Back to Forum

Development and Religion in the Times of COVID-19

Some years ago, while lecturing about Catholic Social Teaching, I mentioned how Populorum Progressio’s (PP) most famous phrase was “Development, the New Name for Peace” (PP, 76). A discerning student coming from a “developed”— it would be better to say a “rich”—country, came up to me after the class and asked me: “You have cited PP’s most famous phrase, yet my country being a very developed one is also a very violent place. How would you explain that?” I hesitated for a while, trying to offer a good answer, then I said: “PP talks about integral development, maybe what is missing in your country is integral development.”

Development became a staple word after World War II, and especially after President Harry Truman’s Inaugural Address in January of 1949. In what became the fourth point of it he affirmed:

“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. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery […]. For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve the suffering of these people. The United States is pre-eminent among nations in the development of industrial and scientific techniques. […] I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life.”[1]

Truman’s discourse inaugurated a new way of conceiving international relations. There was a move from colonialism to development as the basic structure of international relations. Development became even more important as an iron curtain descended upon Europe from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic. Development was one of the few topics on which the two blocs could agree, at least in theory.

Just after decolonization, the first strategy for development was a state directed one. It was not a very successful strategy. In the ‘70s the new strategy was to concentrate in providing certain basic needs such as access to primary education, essential health care or clean water. However, this new strategy met with two difficulties. On many occasions, international development aid was granted according to Cold War loyalties, more than according to real need. In an analogous way, local elites tended to appropriate the aid received for themselves or to assure local political loyalty. The third model of development came in the ‘80s when the ‘rolling back the state’ agendas gained political prominence.  This model of managing development was not particularly successful either. [2] In all three models, a common characteristic was that the poor were a problem to which the rich had the solution and could deliver it in some Messianic manner.

Paul VI addressed the question of development in 1967 with PP. The idea that development was the new name of peace, and the concept of integral development were certainly the most quoted ones. Many remarks were made about the social, political and economic ideas of the encyclical. Few remarks referred to the missiological dimension of the letter. The motivation for it was  “an even clearer awareness, since the Second Vatican Council, of the demands imposed by Christ’s Gospel in this area” [ of development] (PP, 1). Feeding the hungry is in itself preaching the Gospel. The evangelizing dimension of development was missed by many in the developed world thinking that integral development was just necessary in far away poor countries. There is a spiritual dimension to human development, very often forgotten in rich ‘developed’ countries. We must remind ourselves that evangelization is not the “privilege” of developing countries. It is also badly needed in the developed ones in order to arrive to an integral development, to an authentic development.

For many years religion and development were strangers. In a comparative analysis of literature Kurt Allan ver Beek concluded that religion appeared to be a “development taboo.”[3] Katherine Marshall who worked in the World Bank and is now Executive Director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue at the Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University, explains the reason for this taboo. Development experts and scholars avoided religion because they thought it was divisive, dangerous and defunct. Religion was perceived as divisive, and therefore avoided, because a dialogue with it would seem to threaten the separation between church and state, and could draw development experts around fundamentalist tensions, exacerbating civic ones or even promoting violence. Religion was considered  dangerous because it was identified as opposed to modernization and social change. Relating to it would alienate non-followers or would be considered a way of proselytizing. Finally, development experts and scholars stayed away from religion because it was defunct. The basic principle of secularization theory affirmed that as development advanced and societies became more modern, religion would disappear.[4]

There were also prejudices on the side of religious institutions with respect to development institutions. Religious leaders and communities felt ignored by development experts who used an incomprehensible jargon that left them out. Faith communities expressed also strong criticism towards development experts, for they considered they lacked contact with people’s everyday life and ignored the reality of the ones they were supposed to help. Religious communities, many times deeply embedded in the daily life of many local societies were better acquainted with the living conditions of the poor than the “professionals of development”. In that sense religious leaders saw themselves as an important part of civil society, who were well prepared to be the voice of the voiceless and resented their rejection by trained development workers.[5]

Religion and development were not meeting, and this began to be perceived as a problem. The situation began to change at the turn of the millennium thanks, partly, to the campaign Jubilee 2000 in which the churches advocated for the cancellation of the debt owed by the world’s poorest nations. In this campaign the churches showed a deep, meaningful and strong concern for development.[6] The change of trend resulted in an interest in exploring the connection between religion and development and how the two could collaborate.[7] The case of the Sustainable Development Goals is a good example of this new dialogue.[8] Today, different religious actors are widely recognized as relevant actors in development work. Faith based organizations (FBOs) have acquired, and recognized, a relevance in the field of development that was unthinkable some years ago.[9]

The link between religion and development is today widely accepted, but underexplored. Religion is recognized as a major social, cultural, political and economic factor in many official development assistance recipient countries.[10] It is not so widely recognized as an important factor in officially developed countries, partly because secularization theory continues to be powerful in social sciences departments, but also in theology departments and schools of ministry. There is a lack of recognition of the importance of faith and religion for integral development in “officially” developed countries. That might be the reason why some “officially” developed countries are very violent, as my insightful student observed.

Towards the very end of Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI remarked that “everyone experiences the many immaterial and spiritual dimensions of life. […] The development of individuals and peoples is likewise located on a height, if we consider the spiritual dimension that must be present if such development is to be authentic. It requires new eyes and a new heart” (CV, 77).

The truth of these words has shown itself in a particularly evident way with the Covid-19 virus crisis that we are experiencing, which greatly questions the model of development that we – the developing, but also the developed countries – have been pursuing. This epidemic is as much a social phenomenon as a medical-biological one, and exposes the frailties of our societies, the flaws of the social fabric, the developing and the developed.

We are yet to have the new eyes and hearts that allow us to understand the spiritual dimension of authentic integral development. Christianity has a very good record and tradition of heroic performances in times of plagues. Action in this moment might be a very good contribution to the crisis, and a contribution to the exploration of the ways of true integral and authentic development.

[1] President Harry S. Truman, Inaugural Address, 20 January 1949. Full text at the Avalon Project, Yale University Law Library Cf. Gilbert Rist, The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith (Zed Books, 2014), 71-75.

[2] Rist, 80-90.

[3] Kurt Allan Beek, “Spirituality: a Development Taboo”, Development in Practice, Vol. 10, Nº 1, February 2000, 31-43.

[4] Katherine Marshall, “Religion and Development” in eds. Timothy Samuel Shah, Alfred Stepan, and Monica Duffy Toft, Rethinking Religion and World Affairs (Oxford University Press, 2012) 193-204.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joshua W. Busby, Moral Movements and Foreign Policy (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] Gerrie ter Haar “Religion and Development: Introducing a New Debate” in Gerrie ter Haar ed., Religion adn Development. Ways of Transforming the World, (Hurst and Company, 2011), 3-25.


[9] Jeffrey Haynes, Faith-Based Organizations at the United Nations, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[10] Jeffrey Haynes, Introduction to International Relations and Religion, (Pearson Longman, 2013), 144-145.