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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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Public online panel discussion: “With the Help of God(s)? Religious Actors and Sustainable Development in Africa”


On 19 January 2022 the Cluster of Excellence in corporation with the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) held a public online discussion on the impact that faith-based organisations have on the sustainable development in Africa.

On the African continent and elsewhere, faith-based organisations provide healthcare services, religious groups offer education to kids and young adults, and religious leaders act as conflict mediators. At the same time, there are frequent news about violence carried out by radical religious actors. Such actors appear to have the capacity to both foster and undermine sustainable development. Today, a majority of African political leaders, Western governments, international organisations, and (I)NGOs acknowledge the relevant role of religious actors in bringing about sustainable development and place great hope in their potential. What are these hopes based on? How are religion and sustainable development linked? Are they linked at all? And what challenges arise when religion and politics go hand in hand?

These questions and more were addressed by an online panel discussion that was organised by Cluster member Eva Spies, Professor for the Study of Religion with focus on Africa at the University of Bayreuth, in corporation with GIGA. The event that was chaired by Paula Schrode, Professor for the Study of Religion with focus on contemporary Islam at the University of Bayreuth, took place on 19 January 2019 and was held online via Zoom.

When Doris Löhr, Academic Coordinator of Internationalisation and Public Engagement at the Cluster of Excellence, welcomed the approximately 85 people who had tuned into the event she underscored the topicality of the discussion and the great expertise that had come together in the panel. She also explained the choreography of the event: First, researchers would present ongoing studies, then experts from the areas of politics and development practice would discuss these critically. Subsequently, the panel discussion would be followed by an open Q&A session with the audience.

Increase in pregnancies due to religious interference?

The first researcher to talk about their work was Damaris Sleina Parsitau who is a social scientist and Senior Lecturer in Religion and Gender Studies at Egerton University in Kenya. Parsitau, who is also President of the African Association for the Study of Religions (AASR), talked about a study that she conducted in eight African countries with main actors of feminist and gender rights to scrutinize the impact of COVID 19 on developmental issues. Parsitau pointed out that the closing of schools due to the pandemic resulted in an increased number of teenage pregnancies. She stated that her research suggests that faith-based actors have become increasingly influential in economic, societal and political issues and play an especially relevant role when it comes to female education. Her contribution highlighted in particular religious leaders’ contestations over comprehensive sexuality education in Kenya and the moralization of teenage sexuality. She emphasised the need to overcome the stalemate between religiously conservative groups, education stakeholders, and reproductive justice actors.

How are religion, freedom and development connected?

Next up wasEric Stollenwerk. The GIGA Research Fellow talked about the project “Freedom and Development? Religious Actors, Freedom of Religion or Belief, and Sustainable Development (FREDEV)” he is carrying out together with Michael Basedau. He stated that the preliminary results of his research suggest that there was noticeable progress in sustainable development. However, the role that religious actors and freedom of religion or belief play in that development was difficult to determine. In fact, it appeared that an improvement in freedom of religion did not automatically equal more sustainable development. However, religious actors are highly relevant for sustainable development goals (SDG) 3 (Good Health and Well-Being), 5 (Gender Equality) and 16 (Peace, Justice and strong institutions). He also pointed out that there often is tension between achieving sustainable development goals and following a more value-oriented development policy, and pointed to the unintended consequences of cooperation should not be underestimated

Is a moral turn in development really a solution?

Subsequently, Eva Spies presented the ongoing interdisciplinary research project of the Cluster entitled “Religious engineering. The making of moralities, development and religion in Niger”. In the framework of the project the Professor for the Study of Religion scrutinizes religion in development as a political tool. During her presentation she discussed the question if it was sensible to include “uncomfortable local partners” like Salafi organisations in development if they shared similar goals, rather than focusing only on assumed moral commonalities with the familiar religious players. In a pluralist approach it may turn out to be more fruitful to also work with marginalised groups than only to join forces with “legitimate” groups. That might make it possible to learn from other ways of knowing the world and understanding transformation, Spies explains.

Response and Discussions

Following the brief presentations, there was the opportunity for two practitioners to comment and respond to the work and preliminary findings of the three scholars. First, Nabiela Farouq-Martius, Advisor in the Values, Religion and Development sector project at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) explained that although it is often challenging to work with faith-based organizations who claim to have the “moral high ground” it can be very important to drive forward development. Dr. Daniel Salau Rogei, Researcher at the Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, who works in development organisations and has been involved in development processes confirmed that churches still play a very significant role in development. Governments often proactively involve the church in the pursuit of their goals. However, recently there has been more and more conflict and the government are often questioning faith-based organizations.

During the lively Q&A that followed various aspects of the presentations were discussed with everyone agreeing that the role of religious actors in the development of African countries should be examined further. (sg)

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