John Rees on International Development and Faith-Based Organizations
Date: December 28th, 2014

Following World War II, a number of countries came together to promote the reconstruction of Europe and, shortly thereafter, the economic development of the Third World by creating institutions such as the World Bank.  What role have faith-based organizations (FBOs) played in this effort to alleviate poverty and promote social flourishing?  Prof. John Rees of the University of Notre Dame, Australia discusses his personal work with FBOs and his scholarly research on the topic.

We begin with some background information about Prof. Rees.  John notes that a trip to the United States to play basketball set him in motion down an interesting path wherein he worked for an international FBO — Tear Australia — and then to a Ph.D. in international politics where he sought to understand what role religion plays in international development efforts.  As observed by other podcast guests, both John and Tony point out that religion was a rather neglected aspect of foreign policy for most of the post-WWII era, be it in terms of international security or economic development.  While September 11 prompted more scholars to think about the role of religion in the realm of security studies, John sought to bring attention to the role that confessional groups played in grassroots development and how larger FBOs were seeking to partner with larger transnational institutions.  We spend a bit of time discussing what the nature of “economic development” entails with John noting how religious individuals tend to provide a broader definition than merely the “GDP growth data” that more narrow economic analyses tend to zero in on.  John notes that many religious leaders point out that “we don’t live in an economy, we live in a society” and that development institutions need to think about this.

For those not well versed in post-war economic development efforts, John lays out a brief history of “international financial institutions” (IFIs).  While first starting with a focus on reconstructing Europe and avoiding further wars, attention of these IFIs soon shifted to the developing world as decolonization was presenting all sorts of new challenges.  A number of the early efforts by these IFIs to give out block grants to governments, emphasize structural adjustment, and promote “good governance” were met with criticism and resistance by organizations within these developing nations, oftentimes by groups with a religious bent.  John mentions the impact of liberation theology in Latin America as well as efforts of the Jubilee 2000 movement.  These protests, beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1990s, made some folks aware in the international development communities that religious groups located at the grassroots possessed unique local knowledge and connections that could improve efforts to promote economic development and social flourishing.  This realization, championed by the World Faiths Development Dialogue and folks like the World Bank’s president James Wolfensohn, opened the door to greater cooperation between FBOs and IFIs.  John further points out that religiously-engaged folks who worked within these institutions also were promoting ideas for greater partnerships between the secular-oriented international institutions and religious charities.

Our conversation also covers various difficulties that are involved in developing partnerships between IFIs and FBOs.  John provides a number of cautionary insights into this relationship by noting that religious actors and faith communities are often not the same thing.  Moreover, there are differences in vision between large FBOs that are located in the “global North,” formal FBOs that are headquartered in the “global South,” and grassroots groups that are not plugged into extensive hierarchical development networks.  He notes that FBOs in the North tend to absorb the definition and priorities of formal IFIs like the World Bank.  This is, in part, a natural outgrowth of institutional actors preferring to work with those they know and understand, and the incentives created to conform to a set of standards when allocating development funds.  Much of the early efforts to engage FBOs in international development were based upon pre-existing notions of development.  Nonetheless, John’s research shows that there is a movement to engage less formal actors in civil society into partnerships.  We spend time discussing the difficulties of engaging some organizations, such as Hezbollah, that do provide social services to local communities but also are engaged in violent conflict.  John provides a handful of examples of where some of these grassroots efforts have been successful such as the Aga Khan Group and the Avina Foundation.

Our conversation concludes with John’s thoughts on the direction of international development efforts and the role that FBOs and grassroots groups have to play.  He shares some pessimism and worries about whether religious groups might be co-opted by the efforts and definitions of the IFIs, losing some of their grassroots leverage and appeal.  On the other hand, there is also a case to be made for optimism in this area as more groups enter the conversation and provide a patchwork of visions that help to check and balance top-down efforts to impose a certain definition of development.  Recorded: December 16, 2014.



Prof. John Rees’ bio at the University of Notre Dame, Australia and on The Conversation.

Religion in International Politics and Development: The World Bank and Faith Institutions, by John Rees.

Contemporary Challenges in Australian Security, by Daniel Baldino, Juliet Pietsch, David Lundberg, & John Rees

Tear Australia (an FBO mentioned in the podcast).


 Torrey Olsen on Faith-Based Humanitarianism and World Vision

David Smith on Religion, International Relations, and Foreign Policy

Thomas Farr on Religion, Religious Liberty & US Diplomacy

Religious Freedom & Economic Prosperity: A Panel Discussion

William Inboden on Religious Liberty, Foreign Policy, & the Arab Spring

2 Responses to “John Rees on International Development and Faith-Based Organizations”

  1. […] John Rees on International Development and Faith-Based Organizations. […]

  2. […] John Rees on International Development and Faith-Based Organizations. […]

Leave a Reply

Listen or Download This Episode
Search The Podcast
To search the podcast, type a term and click the Search button.

Connect With Us