscribing a form of colonialism. How do we move beyond this? How do we ‘decenter’ development? What role do faith actors play in this? In the process of engagement it is important to challenge the concept of religion we often use in our work.
In the process of engagement it is important to challenge the concept of religion we often use in our work.
Rather than recognising the diversity of different faith traditions and approaches, global development actors often lump various actors together under the banner of ‘religion’ for convenience into a Christianity-shaped box, leaving little space for other faith communities, different expressions of the same faith in various contexts or engagement with forms of cultural and social life that do not fit current definitions of what counts as ‘religion’ (e.g. indigenous or traditional ‘religions’). This is problematic, as the nexus between religion, development and decolonisation tends to look very different from one context to another and depending on the positionality of the people who engage with.
Rethinking the secular-religion binary
Decolonising development also requires rethinking the binary between the religious and the secular, a construction that has been fundamental to the logic of the contemporary secular development project in its marginalisation of religion, and which can be traced back to the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries. Secularisation is certainly a strong element of the European experience, whereby religion has become increasingly divorced from other areas of life, diminishing in significance in terms of how people make sense of the world and the power of its institutions over people’s lives. However, for many communities in the Global South - the ‘objects’ of conventional development processes - such a separation of the religious from the secular is much less strongly felt. The assumption that development will result in secularisation and that therefore religion is not a relevant factor for modern, enlightened societies is another feature of the colonial development experience that fails to account for the ongoing relevance of religion in people’s lives. What are the implications of this and how can it be addressed? How can faith be brought into development in ways that are decolonial and non-instrumentalising, and don’t assume that secularisation is inevitable?
The role of research and researchers in faith, development, and decolonisation
The focus on evidence in development work has also paralleled and influenced the rise of evidence on religions and development. Yet who does this evidence work for and who gets to set the research questions and evidence parameters? Ultimately, it is Western donors and academics who are mostly setting research agendas. Researchers in the countries of research tend to be marginalised. Likewise, perspectives outside usual Western evidence paradigms are often not included, so local faith perspectives on what they would like to learn and what should be researched are not heard. We acknowledge, likewise, that this blog post is written by white Western researchers, and as such, this is a self-critique as much as a critique of others too.
Debating faith, development and decolonisation
As a way of beginning the conversation about the intersection of faith, development and decolonisation, the issues and questions raised above only scratch the surface of the debates that need to be given space to reconsider the relationships between faith, development and decolonisation. We welcome additional contributions to this space. Please feel free to contact the organisers if you would like to participate in this important discussion.
 We speak of ‘faith’ rather than ‘religion’ to stress that we are interested in both personal beliefs and organised religion. The use of the term faith also reflects the fact that it is the term predominantly used in international development and humanitarianism - e.g. to refer to ‘faith-based organisations’. We acknowledge the problematic history of the term ‘faith’ which has often been used to refer to Christian beliefs only. We approach the term from a universal perspective.
 We use the term ‘faith actor’ to describe individuals or collectives whose actions are motivated or inspired by religious faith. This can include individuals on the community level, formal and informal leaders, loose local initiatives but also formalised organisations, such as collectives of worshippers or faith-based international NGOs. Using this term we acknowledge its fuzzy nature and that the boundaries between ‘faith actors’ and ‘secular’ organisations are often not as clear-cut as one might think.