What’s religion got to do with it?

Faith-based approaches to addressing inequalities in the field of development

There are 11 years left to 2030, to reduce inequality and to make “leave no one behind” a reality. With inequalities on the rise globally, faith dynamics need to be explored more systematically – are they detrimental or do they contribute to equality? More than 80 % of the world’s population is of faith. In many settings religious groups and faith-based organisations form a major component of local and national capacity. This session will be an interactive conversation aimed to allow all participants to gain a deeper understanding about the role faith and faith actors can play in sustainable change.

Key points

  • Given the way that the Christian world has tried to impose its religious beliefs on the rest of the world in the past, it is not surprising that new overtures are met with scepticism.

  • When development actors work with faith-leaders, they must guard against instrumentalising them.

  • Development organisations, including those that are faith-based, should respect local communities’ religious practices.

  • Indigenous organisations, such as those in the Peruvian Altiplano, have a cosmic view of religion – their belief is based on nurturing the natural world.

  • When examining Muslim practices, one should go back to the Holy book to see whether current practices in Islam are based on what the Prophet wrote.


For the past 800 years, many countries have had to submit to attempts by outsiders to impose their culture and religion, so it is not surprising that when well-meaning development actors arrive in the Middle East or other Muslim countries, they are met with suspicion. The key to opening the way to local people, most of whom are religious, is to begin by approaching faith leaders and to ensure their actions are not at odds with local religious practices. At the same time development actors must guard against “instrumentalising” religion or faith-based leaders –using religion as a way to make their development message more palatable, and to get people to work with them. The key to working with religious communities is to facilitate and catalyse, not to impose, but to learn from local people and build capacity around what they want. Working to develop a mutual understanding and tolerance within “safe spaces” to discuss these issues, makes it less likely that this approach could be interpreted as “instrumentalisation”. For example when one development organisation went into African countries to fight the Ebola pandemic, they approached the situation from a medical viewpoint, insisting that all those who had died were buried immediately, in order to stop the virus from spreading. However, as this was against local religious traditions of ceremonial burials, people were hiding their dead in order to bury them with dignity. The development practitioners revised their medical practices to adhere to the local religion. This is a good example of how outsiders, including faith-based organisations, have learned to respect local religions. Participants also heard about indigenous people living on the Altiplano in Peru, who have a cosmic view of religion, believing that people must live in harmonious coexistence with the totality of humanity – referring to the earth as Pachamama (Mother Earth). These people have welcomed the Pope’s Encyclical Call to Care for our Common Home, which is a call for people to discuss how to plan the future of the planet, saying: ‘We finally have a Pope who understands us.’ One question frequently raised in relation to Islam is about some cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), or child marriage, which are sanctioned in the name of religion, but are viewed as human rights’ violations. The practising imam on the panel said it was necessary to refer to the Quran to see what the Prophet had written, as some of these are cultural pre-Islamic practices. FGM has always been common in countries such as Sudan. While there is nothing about this in the Quran, some religious leaders have sanctioned this, saying it is an integral part of Islam. Instead, to judge Islamic religious practices, one should abide by the written law of “do no harm” and judge whether FGM or child marriage is in keeping with this.


Given the predominance of faith across Europe, it was suggested that there should be a reference to faith in future European Commission documents.

Organised by


Rachel Bayani
Baha'i International Community, Brussels Office
Christo Greyling
Senior Director Faith and External Engagement
World Vision
Mohammad Abou Zeid
Faith Scholar/ judge
Islamic Relief
Shreen Saroor
Gender Consultant
Brot für die Welt
Patricia Ryan
Pax Christi International
Henriette Geiger
Director, Directorate People and Peace
European Commission - DG for International Cooperation and Development
Merete Bilde
Policy Advisor
European External Action Service (EEAS)