Religion within development, or development within religion? by Fernande Pool

Religion should not be considered one among many wellbeing dimensions that development enables people to engage in, but one among many ontological sources that enables people to engage in development, Fernande Pool, postdoctoral researcher at the ISS, argues. A truly inclusive and respectful dialogue on development would go beyond a secular/religious binary and allow for alternative sources and conceptualisations, whether embedded in religious or non-religious sources.

What is the place of religion in development? Since the 1970s, development practitioners and theorists have gone ‘beyond GDP’ to describe people’s wellbeing. Committed to value-driven, human development, they have started to pay attention to religion. In human development, religion is no longer merely considered an obstruction to, or instrumental to, development, but itself is a valuable part of wellbeing. Yet, if religion is regarded as one dimension of wellbeing, the development framework usually remains secular, whereas this does not align with the lived reality everywhere. So I argue that we still need a cognitive turn.

Engaging development through religion

My contribution is based on two years of ethnographic research with devout Muslims in an Indian village I call Joygram. I suggest that religion should, when appropriate, not (only) be considered a sub-category of development—something development allows people to engage in. Instead, it can form the basis from which to engage with development to begin with. Human development implies some normative ideas of what being human means and what kind of society would allow one to be ‘more human’.

For the research participants, notions of what being human means, and the ethical freedom to discuss these normative ideas, are embedded in the Islamic dharma. To approach religion as a sub-category in an otherwise secular development framework excludes these religious life experiences and ideas from the outset. The scope of this blog is merely to show how different ontological notions underpinning human development can be, and that a proper understanding of these differences requires a cognitive turn.

Including different ontologies

A next question to ask would be: if secular and religious ideas of being would be considered as equally valid in an inclusive dialogue on worthwhile development, would development interventions be not only morally better as a process but also better in terms of their outcomes? A brief example from Joygram seems to suggest so.

In Joygram, the values driving development, including conceptualisations of the human person, life, and society as mentioned above, are embedded in what I call the Islamic dharma: the locally specific, all-encompassing ethics of justice and order to which religion—in this case Islam—is integral. Muslims in Joygram foster a dynamic concept of the human as emerging from divine submission and constant interactions within social networks. First, humanity emerges from the acknowledgment of the eternal indebtedness to the creator-god for the gift of life. Subsequently, the being is made a ‘human person’ through exchanges within a network of social relationships.

So, Joygramis believe that relationality comes into existence before the individual. This doesn’t take away, however, that every person has a right to the same human dignity. It is just that the human is conceptualised differently from, for instance, the human as a sovereign individual in most liberal theories. What it means to be human is deeply embedded in dharma, which includes religion. So without the notion of dharma as the basis for dialogue, one cannot even begin to talk about humans, let alone human development. Indeed, outside dharma, there is no humanity, because there are no values. So, if development in Joygram is to be worthwhile, it has to be embedded in dharma, too. Development dialogues outside the space of dharma would be reduced to purely technocratic and instrumental measures.

The need for a cognitive turn

A dialogue on development that would include and respect the Islamic dharma would require a cognitive turn, otherwise the starting position of a discussion is still within the hegemonic secular ontology. This is not unlike the cognitive turn required to shift the focus from GDP to individual capabilities. Perhaps development should not merely take religious values into account, or enable or liberate people to engage in religion. A development dialogue could be more inclusive if it acknowledges that the entire meaning of the world, the human, and key values like freedom and dignity may be informed by religious ideas and experiences. This means allowing for alternative conceptualisations of being human, but also of autonomy, relationships, and so on.

This does not mean, however, that universal values have to be discarded in favour of cultural relativism. It means, rather, that certain universal values or development goals, such as Martha Nussbaum’s list of basic capabilities, may be pursued on the basis of different ontological grounds. The Joygrami worldview and Nussbaum’s capability approach are not incompatible, even if they are based on different notions of what being human means. Yet in Joygram, the capabilities would be striven after within dharma, not as side by side with dharma, because then they would lose their ultimate value.

I reiterate that religion is more a complex social phenomenon than a static and compartmentalised set of norms and symbols, and dynamic religious ideas of being and sociality interact with ideas of being and sociality outside of that discreet religion—if there ever was one. Religions constantly change, partly because of those interactions, but also because of internal reasoning. Moreover, religion is nothing special, yet central: it seems likely that every human being lives with ideas of being and sociality, whether consciously or not, and there are always elements that transcend everyday life, whether directly associated with a particular religion or not. A truly inclusive and respectful dialogue on development would go beyond a secular/religious binary and allow for alternative sources and conceptualisations, whether embedded in religious or non-religious sources.

Image Credit: Jorge Royan / / CC BY-SA 3.0

About the author:

Picture-d5a9-41db-ab99-ac23fa465eb8.jpgFernande Pool is a Marie Skłodowksa Curie “Leading” Fellow at ISS. Her current ethnographic research with Muslims in the Netherlands aims to destabilise hegemonic conceptualisations of religion and secularism, wellbeing and development. Her PhD thesis, completed in March 2016 at the London School of Economics anthropology department, explored the ethical life of Muslims in West Bengal, India. She is the co-founder and co-director of Lived Religion Project and AltVisions



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