Introducing the State of the Evidence in Religions and Development

Dr. Olivia Wilkinson

Director of Research, JLI

This blog series will introduce and summarise every chapter of the JLI’s 2022 Edition of the State of the Evidence in Religions and Development. The full report and chapters are available at their dedicated web page here. A new blog on each chapter of the series will launch every month in the first half of 2023. This is the first blog post to introduce the series and summarise the opening chapter, which introduces evidence on religions and development in general.

A couple of years ago, I received an email from a development practitioner asking for the “evidence” on the role of religions in international development. How should I respond to this request? On one hand, you could write a PhD dissertation on evidence in this field (and I have!). On the other hand, this practitioner only wanted a few key pieces of evidence to direct their thinking about engaging with faith actors as partners for their development work. This demonstrates the fine line we try to walk at JLI – collating the breadth and depth of evidence available, while then communicating in ways that are accessible and concise for busy practitioners and policy makers. 

“Evidence” holds value in the development world as a form of proving the relative worth of a type of intervention.

But “evidence” is a buzzword with various interpretations – a recommendation from a trusted colleague is enough “evidence” in many cases for someone to make a decision. Yet evidence standards need to be stronger than that to demonstrate the contributions of different types of development interventions. So, mostly when we talk about evidence, we mean findings from research that is rigorous, explains its methods, and undergoes review.

This type of evidence in religions and development was not common until relatively recently. It is in the last 20 years or so that more has emerged. So what is “religions and development”? It is the study of any and all religious beliefs and practices as they relate to people’s work to improve and protect human dignity, wellbeing, and society. This is a wide field, potentially, but in particular the focus of religions and development research is on the work of international development organizations and their partnerships with faith actors, ranging from small, local faith groups to large faith-based organizations. 

In the early days of this work, religions were mostly ignored in development research. In the 90s and 2000s this started to reverse, particularly after 9/11, but also building on research and discussion that had been growing in the previous decade. A lot of the work at this time was trying to make the case that international development should pay attention to religions. Projects from the World Bank and the UK’s Department of International Development (DfID) provided many case studies showing how religions were already involved in the day-to-day work of development. Books argued that the complexity and nuances of religions must be understood, encouraging engagement with religion “in its entirety and not only to the extent that it is conducive or detrimental to pre-defined development goals.”  

From 2010 to the present, research in religions and development has considerably grown. There are several handbooks and special journal issues on the subject, and now there is a dedicated journal launched in 2022. The research has been increasingly interested in investigating and critiquing religious engagement in international development. Researchers noticed that research in this area had been too focused on how to instrumentally work with religions (i.e., co-opt or use), too focused only on faith-based organizations, which are in fact only a small segment of all types of faith actors, and too quick to separate religions from development norms, setting up an us vs. them approach (i.e., religions vs. development). 

There are some common themes in all religions and development evidence so far. Evidence repeatedly shows that religions have assets that are important for development, from the trust and authority of religious leaders and institutions (e.g., 2014-15 Ebola response), to their access to remote locations and groups, their financial clout, and their volunteer and social networks to reach out to a large number and diverse range of people. There is more evidence in some areas, such as health and HIV/AIDS response, since faith-based work in these areas has been prominent for decades (and even centuries in the case of health care provision from religious institutions). Other aspects of interest include theological approaches to development and the difficulties with proselytism and conditional aid from faith actors. Current trends include a focus on local faith actors, following broader interest in localisation and decolonisation, faith-sensitive psychosocial support as one of the clearest areas in which spirituality comes into people’s lives, and the human right of Freedom of Religion and Belief to encourage discussion of minority religious identities. 

This is just a short overview of some of the most resonant and important debates in this field of research. The evidence base on religions and development grows stronger every year as more research helps us understand how to improve religious engagement. The rest of the blog posts in this series will go into deeper dives on specific subject areas, including health, gender, peace and conflict, children, refugees, and the environment. In responding to the development practitioner mentioned at the beginning, I sent some of the articles linked in this blog post. But more than anything, it made me realise that we needed a report such as the State of the Evidence in Religions and Development to help concisely bring together a huge wealth of information. It was interactions such as these that got the wheels turning, ultimately leading to the publication of the first edition of the report in 2022. 


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