Resisting a ‘Social Engineering’ Approach to Development
Acton Institute Powerblog

Resisting a ‘Social Engineering’ Approach to Development

A conference held in Washington earlier this month sought to forge relationships between leaders of secular and faith-based groups working to alleviate poverty.

Representatives from the World Bank Group, the German/British/US government development agencies, the GHR Foundation, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, Islamic Relief USA, American Jewish World Service, McKinsey & Company, and more gathered for the occasion. The Lancet, a leading medical journal, published an issue on the role of religion and faith-based development organizations in global health and released it at the conference.

It’s exciting to see secular organizations acknowledge the unique potential of religious groups to enact successful initiatives in developing nations. However, Acton’s previous research on the divergent development and world health strategies of secular and religious groups suggests that a successful merger will require more organic, bottom-up approaches than what the biggest development powerhouses are used to.

The shared goal to end extreme poverty and promote sustainable development is admirable, and it’s an important basis for building common ground among groups. But good intentions aren’t enough. Many of the largest secular development organizations, such as the World Bank, tend to adopt approaches that fall under the category of “social engineering,” coordinating and launching initiatives that are fundamentally at odds with religious groups’ insistence on the dignity and powerful potential of each individual.

Why are the secular groups interested in joining forces with their religious counterparts? As World Bank President Dr. Jim Kim told the faith communities at the conference, “we need prophetic voices to inspire us and evidence to lead the way.” However, trotting out a few token “prophetic voices” in front of a deeply problematic system of foreign aid will not lead to the kind of sustainable results that transform communities.

Superficially importing religious ideas and figures into existing aid models will not work. The successful integration of faith with development would require a shift in the paradigm, committing to the idea that people are created in the image of God, endowed with dignity and creative capacity. It must be more than just working with religious groups to fundraise or spread awareness or catechize. In order for any of the new partnerships that were forged out of the conference to accomplish their goals, the organizations need to dismiss any model that objectifies the poor and treats them as members of a fundamentally different category of humanity.

As Acton research fellow Michael Matheson Miller has said before, a “social engineering top-down approach” often devolves into “neocolonialist models imposed on developing countries,” and ultimately, such strategies fail to see the poor as the “subjects and protagonists of their own story of development.” PovertyCure and PovertyInc have demonstrated that foreign aid is not the solution to poverty, and it is often part of the problem because of its refusal to acknowledge and promote creativity and true flourishing among the poor. Miller has written extensively about this issue and the other underlying difficulties with many development organizations:

“Wealth can be created when the poor are allowed freedom and opportunity – when there are private property rights, justice and the rule of law, freedom to start a business without oppressive regulation, and freedom to enter into networks of productivity and ‘circles of exchange.’ I believe – in fact, I know – that the poor can create wealth and prosperity for themselves, their families and their communities that no state or international agency could ever create.”

Any secular development group that seeks to partner with a religious organization will not be able to achieve meaningful progress unless it abandons aid initiatives that minimize the dignity and potential of the individuals it seeks to help. It will require a fundamental shift in perspective, away from imposing paternalistic, neo-colonial strategies and toward creating opportunity and access to networks of productivity and circles of exchange. True partnership would demand that the secular groups acknowledge the foundation of human dignity that religious groups tend to construct their initiatives on.

This reasoning extends beyond poverty into the related realm of health care, which was a key part of the conference. Any approach that devalues the sanctity of human life, whether it’s population control initiatives or gender-selective abortion, is fundamentally incompatible with the deepest tenets of most religions, which affirm humanity’s intrinsic dignity and each person’s vocation to serve his or her creator. If the partnerships are going to be meaningful, the fundamental perspective with which secular agencies view the poor must be adjusted in order to properly protect and promote human dignity at all levels.

Secular organizations cannot engineer strategies to save people from poverty and treat religion as a cherry on top. However, there is great potential in the notion of secular and religious groups coming together to pool resources and ideas in a true integration of purpose that respects the dignity of the poor. Respecting their dignity means entering into substantial dialogue with local leaders and working to present opportunities for them to accomplish their own goals and create wealth – not importing one-size-fits-all initiatives that foster a fundamentally wrong attitude toward the poor.