Why are cultural practices barriers to development


When asked what welfare means for her, a poor peasant woman in Bangladesh answered: “A full stomach, time to pray and a bamboo frame to sleep.” This statement can be found in the three-volume World Bank study “Voices of the Poor”, the is based on the questioning of thousands of people from the poorest sections of the population about their understanding of poverty and well-being. (Narayan et al, 2002) It proves that the poor do not distinguish between material and spiritual development and thus calls into question many technocratic development programs.

In the coexistence of people from the micro to the macro level - from the village community to state politics - religion is a powerful cultural factor. Religious ideas provide answers to questions about the meaning of life and are a means of survival in extreme situations. They have helped shape traditional agricultural cultures and health practices, in which religious rituals play a major role. Religions influence the coexistence of the village communities up to the state government level.

There can be great differences between the official teachings of the major religious communities and the everyday beliefs of people. Rituals and sacred places in rural areas are more important to them than the official doctrines, which they often hardly know. Indigenous cultures have mixed with the major religions; in the Andes and Brazil, people continue to worship their deities in the form of Catholic saints.

Religions never exist in their pure form, but only in specific socio-cultural forms. The long history and the worldwide spread of the great religions has inevitably led to immersion in very different sociocultural contexts, which in turn have a great influence on the respective concrete manifestations. For the practice of development cooperation, it is not the knowledge of their dogmas and official teachings that is decisive, but the everyday beliefs of the people. Religions are not essentialist, self-sufficient units, but rather they are threads in the fabric of the respective cultural environment.

Religion - a taboo in development cooperation?

These realities contrast with the fact that religious factors have been ignored, if not even taboo, in large parts of development cooperation. Reasons for ignoring religious factors can be found in the history of international development policy. US President Truman launched it in his second inauguration speech in 1949 as a secular modernization program based on the western model: “[…] we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas ". (Holenstein 2010, pp. 12-14) Technical modernization processes should, among other things, replace the "backward" traditional agricultural cultures and their religious ideas. From level to level the "underdeveloped" peoples should rise to the level of economic growth in the age of mass consumption. (Rostow 1960) From the beginning, ethnocentric ideas of superiority were anchored in the genes of development cooperation.

In the “Handbuch Eine Welt” published in 2009, Claus Leggewie diagnosed the consequences: “With secularization, religious dimensions seemed to have generally disappeared from foreign policy, development policy and international relations, as the textbooks for these subjects also show […].” (Leggewie 2009)

As early as the turn of the millennium, Kurt Alan Ver Beek had provoked the professional world with the thesis that spirituality was a taboo in development cooperation. He presented evidence from theory and practice. (Beek / Alan 2002) In their program dialogues in 2003, Swiss development organizations and the SDC also found that the state SDC (originally “Service for Technical Cooperation”) had been cooperating with mission societies and the new denominational aid organizations since the beginning of Swiss development cooperation. However, in the history of their forty years of cooperation, the SDC and secular and church-based NGOs have never systematically dealt with the ambivalent influences religious factors on their programs. They therefore decided to work on the topic of “Development and Religion” as part of a joint project. It should enable the examination of the positive and negative energies of religious-cultural factors and contribute to integrating the topic into the discourse and practice of the development programs. The focus should be on questions about how to deal creatively with the potentials and risks of religion and spirituality.

Exemplary for best practice

Bulletin 113, which Medicus Mundi Switzerland published in August 2009 on “Culture and Condoms”, is full of reflections on “best practice” in dealing with the ambivalence of religious ideas and practices. Laws that are proclaimed as God's will, such as abstinence before marriage from the evangelical side or the prohibition of condoms even for married couples by the Catholic hierarchy, endanger the lives of young people as well as that of mothers who have been infected by their HIV-positive husbands become. The interpretation of AIDS as God's punishment leads to the exclusion of people with AIDS from the family and religious community. On the other hand, belief can open the door for commitment to people affected by AIDS and for the acceptance of anti-AIDS campaigns.

The bulletin mentioned shows clearly what can be achieved by working with religious opinion leaders if they are empowered to deal constructively with the dilemmas between their beliefs and safe sexual practices, between “lawful” in the sense of faith and “safe”. "[...] what is culturally, legally, religiously, or politically correct, acceptable or lawful may not always be safe in terms of HIV infection, transmission or prevention. And to be within God’s will, the sexual practice must be lawful; to escape HIV infection the sexual practice must be safe too. »(Bulletin 113, p. 35)

Perceiving the developmental relevance of religious factors

In this new discourse, state development cooperation and secular and religious NGOs are confronted with the fact that the modern, secular and Eurocentric development model continues to operate as a hidden norm. Katherine Marshall, who was responsible for ethical and religious questions at the World Bank in the Wolfensohn era, encountered a cluster of prejudices that can be summed up as the fact that religion is conflicting, dangerous and outdated.

It is not easy to thaw and reduce this unreflected mental resistance and deficits in perception in development cooperation personnel. Our staff - including those of the denominational aid organizations, the so-called Faith Based Organizations (FBO) - have experienced their socialization in an increasingly secular environment. Many employees have internalized the assumption of 20th century sociology that religion will disappear from the public as a relevant factor in the wake of modernization processes. In addition, there is the fact that the methods of development cooperation and their technical terminology are largely shaped by rationality based on modernization theory. They often lack the vocabulary to reflect on the religious practice and spirituality of the target population - and those responsible for the program lack the time.

We are faced with a fundamental dilemma. For the vast majority of people in the vicinity of the development programs, religion and spirituality are integral parts of their holistic, culturally shaped worldview, to which the usual separation of religious and secular, of spirit and matter is alien. They are called “actors in development”. Of course, this remains a euphemism if the spiritually influenced ideas of the population are not taken into account and viewed as relevant in development cooperation programs.

Approach on a case-by-case basis

The development of case studies has proven its worth as a methodical approach to sharpen the ability to perceive the role and effects of religious-spiritual factors in cooperation with the partners on site and to draw consequences for the project work in the respective program environment. The studies carried out by those responsible for the program in the course of the “Development and Religion” project (see SDC brochures “Development and Religion”) confirm the importance of contextuality and the necessity of approach from case to case, as suggested by the sociologist of religion Peter L . Berger has suggested: “In assessing the role of religion in the affairs of this world there is no alternative to a nuanced case by case approach. But one statement can be made with great confidence: Those who neglect religion in their analyzes of contemporary affairs do so at great peril. "(Berger 1999)

The methodological prerequisites for taking a closer look “from case to case” are usually present with the specialist knowledge of quality management / program cycles (PCM). The following three step has proven itself in practice:
• Potentials and risks of religion and spirituality in the respective context analyze.
• Use methods and instruments for impact monitoring.
• Draw conclusions for the constructive handling of ambivalence and dilemma situations.

Box 1

Two case studies published as part of the “Development and Religion” project deal with issues from the health sector.

“Witchcraft and HIV / AIDS. In the dilemma between traditional practices and concepts of modernity. "

The evangelical "Mission 21" dealt intensively with the taboo, stigmatization and exclusion of HIV / AIDS sufferers in Africa. This problem area also includes the influence of witchcraft phenomena as the evocation of evils. It is about different patterns of interpretation of health and illness in African and European cultures, which collide in their surroundings. mission 21 is directly confronted with this in its cooperation with African churches and has dealt with these different views with African partners and experts. The case study presents considerations for dealing with the irresolvable dilemmas in the triangle between the socio-cultural meaning of witchcraft, biomedical knowledge and enlightened theology. As a result, mission 21 presents criteria for projects to combat HIYV / AIDS. (See SDC / Reader 3)

El laberinto de la curación

This study was carried out as part of the research project “Religion and Development from the Andes Perspective”, which the Instituto Superior Ecuménico Andino de Teología (ISEAT) carried out in Bolivia. The study analyzes the religious “market” in the two cities of La Paz and El Alto, both of which have high levels of indigenous immigration from the countryside. The research team found that people in search of recovery and healing tread a true crossroads or a “labyrinth”, in which, depending on their purchasing power, they go from shamans to natural healers and acapuncturists to biomedicals (in the sense of Western medicine) or finally end up at a charismatic or neo-Pentecostal healing service. However, many do not manage to exit the labyrinth, and the various “medical systems” turn out to be completely separate or even parallel logics of healing and recovery. The state is conducting a curiously twofold discourse: it promotes alternative medicine (natural medicine, shamanism, kallawaya) in the sense of lip service, but brings Cuban doctors into the country who exclusively practice biomedicine based on chemical drugs and technology. (See SDC / Reader 3)


Consequences for practice

Secular and religious organizations should consider contextually important religious factors in their program cycles (PCM) and train employees to deal constructively with the potentials and risks of religious factors in their work areas. At least as important as basic religious knowledge is personal openness in order to experience what religion and spirituality mean for the people with whom you work. This results in the willingness to develop one's own perceptual abilities and thereby shed the glasses of one's own prejudices. Anyone who tries so hard to understand the inner view of people will also observe that cultures are not essentialist units. People are constantly changing their culture and their religious beliefs by adapting to the challenges of the environment.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has developed methods that are known as “cultural lens”. These methods enable program managers to understand the religious values ​​of the communities and to identify influential local power structures and religious and political interest groups. In campaigns against female genital mutilation, for example, these may be midwives, village elders, priests, women religious and imams who are important as allies of the program - or who must be taken seriously as opponents. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, the director of the UNFPA who made this approach a breakthrough, writes: “In our development efforts in poor communities, we need to be able to work with people at their own level and to find our common ground. We may not believe in what they do, we may not agree with them, but we need to have the compassion and commitment to understand them and to support them as they translate universal principles into their own codes, messages and ways of doing things. " (Quoted in: MMS Bulletin 113, p.24) The "24 Tips for Development Practitioners" published by the UN Population Program would deserve to be hung as posters in our offices. (MMS Bulletin 113, pp. 24-31) Only the first two are cited here:

• Invest time in knowing the culture in which you are operating.
• Hear what the community has to say.

* Anne-Marie Holenstein was the first secretary of the Bern Declaration (1969–1974) and there until 1982 head of the “Nutrition - Agriculture - Ecology” department. Editor at radio in the areas of agriculture, culture and the Third World, 1995–2000 director of “Fastenopfer”. Now working as a freelancer Contact: [email protected]

Box 2

References to publications

Anne-Marie Holenstein and others: Religions - Potential or Danger? Religion and Spirituality in Theory and Practice of Development Cooperation.
Religions are vital political and cultural forces. Nevertheless, their role in the theory and practice of development cooperation has long been neglected. The publication investigates the causes and describes the processes that led to the topic now being on the international agenda. It arose out of practice and was written for practice.
Case studies show ways of dealing constructively with potentials and risks. Supplemented with methods of impact monitoring, the publication is also of interest to politicians, educators, sociologists of religion and theologians who grapple with the ambivalence of religion.

ReligionsRecht im Dialog, Vol. 9, 208 pp., 29.90 SFr.
ISBN 978-3-643-80036-7
LIT Verlag Berlin 2010

At the SDC, the results of the “Development and Religion” project are available in the following publications:

The role and importance of religion and spirituality in development cooperation
This reflection and working paper contains the results of the first project phase. It is available in German, English, French and Spanish.

Reader 1. Experiences from Christian environments
Five case studies on dealing with potentials and risks

Reader 2. Experiences from Islamic environments
Four case studies on dealing with potentials and risks

Reader 3. Experiences from church cooperation and endogenous cultures
Five case studies on dealing with potentials and risks

Final Document Development and Religion: Implications for Practice. Methods and tools
The final document is also available in French.

Sources of supply for SDC publications
Print versions: [email protected]
Internet: http://www.deza.admin.ch/de/Home/Dokumentation/Publikationen



  • Berger, Peter L. (ed.): The Desecularization of the World. Resurgent Religion and World Politics. Washington, D.C. 1999
  • Culture and Condoms. Medicus Mundi Switzerland, Bulletin 113
  • Holenstein, Anne-Marie: Religions - Potential or Danger? LIT-Verlag Berlin 2010
  • Leggewie, Claus: Religion and transnational world society. In: Meyns, Peter (ed.), Handbuch eine Welt. Wuppertal 2009
  • Narayan, Deepa [et al.]: Voices of the Poor. 3 vols. Oxford 2000-2002
  • Step model of the economic theorist, Walt W. Rostow 1960
  • Ver Beek, Kurt Alan: Spirituality - a Development Taboo. In: Development and Culture. A Development in Practice Reader. Oxford 2002