Religion & Development: An Enhanced Approach or a Transaction?

Delivering services through a faith-based NGO in Zimbabwe…” Credit: Walter Keller, third-eye-photography.jimdo.com

By Azza Karam
UNITED NATIONS, Apr 12 2019 – Since 2008, a number of articles/opinions have been written, on the nexus between religion and development.

In chronological order, the articles first made the case for why ‘religion matters’ to the attainment of developmental objectives, noting how religious leaders are critical to changing social norms which can be in contradiction to human rights, and noting the extent to which faith-based organisations (FBOs) have anyway served as the original social service providers known to human kind.

Around 2014, the articles continued in the same vein, i.e. making the case that partnering with religious actors was an increasingly recognized necessity within the UN itself, but also for other governments and non-governmental development partners.

Except this time, the argument incorporated some of the political facets of religion. At the height of the ISIS/so-called Islamic State terrorism, the articles argued for recognition of the value of religious engagement, whether it was intervening in combatting Ebola or seeking to counter violent extremism.

In 2015 and 2016, the call was to acknowledge that increasing partnerships with religious NGOs, for health, education, nutrition and other aspects of development, was “the new normal” for development practitioners.

Azza Karam

Moreover, the argument was that such partnerships were in and of themselves, a means of countering the narratives of violence and extremism in communities.

In 2017, however, another note crept into the analysis on the intersections between religion, development and foreign policy: a note of warning.

The caution noted the increasing preference, undertaken by certain governments, in promoting more direct partnerships with religious NGOs in other countries, rather than supporting multilaterals to scale up successful partnership initiatives for the SDGs/Agenda 2030.

The article noted that the interest on the part of some governments to circumvent multilateral partnerships and aim for direct support to specific religious NGOs abroad, carried a “…danger … that such efforts will be misconstrued as the new colonial enterprise in international development, playing into rising religious tensions globally.

History is replete with examples where mobilizing religious actors in other countries, no matter how well-intentioned, can create some rather unholy alliances”.

In fact, this was the beginning of a now ongoing concern wherein ‘religion’ and ‘religious engagement’, somehow delinked from people’s faith and/or beliefs, are increasingly perceived as an element in the toolbox of development and foreign policy praxis – i.e. a transactional commodity.

This can take many forms. Including an increasing convening of FBOs as ‘non traditional partners’ to be hosted and feted around policy tables, building new NGOs and INGOs around ‘religion’ and ‘religious engagement’, formulating business propositions around these themes, and now, increasingly, seeking to tap into the financial resource bases of some of these faith-based entities (largely Islamic ones).

A few of the most skeptical voices are now noting (mostly in private conversations) that ‘add religion and stir’ could be argued to be ‘the new flavor’ in the market of international development.

But being in the ‘toolbox of practices and approaches’, per se, is not unhelpful. On the contrary, development – writ large to include peace, security and human rights – is a series of learned processes.

By now it is even a cliché to say that there is no one-size fits all development intervention. By extension therefore, different ‘tools’ are needed to assess what or which intervention works, and what may not, in diverse contexts.

And there is a significant body of evidence built, which proves that FBOs are key actors in development, and that investing in partnerships with FBOs is cost-effective and socially transformative (see the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities – https://jliflc.com/

But when ‘religious engagement’ can be part of a transactional approach, are there guarantees that the link to people’s faith, and belief systems, will not be forgotten, overlooked, or worse still, appear to be abused?

The fact is, FBOs symbolize, and in some cases, epitomize and uphold, what many people actually believe in. That is also why many FBOs can draw upon the regular contributions of believers (e.g. donations and collections in churches and zakat contributions).

Many FBOs are pleased with the secular policy makers’ increased attentions, and eager for more as they see this as a vindication of their particular wisdom and unique value-added.

But some are beginning to voice an increasing skepticism, “[W]e feel as though we are treated, at best, as a rubber stamp… instrumentalised to serve already agreed upon agendas…” is not an uncommon refrain.

The increase in the number of meetings (mostly of the same groups of FBOs) is not necessarily accompanied by equivalent financial and/or political support to actual multi-faith collaboration or advocacy.

Nor are these multiple convenings, leading to innovative governmental or intergovernmental support for broader, integrated civil society engagement for human rights, in an era of shrinking civic space globally.

Some of the smaller FBOs are slowly beginning to question the time they are devoting to answer the increasing meetings hosted by some governments and organisations.

Their presence at these increasing number of meetings, the FBOs argue, is likely contributing to enhance the appearance of the conveners’ image as ‘sensitive to religious sensibilities’; as being ‘concerned for freedom of religion or belief, or for religious minorities (often not in their own back yard but in other countries), and/or appearing to be savvy enough to address the ‘missing link’ in development and peacemaking interventions.

Yet other international FBOs, by now well-versed in engaging with certain policymakers, are taking the opportunity to stipulate thinly veiled conditionalities for their engagement. Peacemaking, environmental stewardship, protection of children and minorities, are all ‘good’.

But gender, gender equality, gender identity, comprehensive sexuality education, reproductive health, reproductive rights, sexual rights, and/or family planning, are all no-go areas for some of the well-established FBOs.

The price for engagement on one set of issues with these partners, therefore, may well be the forgoing – or silencing – of the human rights – and dignity – of others.

Other faith-based partners are viewing the governmental and intergovernmental interest in their methodologies, and now, increasingly, in their resourcing modalities (e.g. in Islamic financing) with more suspicion.

Barely accusatory questions such as “are you interested in partnering with us or in picking our brains?” and “why are you interested in our money all of a sudden?” are now heard in more than one meeting whether in Stockholm, New York, Cairo or Buenos Aires.

Certainly such questions can be dismissed as misunderstandings or lack of awareness, or shrugged off by those whose convictions are so strong that the right thing is being done. But would it be wise, perhaps, to pause and reflect on the root causes which may be inspiring such questions in the first place?

Are we honoring multi-religious civic collaboration for sustainable development, or are we possibly risking making religious engagement a transactional enterprise – and thereby forgoing some of the most difficult human rights?

Hard Battle Ahead for Independent Arab Media

By Mouna Ben Garga
TUNIS, Apr 12 2019 – Sometimes a peak into the future reminds us just how stuck we are in the past and present.

It was the talk of the Middle East’s largest annual media industry gathering: a robot journalist – the region’s first – that wowed some 3,000 industry leaders and practitioners at the Arab Media Forum (AMF) in Dubai recently.

In an address titled “Future News Anchors”, the robot, known as A20-50, waxed lyrical about robots that would report ‘tirelessly’ all day, every day and be programmed to do any task.

At a conference organised around the theme, “Arab Media: From Now to The Future”, it was ironic that journalism produced by programmed automatons was held up as a glimpse of what the future held for media in the Arab world.

Ironic because, considering the state of journalism in the Middle East, it doesn’t sound as much like the future as the region’s present and past.

Looking at news output in this polarized landscape, it often seems that journalists (and their organisations) are like robots, programmed to produce and promote certain political agendas ‘tirelessly’, all day, every day.

From Egypt to Kuwait, most news outlets support specific positions, usually those espoused by the companies or organisations that own or control them – often either toeing the official line or supporting rival agendas or political opposition.

Following the 2013 coup in Egypt and the civil wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya over the past decade, the pro-government media used the fear of instability and war to silence citizens and twist the facts.

For instance, the Egyptian mainstream media convinced its audience that the 2013 massacre of more than 900 people in Cairo was the only way to fight against terrorism.

In the context of the Middle Eastern media coverage of the killing of the Saudi journalist Khashoggi, both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya television channels took up positions in front of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and resumed the fierce row between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, from there.

The truth was lost in this fierce political conflict and the Arab viewer had to cross-check the presented facts with other international reporting. This implicit bias and lack of balance polarized Arab public opinion and pushed news consumers to social media in search of trusted factual information, crushing the credibility in traditional media.

And when they aren’t busy working to manipulate bias in news coverage, Arab authorities are old hands at plain old media repression. Not surprisingly, nations in the Middle East and North Africa again find themselves at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index of 2018.

Across the region, journalists and media organisations are under attack for their reporting – from intimidation to arrests, detention, prosecution and the shuttering of outlets. Four Arab countries – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Syria – top the list of the world’s worst jailers of journalists ,according to the 2018 press freedom report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Egypt jailed the most number of journalists on “false news” charges – 19, amid heightened global rhetoric about so-called fake news; The murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in the country’s Instanbul consulate illustrated the extreme lengths the Gulf kingdom’s leaders would go to stop published criticism.

And in Syria, 13 journalists were killed in 2017, and more than 40 journalists and citizen-journalists are currently detained, kidnapped or have disappeared.

In this complex context of divisions, repression and lack of public trust, the future of trustworthy Arab media is in the hands of alternative media, journalists’ unity and active citizens.

Since the Arab spring, independent journalism platforms such as Daraj, Nawaat in Tunisia, and Beirut-based Raseef22 have emerged, offering alternative narratives that counter state propaganda and mainstream media self-censorship.

But the challenges for these organisations are their limited reach – many mainstream news consumers consider them elitist and targeting “intellectual” users – and their financial sustainability.

The key here is inclusivity. One of the most successful news outlets is AJ+ Arabic, a project that grew out of Al Jazeera’s Incubation and Innovation Group, focusing exclusively on social platforms targeting millennials.

The other major challenge – financial survival – calls for new, sustainable journalism business models developed around new forms of storytelling and original content production supported by creative funding approaches including crowdfunding and data sales or services, for example.

Empowering citizen journalism is another possible solution to producing independent media in the Arab world. Indeed, citizen journalists, young bloggers, and active tweeps are not governed by the same relationship between the state and media professionals and are authentic voices and channels to the Arab street – they speak its language and represent its concerns and challenges.

Alternative media leaders need to build the citizen capacity beyond data collection and reporting to include online security, storytelling and counter-narratives. Increasing the transfer of these savoir-faire to citizens would amplify more voices to tackle the polarization effect through facts.

But of course, there is a place in the future of quality Arab media for professional journalism. Professional bodies have a role to play in fight for press freedom in the region.

Local unions have to wage numerous battles for their own independence through advocating for better legislation that affords greater protection to reporters and that prohibits prosecutions for reporting.

They have to promote the development of more journalistic organisations and more actively resist government attempts to contain and control the media by positioning themselves as defenders of free, independent media, creating strong alliances with alternative media, citizens journalists and social media influencers.

They need to be inclusive to promote a positive narrative about the role of the media in citizens’ lives and bridge the social gap between journalists and the general public to increase support for stronger independent media.

As a major regional proxy war rages on in the region, dominating headlines and geopolitical agendas, the battle for a future independent Arab media that is trusted and trustworthy, is one that seeks to do away with robotic journalists and organisations programmed only to serve the interests of the powerful.