Oxfam Discussion Document: Learnings and analysis about religion, culture, diversity, and development

Oxfam GB - Cassandra Balchin
Publication Date: 
August, 2011

Executive Summary:
Why think about religion?

Religion is a significant force that shapes attitudes, practices, policies, and laws across the world, North or South, developed or developing, whether the state is secular or theocratic. For many people (including some development actors), religion is an essential part of their personal well-being and identity; and, as an institution, it can provide networks and services that ensure practical survival in times of economic stress and national crisis. Many religious organizations have significant resources available for service-delivery and for influencing policy advocacy. However, religion is also used to justify discrimination and conflict. To summarize, religion and religious organizations evidently need to be taken seriously in rights-based development analysis and practice.

On the ground, religion is shaped by a variety of factors such as ethnicity, local custom, urban–rural location, state structures, economic development level, etc. Therefore, at times the analysis in this paper talks more broadly of ‘culture’, which means the set of beliefs and practices that structure individuals’ lives and place them as members of one or more ‘communities’.

Despite the significance of religion, analysis of the interconnections between religion, culture, diversity, and development, and of how to account for diversity in practice, is scarce and scattered. Many development actors lack the degree of ‘religious literacy’ that would help them to develop effective responses to challenges related to religion as well as to the question of partnering with religious organizations.

Since 2004, Oxfam GB (OGB) has taken concrete steps towards building its capacity in this area, and to this end has held a number of related workshops involving staff from around the world. The analysis they shared forms a basis for this paper, along with illustrative case studies on: the Early Marriage Campaign, Yemen; responding to the tsunami, Aceh, Indonesia; anti-mosquito spraying, Am Nabak Camp, Chad; responses to HIV and AIDS, Mombassa, Kenya; the ‘We Can’ Campaign to end violence against women, South Asia; and dealing with diversity, Oxfam field office X.
OGB has built up a solid body of knowledge and expertise on the issues of religion, culture, diversity, and development. It now seeks to share this more widely within the organization, as well as with development allies and partners.

Religion and development – some common challenges

The paper provides 18 examples of common challenges (raised by workshop participants – see Part 2) facing development actors when they consider religion, culture, diversity, and development. These questions are organized into broad categories. In addition to challenges arising from the current global context, they relate to:

  1. Development analysis: for instance, are rights and religion necessarily opposites that need balancing?
  2. Development policy: for instance, what should be the criteria for partnership with a religious organization, especially when the language of rights has become so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless?
  3. Development practice: for instance, how to be ‘culturally sensitive’ and what decisions to make regarding staffing and diversity?

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Oxfam discussion documents

Oxfam GB discussion documents are written to contribute to public debate and to invite feedback on development and humanitarian policy issues. They are ‘work in progress’ documents, and do not necessarily constitute final publications or reflect Oxfam policy positions. The views and recommendations expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Oxfam GB. For more information, or to comment on this document, email: