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The World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD) is a dialogue on poverty and development among people from the different religions of the world and between them and the official development institutions, such as the World Bank and the agencies of the United Nations. Network Cultures was asked by WFDD to draft a working paper on the issue of cultures and development. This draft is presented here. It was submitted to various world religions for comment, which then led to the definitive text. This ultimate version of “Cultures, Spirituality and Development” is available in printed form at WFDD (33-37 Stockmore Street, Oxford 0X4 1JT, United Kindgom). The latter is the text which was submitted to the World Bank, UN agencies and NGDOs at large. The version which follows here represents directly the views of his author, Thierry Verhelst of Network Cultures.


Development : the old paradigm

Development strategies have often been looked at as ways to achieve a list of visible goals associated to material development in the Northern hemisphere since the era of industrialisation and urbanisation. Most development planning has consequently been inspired by a vision on history as a linear evolution conceived as a catching-up manoeuvre of western modernity. It was based on the importance of economic growth, and the central role of experts.

The westernising character of development was tellingly expressed by a Cameroon farmer in these words : “Development is the dream of the white man”. The mimetic nature of this approach does not leave much room for the recognition and valuation of other cultures and their contribution through locally embedded social, political and economic lifestyles.

Development was to be achieved through a process of controlled (often remote-controlled) transformation of communities engineered by the State and donor agencies. Technocratic approaches to control social change miss an essential democratic ingredient however, no matter how competent on technical grounds they may be. Fundamentally lacking is the role of people, with their aspirations, attitudes, mentality, values, beliefs, spirituality, sense of sacredness and happiness and with their own skills, know-how and creativity. In other words, their sense of personal and community growth. A Javanese blacksmith affirmed that in his view development was dual : that of the village and that of each person in the village. Development is maybe about that growth first and the right to live a meaningful life according to local values.

Development theory has been largely based on a positivistic epistemology and on a materialistic worldview. Positivism misses the invisible, intangible, non quantifiable dimension of societies. However, it is with that dimension that one ought to start. There are indeed important processes which precede visible change and orient that change. Materialism reduces human being to animals of material needs whereas most people also aspire to dignity and to increasing their humanness. To become more human is not necessarily linked to material conditions. Most religions would affirm this (“Man does not live from bread alone…”). A Maya woman said : “The heart of our struggle, the soul of our vision for a better future is to be able to live with dignity on the basis of our culture. Our culture tells us that our economic activities cannot be separated from social and religious life and cannot be reduced to economics the way white people see this. Everything is interconnected. If we were to think of economics in the western way, we' d be lost and we would never succeed. To succeed is to live in accordance with our dignity”.[1] Planning based on the economistic reduction of the human being to a homo economicus ignores behaviour inspired by gratuity, solidarity and community which are to be observed in (what is disdainfully called) “the informal sector” where hundreds of millions of urban dwellers survive or eke out a decent living. It ignores that the human being is also very much a homo socialis, a homo religiosus, a homo ludens and sometimes, homo demens, that is a social being, a religious being and a playful and sometimes unreasonable person.

To stress the invisible and non-material dimension is not to entertain a romantic vision on material deprivation. Living conditions which negate fundamental human freedom and dignity and which are offensive to social justice and equity must be removed at all costs. Similarly, cultures which discriminate on the basis of gender - they are many - or of race or creed must evolve. But that does not allow the rejection of a culture in its totality. Furthermore, it does not allow experts to pass judgement in a hurry on other cultures as if they themselves were value-free and totally objective. Experts wear their own ethnocentric glasses and often lack the necessary anthropological background to interpret correctly a given social practice.

Colonialists tended to consider as a norm to be imposed on other societies what was “normal” to them. Similarly, under the guise of modernisation and development (and today of globalisation), materialistic and individualistic values are being promoted throughout the globe. As a result, sustainable lifestyles are being jeopardised.

[1] Interview of Maya representatives in Mexico, on February 19, 1998; South-North Network Cultures and Development (private notes of Th. Verhelst).

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