Faith: the Missing Piece of the International Development Puzzle

by Casey van Wensem, Advocacy Research Intern

If the current international development discourse has a blind spot, it would be on the issue of faith.

On September 21-22, Canadian civil society and academic leaders gathered to discuss the state of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at a conference hosted by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC). The purpose of this gathering was to look at the successes and failures of the MDGs and to determine how we, as Canadian civil society, can deliver and advocate for better aid in the post-MDG world. A number of important issues were discussed, including:

  • making aid more sustainable,
  • getting beyond aid dependence,
  • listening to the voices of the poor,
  • encouraging people’s livelihoods.

All of these are extremely important issues.

However, one big issue was missing: faith.

The simple fact is that the vast majority of people in the world are people of faith. This was pointed out at the conference by panelist Karen Hamilton, General Secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC). However, with the exception of her brief statements, the faith issue remained largely absent from civil society discussions at the conference.

So what’s so bad about applying a non-religious worldview to international development? Isn’t that the best way to promote equality between different cultures? The problem is, when we leave faith out of the picture, we are leaving out the very thing that shapes most people’s view of the world.

Canadians may note that faith is simply not an important Canadian value, and that Canada is committed to respecting Canadian values in the delivery of foreign aid by bill C-293 (otherwise known as the “better aid bill”). Evidence, however, shows otherwise.

Research by Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby shows that “no less than 2 in 3 people across the country say that their religious or spiritual beliefs are important to the way they live their lives.” A recent Maclean’s Magazine poll also tells us that a majority of Canadians identify themselves as Christians. These are no small numbers. A recent article by Bruce J. Clemenger, President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, also makes a convincing argument for including faith in policy discussions, regardless of public opinion about matters of faith.

Seen through the lens of faith, the MDGs also take on a deeper meaning. I find it hard to even think about helping the world’s poor without looking to the perfect example set by Jesus.

With this in mind, it would make sense for the Canadian Government to consider the role of faith – both in our country and in others – when dealing with international development issues.

All of this, however, should not be taken as a major criticism of Canadian civil society. After all, most Canadian NGOs have no religious affiliation, so why would we expect them to uphold religious beliefs?

Rather, this is a call to faith-based organizations like MCC to take a leadership role in international development by demonstrating the important role that faith communities play. In this way we can exemplify the faith that God accepts as pure and faultless as expressed in James 1:27 – to reach out to those in our world who need help the most.

by Casey van Wensem, Advocacy Research Intern at the MCC Ottawa Office

 Graphics from End Poverty by 2015

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