The Role of Religion and Culture in Development

Reflections by Azza Karam, Senior Cultural Advisor to the United Nations Population Fund 

Conversations at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, ASU

It was the 80’s in Egypt when veiled women were an oddity, as opposed to now, where 80 percent of Egyptian women don the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. Azza Karam was working at a human rights organization when an old Egyptian woman, veiled in black, came into the office announcing that her sons had been taken away and she needed help to bring them home. Once the woman left, Karam says the lawyers began arguing whether to help her, since she was a member of the conservative Islamists and they only wanted to represent and help the secular, progressive members of Egyptian society.

“In the U.S., everyone is entitled to defense, but there (Egypt), if your ideas and beliefs were not the same, we could be just as unjust,” Karam says..

That experience was one of many that alerted Karam of the troubling political discriminatory nature of human rights activism and pushed her to study the relationship between religion, gender and human rights as an academic, development consultant and trainer and eventually Senior Cultural Advisor to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in New York.

In her position, Karam creates partnerships and collaborations with faith-based organizations and reaches out to religious leaders into policy and decision-making for the UNFPA’s initiatives. She also conducts training programs for UN staff on cultural and religious issues. It hasn’t been easy though, working to shift the attitude in the development industry towards religion’s role in social progress and effective programs.

“Those who own the human rights discourse tend to be largely of the Western hemisphere,” Karam says. This is so because Western countries are historically the providers of financial assistance for development work, so their orientation and philosophy strongly affects the organizations they choose to support. To the West, religion and culture is often seen as a detriment to development with fundamentalism, patriarchy and opposition to democracy. Karam says that in the UN, she was even told that religion was irrelevant to politics in the Middle East.

“People forget that religious scholars were present at the creation of the UN…in the morals and values of human rights,” she says. Many employees and staff members refer to the UN’s Human Rights Charter as a “sacred text,” proving that clearly there are observations of religiousness in development but only what is found as acceptable and agreeable to the mainstream community. The negativity about religion and human rights is as much about the donors and source of funding along with differing attitudes about the personal nature of religious expression.

“We don’t want religion to divide and treat people unequally and unfairly,” Karam notes, as one reason development professionals are uneasy to bring religion into the conversation. At a policy level, religion must be put aside considering there is a sensitivity to past colonial, religiously oppressive and missionary times.

However, sensitivity to culture and religions is an important part of serving people in need, Karam says. Culture for the UN has always been defined as tangible–heritage sites, traditions, folkore, women at the looms,  “but it is also what makes people tick.”

Recognizing the role religion plays in people’s lives allows development professionals to design and provide targeted programs that deliver immediate needs for marginalized societies. At the UNFPA, Karam specifically works on issues relating to population, reproductive rights, and sexual health–all clearly very taboo and controversial topics to address with deeply religious communities. When it comes to HIV/AIDS stigma for examples, engaging religious leaders and helping them understand that it is a serious, life-threatening disease not to be trivialized reverses a social trend that was deeply harmful.

Karam says that the training she has done with staff starting a few years ago has “been remarkable” connecting the UNFPA with groups like World Vision and Islamic Relief, “acknowledging the other.”

“There isn’t a need to bring religion into every context, but it’s about advocating the role of faith-based organizations in development and when to consolidate resources,” she says.

This unconventional approach to development is a great indicator of more comprehensive and culturally-conscious work that truly aligns with the principles of human rights and dignity in all cultures and traditions. We cannot pretend that religion is not a significant part of our world and dictates how people think and behave, so why would we leave it out of the equation when trying to address health inequalities, gender inequality, poverty, low literacy rates and rebuilding civil society?

To learn more about Azza Karam, you can read a discussion she had with the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and Public affairs.

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