Rebecca Shah on Religion & the Enterprising Poor in India
Date: June 23rd, 2013

Why are the poor, poor?  Alternatively, what prevents the poor from improving their financial well-being?  These questions have occupied the minds of political economists for centuries, but few beyond Max Weber have ever considered the role of religion as an explanatory factor.  Dr. Rebecca Shah, a research associate at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, discusses an ongoing research project called “Holy Avarice” with us.  As she reveals, this project examines both wealthy Christian entrepreneurs and the role faith plays in their business success, and poor individuals struggling to break out of their dismal living conditions.  We focus on the latter topic for this interview, which takes us to the slums of Bangalore, India to examine how religion affects the economic prospects of what Dr. Shah calls “the enterprising poor.”

Our conversation starts with a discussion of the living conditions of the three neighborhoods she examined during her research trips.  The vivid portrayal of life in these poor communities sets the stage for how difficult it is for individuals trapped in poverty to escape.  We then cover the role of lending and the different types of loans that are available to the poor.  Borrowing funds to cover everything from short-term needs (e.g., paying rent, a doctor bill) to finding ways to finance a small business is a fact of life for individuals in these communites.  Becky details how borrowing can have a negative effect on the poor, particularly if loans are used by individuals who tend to significantly undervalue the future.  We then move to discuss the micro-finance (or micro-lending) movement that has become popular in recent decades and how women are organizing sangams (self-help groups) to create financial accountability amongst themselves.  The role of women is emphasized in this interview given that critical role that they play in organizing small businesses in these communities, as well as the critical spiritual role they play in the family (a topic we review later).  Becky relays a number of the social problems that beset women, including physical abuse from their husbands.

Our focus then turns to the role of religion.  We discover the interesting religious diversity of these poor neighborhoods, including the recent growth of Pentecostalism amongst the population which is majority Hindu, but also contains a significant number of Muslims, Catholics and a smattering of other faiths.  It is interesting to see how religious tensions are relatively minimal in the poor communities that Becky examines.  We place the most attention on how Pentecostals are shaping the financial fortunes of poor women.  Becky’s research has revealed that tithing to one’s religious community on a regular basis creates a degree of accountability and financial expectation that promotes a pattern of responsible saving.  This behavioral pattern, in addition to the accountability that sangams create amongst their members, facilitates an economic discipline that allows entrepreneurial women to achieve some economic success.  Other ritualistic behaviors such as fasting also sends signals to members in the community who may not share a particular individual’s religious faith, but nevertheless helps to build bonds of trust among different people.  Becky’s research also shows how a woman’s Pentecostal faith and the practice it entails can also mitigate problems such as domestic violence and alcohol abuse amongst the men in the household, a trend that has also been witnessed in Latin America.   Recorded: June 6, 2013.



Rebecca Shah’s bio at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, & World Affairs.

The Holy Avarice Project.

The Reformation of Machismo: Evangelical Conversion and Gender in Columbia, by Elizabeth Brusco (mentioned in the podcast).


Alessandra González on Islamic Feminism.

Carolyn Warner on Religion & Generosity.

Robert Woodberry on Missionaries and Democracy.

Lan Chu on Catholicism in Vietnam.

One Response to “Rebecca Shah on Religion & the Enterprising Poor in India”

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