Blair: Faith has been ‘blind spot’ in UK policy arena

By staff writers
September 7, 2009

In a speech tonight, the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair will highlight the role of faith in international development.

His comments will come as the first in a series of seminars exploring faith and development hosted by The Tony Blair Faith Foundation, the Department for International Development, Islamic Relief, World Vision and Oxfam.

The founder of the Faith Foundation Faith will say that faith has traditionally been a ‘blind spot in the UK policy arena’, which has tended to be ‘dominated by economic and political discourses’.

His comments come after the Department for International Development announced in July it would double central funding for faith-based groups.

The move followed a consultation at Lambeth Palace in March between faith communities and DfID. The Archbishop of Canterbury's senior advisors on inter-faith relations and international development were joined by representatives from all the UK's religions and many development agencies to discuss the White Paper consultation and to emphasise the contribution of religious communities to its formulation.

Tony Blair will say tonight: “In many developing countries religion is one of the most powerful sources of personal identity – for good and ill. Understanding these identities is critical to tackling conflict and understanding politics. Equally, the role of religion in forming attitudes and behaviour can be profoundly important in addressing the causes and effects of poverty.

“In countries where the state has a weak or erratic presence, people often organise essential services through faith communities: the churches are the largest healthcare providers in sub-Saharan Africa. Faith can also be a channel through which people become engaged as active citizens, and press for change, whether in recent Kenyan elections or the protests in Burma.

“At the turn of the millennium government understood that the churches could deliver powerful and effective advocacy messages in favour of development objectives: on aid, trade and debt. With Gordon Brown and myself, they were mainly knocking on an open door. We valued that commitment to making poverty history. The great London multi-faith march by religious leaders this year to promote the Millennium Development Goals was further evidence of the power wielded by faith communities when they work together.

“We know they are effective advocates – that's not the key question in development. But do religious leaders and faith communities in the developing world have the capacity to contribute effectively to national development plans? Or are they only interested in the welfare of their own constituencies, so that funding them would be divisive?

“The answer is providing help to enable faith communities to develop their capabilities. It doesn't make sense for them to do this separately.”

Blair will draw attention to the situation in Mozambique where there are programmes which train leaders from different faiths together so that they can play their role in health education among their communities.

“Faith communities given training, some funding and mobile phones, could provide governments with missing data about incidence of disease and the effectiveness of healthcare delivery in parts of their populations where government has negligible access” he will say. “But there is little research on what these communities need, even what they are already doing, to know what interventions are required. Dfid is funding one of the first research consortiums studying faith and development based at Birmingham University. But we need more.”

“Faith communities are not NGOs in the normal sense” he will say. “They were not consciously created for service delivery, health care, advocacy, or education. They are a gathered people brought together by often ancient religious traditions carried through the generations by a community of faith. They are centred on worship, usually rooted in sacred texts and have a particular spirituality and set of symbols. They are involved in healthcare and education because of their particular spirituality and what they believe are the simple demands of justice. Their obligation is to God or their founding teacher. They bring to it a common concern for the human dignity of the person that embraces the spiritual.”

The seminar series which involves Dfid, Islamic Relief, World Vision and Oxfam is being billed as an open, and “if necessary, critical discussion about the role that faith can play in development”.

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