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Dr Josef Boehle, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham


A variety of religious actors is taking development issues seriously: local and international religious communities, long-established religious non-governmental organisations (RNGOs), as well as inter-religious organisations and initiatives. Often these religious communities and organisations are in alliances that cross traditional boundaries, engage with secular and political organisations and are a part of what is frequently described as the emerging global civil society. Given this contemporary situation, the work of RNGOs together with other global civil society actors towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), especially in the context of the UN system, is one of the critical issues that needs to be discussed further when analysing factors of international development and global governance. The UN system is, after all, the preeminent place for nations to negotiate their coexistence at the global level and to engage with thousands of accredited NGOs. The UN system is equally the place where the MDGs have been endorsed by all member states, as originally outlined in the Millennium Declaration and then formalised in 2001in the Road Map Towards the Implementation of the United Nations Millennium Declaration. The UN system is also where progress towards the achievement of the MDGs is monitored and where new strategies and policies to increase the likelihood of their achievement are debated and implemented.

The impact of globalisation processes and the resurgence of religious movements have strengthened the quest for alternatives and complementary approaches to development policies which in the past have often been based on and informed by predominantly secular worldviews. They have also stimulated movements and initiatives seeking more holistic approaches to development, often focusing on international debt relief, fair trade campaigns and local, community based projects. The resurgence of religious actors in the public sphere in many countries (with significant variations and not universally) raises additional questions: can religious communities and religious NGOs with their global and regional networks, as well as their strong presence in local communities, act as key partners for international institutions and for governmental agencies in working towards achieving the MDGs? How do religious communities and religious NGOs relate to and act within global civil society? Whilst most RNGOs and followers of many religious traditions would agree that they are key partners for secular and political institutions on development issues, the current renewed attention to religious actors in public and academic discourse highlights and intensifies again an old debate on the nature of secularisation and the role of religion in ‘modern’ societies.

In order to achieve the MDGs, progress in two distinct, but interrelated, areas is necessary:

a) a significant increase in development partnerships through multi-stakeholder coalitions bringing together very diverse communities and constituencies with very diverse worldviews and

b) previously competing ‘epistemic communities’ need to engage in genuine dialogues and interdisciplinary research to overcome divisive legacies and entrenched dogmas that often prevent an increase in collaboration between secular and religious actors.

The demise of religion has been foretold repeatedly by many Western scholars and intellectuals. The paradigms, methodologies, and epistemologies of Western science favour what is ‘visible’ and can be grasped by surveys, scientific experiments and logical deduction. In addition, the processes of globalisation and a neo-liberal, market-driven economy were expected to gradually overcome extreme poverty and therefore liberate people from escapist tendencies, from seeking comfort in another world. So far such Western, materialistic and secular theories have failed to take root in large parts of the world.

In the field of epistemology, authentic inter-cultural, inter-religious and inter-disciplinary discourses could facilitate progress beyond existing contemporary dichotomies. Currently there is not enough serious debate of the cultural hegemony of Western secular thought which holds power in higher education institutions in many parts of the world. This poses a challenge in two directions: according to Habermas it challenges religious citizens to ‘develop an epistemic stance toward the independence of secular from sacred knowledge and the institutionalized monopoly of modern scientific experts’. (Habermas, Religion in the Public Sphere, 2006, p.14) However, in a public sphere that aims to safeguard equality for all its citizens this also means that the insight by secular citizens that they live in a post-secular society that is epistemically adjusted to the continued existence of religious communities first requires a change in mentality that is no less cognitively exacting than the adaptation of religious awareness to the challenges of an ever more secularized environment. (Habermas, p.15). In a functioning democratic society both religious and secular citizens have to accept their responsibility to seek to understand the ‘other’ and to engage with each other in public discourse.

Contrary to purely secular and materialistic world order scenarios, we seem to be witnessing a resurgence of religious movements and organisations, and the reassertion of their religious identities and value systems. Not only has the unidirectional demise of public religion failed to take place, but the unexpected resurgence of religious movements is also leading to a questioning of classical, core theories concerning secularisation in the social sciences.

RNGOs, with their locally rooted and globally connected structures as part of the phenomenon of an emerging ‘global civil society’, are an important strand of organisations influencing the shape of the political and economic world order of the twenty-first century. The MDGs provide a focal point for governments, development agencies, the UN system and NGOs to engage with some of the most pressing challenges of improving living conditions in some of the most deprived parts of the world, of moving towards a more human development and a more humane global governance.

How RNGOs and religious communities participate in the multi-stakeholder coalitions and multi-track diplomacy that are necessary for the achievement of the MDGs is an important factor in whether there can be a successful outcome with regard to these aspirations. But whether the diversity of value systems and worldviews of the actors in such a multi-stakeholder coalition can be both better understood and pragmatically reconciled remains to be seen. Given this context, additional and more detailed analyses of specific RNGOs will be helpful. They can provide material for an increased understanding of partnerships with religious actors. Conducting further case studies of influential RNGOs, their value systems and their capacity (or incapacity) for collaboration among themselves and with secular institutions will make an important contribution to a better understanding of some of the challenges of building capacity for achieving the MDGs.

Alliances developed by RNGOs and secular NGOs are bound to be globally more effective if they are supported by governments and the UN system. This in itself would require a significant change to the way governments and major institutions address today’s global problems. Many of the statements made at the High-level Event on the Millennium Development Goals during the opening of the 63rd UN General Assembly in September 2008 expressed the political will to seek multi-stakeholder coalitions.

To move from statements and expressions of intent to sustainable programmes requires an organisational capacity and a consensus which is able to accommodate a worldwide and very diverse coalition of stakeholders. Consensus is difficult to achieve as long as the major underlying (religious and secular) discourses are contradictory and religious and secular actors remain locked in separate ‘epistemic communities’. However, one can observe an increasing number of examples where genuine dialogues and learning between different worldviews concerning development issues are taking place.

A substantial and sustained organisational change in global institutions towards fuller cooperation with civil society is unlikely until religious and secular NGO alliances have found a more coherent and better coordinated way of interaction and can speak with a common voice. Global institutions like the UN will take a civil society movement seriously if it has worldwide roots and shows the capacity for global cooperation. How to stabilise and strengthen the interaction between civil society, nation states and the UN system is the taskwhich awaits leaders in NGOs, in governments and in the UN system itself.

*This paper is based on my research article ‘Religious NGOs at the UN and the Millennium Development Goals: an introduction’, published in 2010 in the journal ‘Global Change, Peace and Security’ (Volume 22, Number 3).