Is Development a Denomination?

After a rather uncomfortable encounter with a preacher this week, I began a bit of a thought experiment…could it be that is development a denomination? Follow along with me and let me know what you think.

The Back Story

Friday evening, after a day of visiting rural villages to site boreholes, I returned home and was greeted by a visitor. Here in Malawi, I am often greeted by new acquaintances with some combination of the following questions which seem to have no particular order of priority:

“Where are you from?”

“Are you married?”

“Where are you staying?”

“Which denomination do you belong to?”

This encounter started no differently. To preface the remainder of the encounter and thought experiment, I should introduce that I am not religious and that prior to coming to Malawi I chose to be honest about my beliefs throughout my time here. So true to form, I answered the visitor’s question about my denomination the way I always do “Sindipemphera” (“I don’t pray.”)

Well, not particularly surprisingly the visitor exclaimed “Why?!?” To save on your reading time, I will say that the next hour concluded after the visitor preached to me about not his beliefs, but the true way, what my life was lacking, how I could improve on it and a promise to return a copy of the New Testament.

Not an hour later, my host father returned with a gift from the visitor, who it turns out is a preacher – a copy of the New Testament and a book on Leadership for youth, something to the effect of “A Guide of Leading in God’s Way.” I was upset, not only had the visitor not listened to my perspective nor heeded my request to make the New Testament a gift to the Banda family so that we may all share it, but he had given me a guide on how to gain leadership in something I did not identify with – and then it dawned on me… different is this from development?

Thought Experiment

Follow through the thought experiment with me now:

A visitor arrives to meet me in a rural village. That visitor asks about my life and then identifies in his mind what needs to change about my life to make it better. Not wishing to be rude, I smile and listen to the visitor as he, with the best possible intentions, proceeds to identify what I am lacking, how to improve and offers surreptitiously to provide the materials necessary all without my request for help or even consent.

Does that sound familiar? What if I change the context:

An SUV, filled with Western passengers, drives up to a community in a rural village. The visitors ask the community members to assemble so that the visitors may learn about their way of life. The community members, not wanting to be rude to their Western visitors, rush to assemble for a meeting. In this process, the visitors identify areas in their lives that are lacking or could be improved on, for example, the community does not use the right seed, have enough livestock or have an adequate community building. The visitors then proceed to tell the community members how they overcome their deficiency and that they, the visitors, will even provide the required materials to remedy the situation as well as leadership training for key members in the coming weeks or months.

The Consequences

What I have just described, in my mind, is bad development – development that despite every good intention is self serving, unsustainable and belittling.

From my perspective, I don’t plan read of the New Testament or the Leadership Guide, but even if I did, I feel it is unlikely that I will adopt any long term changes in my life for two reasons 1) I don’t feel that my life is lacking, 2) I am put off by the way in which I was approached to make a change I did not feel necessary. I can imagine that in the other context, some of the villagers may feel the same way.

In the end, I don’t think development is a denomination, but I do think poor development, i.e. projects that are designed to create a predetermined change without community input, are like the preacher – driven by the best intentions but miss the mark entirely. What do you think?


8 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Patrick on June 16, 2010 at 3:49 pm


    Great post… I’ve often pondered a similar thought – how similar are some NGOs to any other group of evangelize-rs? Preachers talk to people out of hope they’ll adopt a certain life style – one that involves a certain faith. I believe that preachers believe they’re not doing harm, nor are they trying to offend or annoy people; they believe that people ought to use their faith for salvation/happiness/success ect . .

    What do NGOs do? Some of them talk about a specific issue (say fair trade) in an persuasive way in the hopes that Canadians will adopt a change in lifestyle (now people will buy fair trade). NGOs believe this action is justified/necessary/important… I guess it all boils down to value sharing – some people share their religious values, others share their civic values.



  2. Posted by Craig Sandy on June 16, 2010 at 9:54 pm

    Lauren, I think you draw a good comparison between the unwanted foisting of religion on someone and “poorly thought out, top-down, feel good for the providers” development assistance.
    Anyone would get their back up when told what to do by their supposed betters.
    Your challenge is how to affect the lives of your new family and their community in a way that is organice, makes sense to them and helps them to help themselves to the point where EWB is no longer necessary. Keep up the good work and good luck. Craig


  3. Posted by David McColl on June 17, 2010 at 8:53 pm

    There are two ways of looking at this:
    – if we’re talking about charity, I would relate this to a “gift”. You know that gadget you got for Christmas, but will never use. It can be a sign of goodwill between people. Obviously it doesn’t necessarily help anybody but that’s the intent.
    – if we’re talking about development, which in some regard is a form of a “gift”, it does need to be two-sided. 1. If there is no benefit to the community, it hardly can be characterized as development. Therefore the community must be onboard as well as a part of the initiation process (i.e. it should be partly their idea). 2. There will be no benefit to the community if everything is given with no strings attached. The external party must ensure adequate allocation of resources. Obviously the restrictions and oversight must be justified and balanced so as to avoid guiding a project in the wrong direction where no net (or marginal net) gain is realized.

    As for the development-preaching comparison, I could see the intent to help being there in both circumstances. I personally would hesitate to put the two in the same category, though.


  4. Hi Patrick,

    I know what you mean about drawing comparisons between civic values and religious values. The day the preacher approached me I had spent the entire afternoon visiting villages to observe community ‘mobilization meetings’ where the man running the meetings was encouraging me to say words at the end to encourage the communities to undertake the projects. I always said a pared down version basically thanking them for welcoming us and it being nice to see the community working together but nonetheless it made me uncomfortable.

    I think you bring up an interesting point about value SHARING, I wonder, do you think there is enough of a difference between value sharing and value preaching to justify a claim that there is a significant difference in approach between preachers and ‘good’ development?


    • Posted by patrickbvmiller on June 29, 2010 at 5:05 pm

      Hey Lauren,

      I believe that preaching and sharing are the same idea, but it’s the mechanism of how people share/preach that is the big issue. For me it’s an issue of how aggressively people… share… their values. I’ll try to use two stories to articulate what I feel:

      – I remember back in Zambia I was walking through a sprawling market in one of the “off the beaten trail” townships. There were people everywhere and I could have sworn I was the only musungu – I was writing ideas down and looking at some killer chitenge while having a conversation with a friend of mine who was a tailor. A Zambian I didn’t know said “Musungu, your friend is making a commotion”. Turns out I wasn’t the only musungu in the the township market that day – another Musungu, an American preacher was speaking, really yelling at the crowd about how they needed to reform or else they’d go to hell. Of course he had a translator relay the message into iciBemba. Some people very visibly disturbed. I’d see this guy in the market every now and then – it made me pretty mad at the time. One time I talked to the man and he didn’t feel like he was doing anything wrong because he believed in the cause.

      – At an event promoting fair trade I once heard a volunteer get pretty passionate and essentially tell the person they were engaging that “you’re a terrible person who supports oppression unless you buy fair trade” needless to say, our group looked pretty terrible and that person likely hasn’t considered buying fair trade seriously.

      When I think about both people, the volunteer and the preacher, they both set out to do something they were fiercely passionate about and believed in. I think we can relate to that. But how they went about doing it, using anger and scaremongering, is something. It’s how people share their values and why they are sharing them that seems to be important to me. Not what their values are – if people want to engage on something there’s likely a reasonable way to do it. Overseas, or in Canada, in matters of religion or civil society this value sharing is ubiquitous – we can call it preaching or call it sharing… I think the intent is often similar, but the mechanism is what differs.


  5. I thought that was a really cool post. Great comparison. I really love reading your posts lauren. Keep up the excellent writing.



  6. Posted by Alex on June 20, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Hey Lauren,

    This is a really interesting way to look at development. I can totally understand your frustration with the preacher and it really puts into perspective the frustration so many villagers must have with NGO’s and other development organizations that don’t put the needs of the people first.

    Your posts are always interesting easy to read and I’m sorry I missed your call this morning, I promise to respond to your emails quicker i swear!!!

    Love you and miss you!!



  7. Posted by Tom Hansen on June 20, 2010 at 11:51 pm

    Wow. Great post. Thanks for making me think. Not sure if I know what I think yet but this was super interesting.


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