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Living in the material world

Tue, 06 Dec 2011 13:32:00 +1100

Aid organisations, especially secular ones, can't ignore the religious beliefs of the communities they are trying to help, says Deakin University's Professor Matthew Clarke.

Around 80 per cent of people in the developing world profess some religious beliefs however, most texts and studies on development were silent on the issue of how religious beliefs could affect aid efforts and this in turn fed into how development itself was carried out. 

Professor Clarke's latest book  - Religion and Development: Theology and Practice - tackles this oversight, taking a look at the social teachings, texts and major beliefs of each of the major religions and how aid agencies associated with different religions undertake ‘development’.

Professor Clarke acknowledges that religion and religious beliefs can and do also have negative impacts, however he argues that an appreciative view of religion has long been missing from development studies. 

“Of course religion is not a panacea to poverty, but we cannot ignore this important aspect of people’s life,” he said.

Professor Clarke said the idea for the book stemmed from a thesis prepared for his Masters degree in 1991.

“My thesis at the time looked at liberation theology, development and Latin America and religion really hasn’t been mentioned very much in development studies since then,” Professor Clarke said.

“Yet religious belief is a common human characteristic, the sacred texts of each of the world’s major religions exhort believers on how to live a righteous life, including responding to poverty and assisting those with less.

“If you ignore that, you are not able to engage fully in their lives or understand how they view their place in their world.

“It may be that these religions have something pertinent to say.”

Professor Clarke said Buddhism for instance challenged the concept of development seeing it as economic growth with an emphasis on material possessions.

“In their view, you are in fact making your life harder and causing yourself pain by seeking more and more, you don’t need material wealth,” he said.

“Hinduism on the other hand considers it reasonable for you to seek wealth so long as you don’t use it in a negative way.

“Islam is more practical, it considers how much of your wealth you are giving, so it says you should give two and a half percent of your wealth to charity.

“Judaism again is practical but considers what is a good charity, there is in effect a hierarchy of charities.”

Professor Clarke said Catholicism/Christianity has a long history of focussing on providing material assistance to the poor.

“Development may be a modern movement and almost atheist in its approach, and while people predominately from the secular west believe that religion is dead, that is not the case in the rest of the world, religion is key to people’s lives and is an important aspect to doing development well,” he said. 

 “In Aceh for instance, where a large part of the population is Muslim, a proportion of the population saw the tsunami as God’s will.

“Now, as a development agency, if you ignored that completely you would be ignoring a fundamental part of what is important to that part of the population.”

Professor Clarke said in the Solomon Islands, which was predominately Christian, gender-based violence was a problem.

“Yet there are scriptural texts which explicitly argue against it,” he said. 

“Aid agencies may have greater success if they incorporate this teaching into their development interventions.

“If you are interested in improving human and welfare needs you need to understand the world view of the country you are operating in, it might change how you react and the things you do, and heaven forbid you might learn something.”

Deakin University will host its second Religion and Development Roundtable looking at Islam and Development on Tuesday, December 13. This Roundtable will consider the intersection between Islam and Development and include speakers from various Australian Universities and Islamic aid agencies.

The Islam and Development Roundtable will be held in the Blue Room (Building 2 Room 20) at the University’s Burwood Campus, 221 Burwood Highway, Burwood.

It is part of the larger ACFID - Universities Linkage Network Conference - An Australian Approach to Development? People, Practice and Policy being held at the campus December 12 and 13.

Link to conference


Professor Matthew Clarke
Professor Matthew Clarke (right) says religious belief is a common human characteristic, the sacred texts of each of the world’s major religions exhort believers on how to live a righteous life, including responding to poverty and assisting those with less. If you ignore that, you are not able to engage fully in their lives or understand how they view their place in their world.
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  • Deakin University will host its second Religion and Development Roundtable looking at Islam and Development on Tuesday, December 13. This Roundtable will consider the intersection between Islam and Development and include speakers from various Australian Universities and Islamic aid agencies.
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Sandra Kingston
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17th May 2011