The influence of culture and religion on development; stimulus or stagnation?November 16, 2005 - nr.42
Conclusions and recommendations
Experience has shown how important it is for development interventions and policy to be compatible with the complex and flexible belief systems of people in developing countries. It is only by taking account of the cultures and religions of all participants that the motivation and energy necessary for sustainable development can be mobilised. The effect of culture and religion on development is crucially bound to circumstances. Despite this, certain general points should still be kept in mind to improve the chance of success.
In the interaction between culture/religion and development, context and local circumstances are critical to the success of the development intervention. A solution that turned out well in one case could have a crippling effect on development in another, and vice versa. Therefore the AIV would suggest that at every level of cooperation, policymakers take time to reflect on possible differences in opinions, perspectives and interests for all participants, and then do the same with shared values. The AIV suggests performing an analysis of the relevant cultural orientations before selecting concrete activities. Since indigenous knowledge is an important source of information about local conditions, it should also be included in the analysis.
A study like the one envisioned here can only come about with the help of local experts and will have to be discussed with representatives of a wide variety of cultural and social groups from the partner country. The relevant civil society groups and NGOs in the Netherlands and – if possible – in the developing countries should be approached and consulted.
In the AIV’s view, an analysis of the cultural context should include:
• the extent to which cultural or religious leaders are open to dialogue;
• the influence and authority of the leadership;
• the extent to which a particular system or organisation promotes social cohesion;
• the scope for and opportunities available to women.
The more direct the influence of a development intervention on people’s daily lives, the more intensive the dialogue will have to be. Although a dialogue on cultural and religious orientation will be less specific for macro-aid or debt relief than for programmes or interventions that play out at local level, cultural differences must always be taken into account.
When the premises of donors and partners are plainly irreconcilable, the dialogue can only go so far. The donor will then have to weigh the pros and cons of pulling out versus trying a new tack. This may require a more active, even activist attitude on the donor’s part. If it is decided to continue the open dialogue with people with very different views, the donor must be as clear as possible in the terminology used and should be prepared to account for its decisions.
The AIV cautions against losing sight of the limits to dialogue. This occurs when the basic principles laid down in the human rights conventions are ignored, or when the partner shows no intention of complying with other Western values and/or prerequisites for a fruitful partnership. In that case the AIV would suggest adopting a more active position and seeking out actors who do aspire to the desired outcome. Such actors should be supported whenever it is feasible and responsible to do so. A great deal can also be accomplished with supplementary enabling policy.
It is not only in the developing countries themselves that the AIV sees fresh opportunities for improving the analysis of the cultural and religious context and the policy dialogue. Changes at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the missions could also generate a better understanding of the importance of culture and religion and a greater knowledge of the subject.
In preparing their Multi-annual Strategic Plans, embassies would be well advised to include proposals for dealing with religious issues in their strategies as well as their analyses. The AIV would also advise those at the ministry and the missions in charge of formulating and implementing development policy to study the principles and methods of intercultural communication. In addition to a brief module on intercultural skills, the training programme for policy officers should also include a more extensive course on religion and culture. This new module should explore intercultural sensitivity and conflict management, so staff are more adept at handling situations involving conflicting cultures. Whenever possible and useful, the official should also learn the local language.
The AIV feels that an intercultural dialogue on the cultural and religious context will greatly increase the chances of a successful development intervention. Issues addressed in such a dialogue should include the values underlying the donors’ choices and the desires and expectations of both parties in the development relationship. After that, donors and partners will need to find the values that unite them. Human rights and progress towards the MDGs should serve as the basis for this discussion. However
there are limits to this dialogue. The challenge lies in striking a balance between acknowledging the other and standing one’s ground.
Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council on International Affairs
2500 EB Den Haag
International Cultural Policy Division
2594 AC Den Haag
In response to the policy document ‘Mutual interests, mutual responsibilities’, I met with the Permanent Committee for Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on 17 November 2003. One of the points raised during the debate was the positive and negative influence of religious and cultural factors on development processes, which should be taken into account when formulating policy on development cooperation.
I responded by stating my interest in this important issue. At the request of the House of Representatives, I have decided to ask the Advisory Council on International Affairs for advice on this matter.
This topic has received attention in recent decades, both in academic circles and within civil society. Though it has long been a subject of historical studies, few of them take sufficient account of the influence of increasing interaction between local, national and global developments in the economic and sociocultural fields. Research has generally focused on explaining development processes or finding reasons for enduring social problems at local and national level.
- What is the influence, in the Council’s view, of cultural and religious value systems on development processes in the context of continuing globalisation of political, economic and cultural factors?
- Is it possible to identify positive and negative factors that can be taken into account when formulating strategies for sustainable and stable socioeconomic development?
- How can the influence of these factors be incorporated into the formulation of development cooperation policies that are based on respect for human rights and the international legal order?
In my view, the aims set out in the policy document ‘Mutual interests, mutual responsibilities’ make it particularly important to focus on ways of taking cultural and religious factors into account in formulating policy on development cooperation.
I am fully aware that these are complex issues and that there are no simple answers. But it is precisely because these issues are so complex and part of a wider problem that extends beyond the limits of development cooperation that I have decided to ask the AIV for advice. In view of the parliamentary agenda, I would ask you to produce the advisory report by autumn 2004, in time for the debate on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ budget.
The President of the House of Representatives of the States General
Cultural Cooperation, Education and Research Department
International Cultural Policy Division
2500 EB Den Haag
30 January 2004
Dr Henk Voskamp
+31 70 348 5564
+31 70 348 4716
Your request on the subject of development cooperation / the influence of cultural and religious factors
Dear Mr President,
During the debate with the Permanent Committee for Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives on 17 November 2003, I was requested to ask the Advisory Council on International Affairs to assess which cultural manifestations have a positive or negative influence on development and to incorporate the outcome into future plans for development cooperation. During the debate, the permanent committee emphasised the influence of both cultural and religious factors.
I have decided to request an advisory report on this subject in view of its importance and complexity.
A copy of the request for advice addressed to the Chairman of the Advisory Council on International Affairs is enclosed with this letter.
To Mr Frits Korthals Altes
Chairman, Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV)
The Hague, 31 October 2005
I am pleased to present herewith the government’s response to the advisory report entitled ‘The influence of culture and religion on development: stimulus or stagnation?’
I am sending a copy of this letter to the House of Representatives.
Agnes van Ardenne-van der Hoeven
Government response to the Advisory Council for International Affairs’ report: ‘The influence of culture and religion on development: stimulus or stagnation?’.
I wish to express my thanks and appreciation to the Advisory Council for International Affairs (AIV) for its report on the influence of culture and religion on development. I asked the Council to prepare this report in response to a request from the House Permanent Committee on Foreign Affairs to ask the AIV to identify the cultural factors that have a positive or negative influence on development and to indicate how the findings should be incorporated into future development cooperation plans.
In its report, the AIV points out that it is difficult to make general recommendations or reach general conclusions on the relationship between culture, religion and development. Many relationships are specific to a given region. However, I appreciate the fact that the AIV has nonetheless attempted to pinpoint some points of attention for policy development. Besides these, it is above all the practical examples that are used as illustrations throughout the report which clarify the relevance of culture and religion for development.
The report coincides almost exactly with the establishment of the Knowledge Forum on religion and development policy, an initiative I have launched with a number of NGOs (Cordaid, ACT Netherlands, Prisma, Oikos and the Ecumenical Institute for Advocacy on International Cooperation, BBO). The aim of the forum is to act as a platform to study how the NGOs involved and the Ministry can all take account of the relationship between religion and development within development policy. It is therefore an important instrument in moulding cooperation with Dutch civil society on the subject of religion and development policy. In that sense, the report could not have come at a better time. It must be said, however, that the forum has only just been set up, and some of its activities are still on the drawing table. In suggesting ways in which the AIV’s recommendations can be translated into development policy, I shall therefore refer in some cases to future activities of the Knowledge Forum.
Taking account of different and common values
The AIV concludes that it is important for ‘development interventions and policy to be compatible with the complex and flexible belief systems of people in developing countries’ and that ‘it is only by taking account of the cultures and religions of all participants that the motivation and energy necessary for sustainable development can be mobilised.’
I fully agree that taking account of the cultural and religious context is crucial to achieving sustainable development. This applies to the cultural and religious values not only of our partners in developing countries, but also of donors. As the AIV rightly points out, conflicts arise when donors and partners are unaware that their values, standards and customs are not necessarily the same.
An important first step in achieving sustainable development is for development partners to enter into an intensive dialogue on their views, values and standards. The Millennium Development Goals are based on dialogue and partnership and reflect common aims which are approved and endorsed all over the world. In seeking to achieve them, it is important to respect local cultural and religious traditions. The best guarantee that development will be sustainable is if responsibility for it is not restricted to the government of the country in question, but is shared by broad sections of society.
Studies of relevant cultural and religious orientation
The AIV suggests performing an analysis of the relevant cultural orientations before selecting concrete activities. Since indigenous knowledge is an important source of information about local conditions, it should be included in the analysis. The AIV also advises approaching and consulting the relevant civil society groups and NGOs in the Netherlands and – if possible – in the developing countries.
I fully agree with the AIV that in selecting development instruments, proper consideration must be given to the cultural and religious context. In 2003/2004, most of the embassies in the 36 partner countries drew up a Multi-annual Strategic Plan (MJSP), an important part of which was an analysis of the situation, trends and developments in the partner country, as well as an extensive analysis of actors and their cultural and religious context. However, in drafting these first MJSPs, only a few embassies explicitly referred to the role of culture and religion in their written analyses.
In the AIV's view, an analysis of the cultural context should include:
- the extent to which the cultural or religious leaders are open to dialogue;
- the influence and authority of the leadership;
- the extent to which a particular system or organisation promotes social cohesion;
- the scope for and opportunities available to women.
The AIV also points out that ‘embassies would be well-advised to include proposals for dealing with religious issues not only in the analysis, but also in the strategy section of their MJSPs.’
I will gladly adopt these recommendations and expect the embassies in the partner countries to include an analysis of the local cultural and religious context and possible drivers of change in future MJSPs. Depending on the modalities of aid, cultural and religious organisations can play a more direct or indirect role in development interventions. This objective for the 2008 MJSPs and the activities required to achieve it are part of the Knowledge Forum's agenda.
The Knowledge Forum on religion and development policy will also examine how social and cultural factors affect the indicators used to measure the degree of good governance. After all, factors such as social cohesion and community relations are of great importance: good governance entails not only vigorous economic governance, but also a government that is aware of the social and cultural relationships within a country. Embedding these factors in good governance indicators can help to ensure that local social and cultural relationships are taken into account in decision-making on development policy from the start.
Limits to dialogue
Although the AIV urges more attention to culture and religion in general, it also cautions against losing sight of the limits of dialogue. Those limits are approached in particular ‘when the basic principles laid down in the human rights conventions are ignored, or when the partner shows no intention of complying with other Western values and/or prerequisites for a fruitful partnership.’ In that case, the AIV suggests adopting a more active position and seeking actors who do aspire to the desired outcome.
As drivers of change, culture and religion can make an important contribution to development, but they may also form obstacles. Attempts to improve the position of women may conflict with certain cultural or religious traditions. Conflict may also arise in relation to the observance of other human rights and fundamental freedoms, for instance where legislation inspired by religious convictions provides for corporal punishment, or where the freedom to convert to a different religion is restricted. The international community has repeatedly indicated that human rights are universal, inalienable and indivisible. This principle was again confirmed at the recent UN summit. Therefore respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms must always be guaranteed, regardless of cultural and religious context. This is contingent, however, on the people of a given society perceiving these rights and freedoms as important. Even – or perhaps precisely – where cultural and religious traditions conflict with internationally recognised human rights, dialogue is important in bridging differences, provided it does not disregard the universal nature of human rights.
The AIV advises those at the ministry and the missions in charge of formulating and implementing development policy to study the principles and methods of intercultural communication. In addition to a brief module on intercultural skills, it suggests, the training programme for policy officers should also include a more extensive course on religion and culture.
It is certainly very important to acquire knowledge of the role of culture and religion in development. This was one of the reasons why the Knowledge Forum was set up. One of its activities is launching and maintaining a special website on religion and development. The Forum's findings will also be available to all policy officers. Intercultural communication is dealt with in existing development cooperation training programmes, and is given specific attention in a new support programme for missions aimed at institutional and capacity development.
The AIV rightly points out that an intercultural dialogue on the cultural and religious context will greatly increase the chances of a successful development intervention and considerably increase its enduring impact. I gladly take up the challenge of according a more central role to this dialogue in Dutch development policy.
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