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World Bank, faith-based NGOs join forces on anti-poverty mission

A Kenyan boy washes his hands in a water puddle on his way to school in Nairobi's Kibera slum. Associated Press/Photo by Khalil Senosi

World Bank, faith-based NGOs join forces on anti-poverty mission

Religious leaders and presidents of faith-based organizations have signed a joint statement pledging to work to eliminate extreme poverty. This month’s “Ending Extreme Poverty: A Moral and Spiritual Imperative” came out of a roundtable discussion sponsored by the World Bank Group earlier this year.

The statement commits religious leaders and organizations to support only those policies that have had tangible results in the past and also to speak in ways that “compel and challenge others to join in this urgent cause.” The list of signatories includes a variety of religious organizations, from American Jewish World Service to Islamic Society of North America and World Vision International. The document focuses on what the groups deem poverty’s underlying causes: “preventable illness, a lack of access to quality education, joblessness, corruption, violent conflicts, and discrimination against women, ethnic minorities and other groups.”

“If 188 member countries of the World Bank can agree that our mission going forward is to end extreme poverty, it is really important for us to make common cause with religious institutions that have been saying the same thing for millennia,” World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim said at an event announcing the consensus.

Michael Matheson Miller, a research fellow at the Acton Institute and director of the documentary Poverty, Inc., applauded the World Bank’s newfound recognition of religion’s importance in fighting poverty, noting development work historically has neglected two important elements: religion and business.

But the World Bank has come late to the table. In 2001, the World Bank’s Katherine Marshall noted although “religious institutions … have a long-standing and much honored role in development work,” international financial institutions have had only patchy relationships with them.

Things began to change quickly after that. The attitude toward religion and aid changed so much that even unlikely supporters felt free to voice their unqualified support. In 2008, British journalist Matthew Parris, a self-described “confirmed atheist,” penned a noteworthy column in The Times of London. “Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change,” he wrote.

Although not a believer himself, Parris acknowledged the effect Christianity has had on Africa. “Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone, and the machete,” he concluded. In order for a nation to develop, its culture must be transformed, too. “Christianity” of the “post-Reformation and post-Luther” variety does that work, Parris concluded.

Though adding religion into the development equation suggests progress, Miller said the overall approach of institutions like the World Bank is problematic: “The social engineering approaches of these big organizations are being increasingly discredited for their neocolonialist models imposed on developing countries. Christians leaders are jumping on a broken-down bandwagon in an attempt to make themselves relevant.”

For example, this month’s statement includes positions on climate change and income inequality. But a child trying to survive on $1.25 a day—the World Bank’s own definition of extreme poverty—cares little about whether the long-term temperature trends of planet Earth are unsustainable. He wants food.

Miller thinks the current model also fosters the wrong attitude toward the poor, treating them as “objects in a social engineering top-down approach” instead of respecting them as “subjects and protagonists of their own story of development.” But this vision is fundamentally incompatible with the World Bank’s humanitarian social activism—even if it’s accompanied by religious trappings.

James Bruce

James is an associate professor of philosophy at John Brown University and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

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