Religion and development in Africa: Blessing or curse?

African countries are seen as being both deeply religious and underdeveloped. Could religion be the underlying problem? Or is the misrepresentation of faith a hindrance to greater development?

A congregation in Kenya prays at a pentecostal church

Africa is host to the highest number of religious countries in the world, according to a recent Gallop poll. 

The survey appears to support the prevailing narrative that the most aggressively religious nations tend to be the least developed.

But, says development scholar Gareth J. Wall, the notion of what ‘development’ means should to be examined before religion can be taken into account.

Does development here mean “economic growth” or rather “a human development perspective which (the Indian economist and philosopher) Amartya Sen would define as the ‘ability to live a life one values’,” asks Wall, who is examining how development is measured in his doctoral thesis.

Then the idea that western countries are “less religious than African countries also needs to be challenged,” Wall told DW.

“The US is also an incredibly religious country,” he said. “And the UK is not a secular country. The head of state (the queen) is also the head of the Church of England. It is one of only three countries (Iran and Belize being the other two) to have religious leaders — in this case bishops — in the legislature.”

A new way of measuring the concept of development

Amartya Sen, whom Wall cited earlier, has a concept of development as a notion of ‘freedom’ which supersedes the (perhaps rather limited) ideas of Western development theorists.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate argues in his writings that “individual agency is, ultimately, central to addressing … deprivations” which for long have defined the African continent in western eyes as a place of lack.

Amartya Sen’s theories have influenced major thinkers and garnered him a Nobel Peace Prize

“Development can be seen … as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy. Focusing on human freedoms contrasts with narrower views of development, such as identifying development with the growth of gross national product … industrialization, or with technological advance, or with social modernization,” Sen suggests in his book “Development as Freedom.”

The book, which was first published in 1999, has long become a staple among development experts rethinking their approaches to helping developing nations.

Sen’s ideas divorce religion from playing a role in development — for better or for worse.

But whether religion plays a role in Africa’s development prospects by any measure or standard, is nevertheless part of an ongoing conversation across the continent.

We spoke to various people on the ground to gather their views on this uneasy relationship.

More than 45% of Africans follow various Christian traditions, with Islam catching up at 40%

Religion: divine solution or root of all problems?

Cynthia Banda in Malawi believes in miracles and has faith that the ultimate solution to all societal problems lies in the hand of God.

Miracles can be performed even now… if you are following as a Christian, it helps in the development of a country,” Banda told DW.

She shares her line of thinking with fellow Malawian Charles Wahara who said: “It’s important in these modern days to believe in miracles and to go to church. … Religion has played a better role as far as the development of Africa is concerned.”

But in Nigeria, some take a more critical view toward the role of religion in public spaces.

“The two major religions in Nigeria are Islam and Christianity and neither have ever preached anything that has to do with corruption in any way at all,” says engineer Ashafa Shiru.

“Religion should have helped those practicing it if the teachings of the religion are respected. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the heart in terms of holding onto the faith of religion,” he added.

His view is supported by Kalu Dimbili, a Nigerian civil servant, who says: “Actually, religion has not in anyway helped Nigeria. Rather, it has contributed a lot in dividing us.”

Such a divergence of views, however, is also exactly in the spirit of Sen, whose theory on development rests on the value that people “must be allowed freely what traditions they wish or not wish to follow.”

In Rwanda, people fill the pews at the Saint-Famille Catholic Church but in Europe, Christianity is losing its faithful

A holistic perspective on the holy

Religious leaders, meanwhile, have to navigate their way through mindsets and cultures that represent such opposing and divergent views. 

Reverend Jude Thaddeus Langeh, the Provincial Superior of the Claretian Missionaries in Cameroon, defends the role of faith in development, for example in education, arguing that “you cannot talk of intellectual development, without talking about the monks.”

“Can you look back into those days when the only prestigious and available schools were owned by missionaries? That already shows you one of the great parts of development,” he told DW, adding that religious orders picked people up where European settlers once failed them.

Religious orders care for the poor and marginalized in Africa — like this Franciscan nun at an orphanage in Togo

In Malawi, Bright Mhango thinks that when it comes to services provided by religious institutions, the relationship between faith and development is complicated.

Yes, religious orders played a role in setting up hospitals and schools and ending slavery, he said. But, “many people are religious because they are “desperate”.

“They are poor, they go to church looking for hope.”

That sentiment might be in line with Amartya Sen, who stresses that education is not only key to developing human capital but also more valuable than any other commodity by which societies and their levels of development have historically been judged, as it empowers the individuals.

“If a person can become more productive in making commodities through better education, better health and so on, it is not unnatural to expect that she can, through these means, also directly achieve more — and have the freedom to achieve more — in leading her life,” Sen writes in “Development as Freedom.”

Meanwhile some Muslim leaders also believe religion is indeed a powerful catalyst of development, and that those giving faith a bad name should be called out for it. 

Muslim scholar Bakari Arabi from Nigeria, for example, stresses that in his view “religion is always a blessing. … We should be able to distinguish between religion and bad followers of religion.”

Fundamentalists also carry out deadly attacks in the name of religion, as seen here in Nigeria’s Borno state

Keeping church and state corruption separate

Indeed the realities of corruption and endemic conflicts are a stark contradiction to the core tenets of Africa’s two major religions, Islam and Christianity, which both advocate morality and decency for those working in public office.

This contradiction has likely contributed to some people turning their backs to religion.

Some even go as far as saying that greed and graft have even made religion an accomplice in holding African nations back from reaching their full potential.

David Moses, a trader in Nigeria, says that “even in religion itself, there is corruption.” 

So that is part of the statistics as well. I cannot estimate if religion has helped or not because it is part of the system, a corrupt system.”

Muslim scholar Arabi, while acknowledging the endemic problem of corruption in African societies , argues that this is not in line with the teachings of Islam.

He highlights that underhanded deals, questionable government tenders and laundering of state funds might be regarded as “legitimate in our African society but it is corruption in Islam and therefore unacceptable.”

Muslims pray five times a day, as is seen here at the Great Mosque of Agadez in Niger

Reverend Langeh supports the same view, elaborating on how religion can be abused to reach illegitimate and selfish ends: “Somebody will steal and give big donations in churches. That is a wrong use of religion.”

But in the same breath he underlines the fact that this does not remove legitimacy away from genuine practitioners of faith and their collective efforts to help move society forward. 

“It does not cancel the fact that religion contributes to development. Back here in Africa, I want to vehemently say that religion has always helped in development,” he said.

Amartya Sen, in his writings, also acknowledges that “religious and communal differences are, of course, vulnerable to exploitation by sectarian politicians, and have indeed been so used on several occasions.”

However, that “most of the substantial sections of the nation condemn such deeds, provides ultimately the main democratic guarantee against the narrowly factional exploitation of sectarianism,” he writes.

In the African diaspora, as is seen here in London, Africans continue to follow their religious beliefs

Religious role models in development issues

As much as religious figures might not condone corruption, they often having a hard time proving that they also aren’t part of the problem, partly because of the failure to separate church and state in many African nations.

For many believers, religion plays a major role in informing government decisions — whether there is an official state religion or not.

Mauritius: A model for religious tolerance

But some religious leaders also highlight that the church and state can be inseparably linked in a positive way.

“Mahatma Ghandi was not only a political leader. He was a religious leader who combined the issue of praying and development … and his nonviolence was actually based on Hindu and Christian values,” says Reverend Langeh.

“Mother Theresa of Calcutta took her prayers into the streets of Calcutta, and brought about the integral development of the human person. … Julius Nyerere of Tanzania was also a very religious man. Can you really talk of development in Tanzania without talking about Julius Nyerere?” he asked.

Muslim scholar Arabi takes that idea even one step further, saying that everyone has the power to act as a role model in his or her own faith: “If you apply (religious principles) strictly, according to the way the religion wants them to be applied, you will always end up with blessings and not a curse.”

“These bad leaders should be blamed for their actions — and not religion.”

When Pope Francis visit to Madagascar in 2019, he was greeted by huge crowds; one out of five Africans are Catholic

Practicing what you preach

While opinions about the influence and role of religion in Africa’s development may differ, the bottom line is that only the interpretation and application of religion can bring about consequences of any kind — rather than religion as a practice itself.

And when that interpretation is detrimental to the tenets of the faith, it will likely be detrimental to the members of society as well. 

The notion of measuring development in dollars might also deserve an overhaul. 

Both the concept of faith and the very idea of what development actually means could potentially benefit from constructive attempts to redefine their roles and values in society today — especially in a restive continent like Africa

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Categories: The Muslim Times

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