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Translating religion and development: Emerging perspectives from critical ethnographies of faith-based organizations

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics on religion and its engagements with development. Within this context, ‘religious non-governmental organizations (RNGOs)’
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  This article was written as part of a broader research project on Religion and NGOs in Asia. We are grateful to the Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at the Henry Luce Foundation for their generous support of this research. We would also like to thank Philip Fountain and other members of the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute for stimulating conversations that have informed our thinking in this article, and the anonymous reviewers for PIDS who have helped us to improve on earlier drafts.  Progress in Development Studies  19, 4 (2019) pp. 243–263 © 2019 SAGE Publications 10.1177/1464993419862453 Translating religion and development: Emerging perspectives from critical ethnographies of faith-based organizations Giuseppe Bolotta Durham University, United Kingdom Catherine Scheer Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris R. Michael Feener University of Oxford, United Kingdom Abstract: Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics on religion and its engagements with development. Within this context, ‘religious non-governmental organizations (RNGOs)’ or ‘faith-based organizations’ (FBOs) have garnered considerable attention. Early attempts to understand FBOs often took the form of typological mapping exercises, the cumulative effect of which has been the construction of a field of ‘RNGOs’ that can be analysed as distinct from—and possibly put into the service of—the work of purportedly secular development actors. However, such typologies imply problematic distinctions between over-determined imaginations of separate spheres of ‘religion’ and ‘development’. In this      244  Translating religion and development: Emerging perspectives from critical ethnographies  Progress in Development Studies  19, 4 (2019) pp. 243–263article, we innovatively extend the potential of ethnographic approaches highlighting aspects of ‘brokerage’ and ‘translation’ to FBOs and identify new, productive tensions of convergent analysis. These, we argue, provide srcinal possibilities of comparison and meta-analysis to explore contemporary entanglements of religion and development. Keywords: Religion, NGOs, development, humanitarianism, ethnography, typologies, translation, brokerageof the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, for example, emerged as an important voice calling for the broader recognition of religion in development work (Tomalin, 2015: 2). At the same time, religious organizations found in the development arena new sources of funding, a formally ‘politically neutral’ space of action, and—more broadly—a fertile, ‘this-worldly’ space in which to expand their agendas of social and economic activity (Feener and Fountain, 2018). These, in turn, have been transposed (or even concealed) within trans- national, ‘secular’ frameworks of ‘human rights’ or/and ‘sustainable development’. The effect of this has been the production of a new constellation of theological, political and economic re-arrangements and institutional innovations across the religion-development nexus (i.e., Bolotta, 2018; Feener, 2013). NGOs flourished in several areas of develop-ment and across different confessional tradi-tions—progressing to the point that now ‘doing without (religious) NGOs is rarely considered a realistic option for governments’ (Adams, 2013; Barnett and Weiss, 2008; David and Robinson, 2012; Benthall and Bellion-Jourdan, 2009: 86; Ter Haar, 2011).Sociological attempts to understand FBOs have tended to take the form of typological mapping exercises, the cumulative effect of which was to construct a field of ‘RNGOs’ that could be analysed as distinct from— and possibly put into the service of—the work of ‘secular’ development actors. Such typologies have provided policymakers and development experts with useful operational tools for transnational comparison. At the same time, however, their approach has tended Introduction Since the turn of the twenty-first century, there has been a remarkable surge of interest among both policy makers and academics in religion and its engagements with ‘development’. 1  Within this broad field, ‘religious non-governmental organizations’ (RNGOs) or ‘faith-based organizations’ (FBOs) have garnered considerable attention. 2  The proliferation of specifically marked ‘religious’ NGOs or FBOs cannot be understood outside of its relation to the broader history of NGOs that took shape in contexts of late-twentieth-century globalization. Article 71 of the United Nations (UN) Charter, in particular, facilitated increasingly ambitious experiments with this new institutional form in the changing economic and political contexts shaped by structural adjustment programmes. 3  While acknowledging that ‘the factors leading to the growth of NGOs varied considerably’, Guido Franzinetti (2015) highlighted the context of an emerging ‘Washington Consensus’ in the 1980s. This was, moreover, related to what he characterized as a ‘marriage of convenience’ between the institutional form of NGOs, the New Public Management systems of Western Europe, and the expansion of international humanitarianism in the closing decades of the twentieth century (cf. Eriksen  et al. , 2015; Turner, 2010).   Over the course of these radical transfor-mations, a number of powerful actors turned increasing attention to religious organizations in their search of new means for providing basic social services and the advancement of particular agendas of development through non-state actor interventions. 4  Then President   Bolotta et al.  245  Progress in Development Studies  19, 4 (2019) pp. 243–263to disregard aid recipients’ historically and culturally situated understandings—resulting in the reinforcement of top-down, ethnocentric formulations and problematic distinctions between over-determined imaginations of the spheres of ‘religion’ and ‘development’. 5 Ethnographies of FBOs, on the other hand, often question the cross-cultural validity of such a sharp distinction between religion and development and reveal the contingent character of this constructed dichotomy as grounded in specific histories of Western modernity (e.g., Benthall and Bellion- Jourdan, 2009; Bolotta, 2017; Bornstein, 2005; Fauzia, 2013; Feener, 2013; Feener and Keping, forthcoming; Fountain  et al ., 2015; Mostowlansky, 2017; Scheer  et al ., 2018). 6  Such studies have examined how the religious- secular divide gets divergently signified and contested at global, national and local levels by a range of different actors, such as international and private donors, policy- makers, political authorities, NGO workers, religious specialists and aid recipients. While ethnographies provide rich empirical evidence that undermines a clear-cut separa-tion between religion and development, they generally foreground a micro-analytical focus and are theoretically diverse. As such, they may be regarded by development scholars and practitioners as having only limited use in relation to their needs of generalizability and direct applicability. In this article, we propose an overarching theoretical research framework for the eth-nographic study of religion and development which aims to nourish an overlapping set of broad questions, without however compro-mising ethnography’s constitutive plurality and attention to contextual historicity. Here we work towards bridging the gap between easily applicable, but often ethnocentric typologies and complex but particularistic ethnographies by rendering the latter’s benefits more broadly available to non-anthropologists. Further, we wish to enrich the interdisciplinary study of development through reflections which seem to emerge in somewhat higher resolution through examinations of ‘religious’ organizations— but which have broader relevance even to NGOs self-identifying as ‘secular’. To this end, we critically reassess recent literature on development as ‘brokerage’ and ‘translation’ and propose an innovative extension of these analytical tools, generally deployed for the study of purportedly ‘secular’ NGOs, to ethno-graphies of FBOs and broader investigations of the religion-development nexus. Indeed, while translation scholars have directed relatively little attention to religion, we will demonstrate that ethnographic approaches highlighting brokerage and translation processes can not only facilitate the critical examination of the crossover between development and religion in the analysis of FBOs, but also reframe the field of ‘secular’ development as a set of historical processes of (neglected) translations. In the first part of the article, we briefly present traditional typological studies of FBOs and critically question their findings as a provin-cially Western, techno-political reproduction of the religious-secular divide, which underpins the instrumentalization of religious aid orga-nizations by major development agencies and international political actors. We then turn our attention to ‘religion’ as the ‘forgotten factor’ (Selinger, 2004) in social sciences scholarship of development as ‘translation’, and show how a critical expansion of this analytical framework to ethnographies of FBOs in different cultural contexts might lead to a unified approach in the study of development beyond the religious-secular divide. In the central part of the article, we explore the heuristic richness of this approach through three ethnographic monographs on FBOs by Mona Atia (2013), Erica Bornstein (2012) and China Scherz (2014). Reading these very different works through the analytical lenses of ‘brokerage’ and ‘translation’, we identify new, productive tensions of convergent analysis that implicitly crisscross these studies and provide srcinal possibilities of comparison and meta-analysis. In the concluding section of this article, finally,  246  Translating religion and development: Emerging perspectives from critical ethnographies  Progress in Development Studies  19, 4 (2019) pp. 243–263we highlight the stimulating dynamics of this approach systematically to explore questions emerging from tensions that appear to be more evident when studying FBOs, but not less important when analysing the work of professedly ‘secular’ organizations. I Typologies of RNGOs One of the most prominent early attempts to understand the flurry of religiously marked NGOs by way of a structured typology is  Julia Berger’s (2003) ‘Exploratory Analysis’ of RNGOs. It constitutes   a major endeavour to describe the field as distinctive within the landscape of global aid policy, and as such represents a significant trend in the academic literature to date on ‘RNGOs’. Following the publication of Berger’s article, there was a striking proliferation of typological exercises in the study of RNGOs. We have written elsewhere on the nature and limitations of this body of work, and so rather than rehears-ing discussion and critiques of that extensive bibliography we will focus here on Berger’s pioneering work to briefly introduce broader traits of scholarship produced in this vein. 7 A former Research Associate at Harvard University’s Hauser Center for Non-Profit Organizations, and currently member of an international NGO in consultative status with the UN, Julia Berger’s perspective takes shape in (and is shaped by) the centre of today’s global NGO system. As she struggled to develop conceptual categories for the analysis of this uncharted territory, Berger identified factors that she saw as distinguishing ‘religious’ from ‘secular’ NGOs through dichotomies such as ‘the duty-language of religion’ as opposed to ‘the language of [secular] rights’. She thus circumscribed RNGOs ‘as a distinct organiza-tional field’, which she then went on to analyse through a sample of 263 selected UN-Affiliate RNGOs. Drawing on interviews and docu-mentary data from this sample, Berger outlines ‘a multidimensional framework to assess the religious and organisational nature of these organisations and discusses factors, which facilitate and hinder their agenda’ (2003: 3). The framework specifically examines the ‘orga-nisational, governance, strategic, and output dimensions of NGOs from the perspective of political agency’ (Weiss and Gordenker, 1996). What is important to emphasize here is the methodological fragmentation of the ‘unit of analysis’—RNGOs—in identifiable, codifiable and measurable independent sub-factors. This constitutes a techno-political procedure of rationalization of the kind that has been criti-qued by several scholars as a defining trait of the ‘development machine’ (Ferguson, 1994; Li, 2007, 2011; Mitchell, 2002; Scheer  et al ., 2018; Schnitzler, 2016).Berger’s organizational compartmentaliza-tion of RNGOs breaks down ‘service dimen-sions’ in five categories: ‘Education, relief, social service, salvation, and mobilisation of opinion’. ‘Each of the five broad service cate-gories exists within a larger moral framework, (…) informed by the RNGOs membership and its subscription to a particular system of belief.’ Salvation, for example, ‘includes activities related to spreading religious messages for purposes of proselytization and/or conversion’. Berger thus argues that RNGOs differ conside-rably from their secular counterparts by ven-turing beyond notions of social responsibility to moral assertions of ‘Right’ and ‘Wrong’, or ‘Truth’ and ‘Untruth’ (Berger, 2003: 16).Berger deploys a classification grid framed by the particular optics of international aid policy, which isolates RNGOs as a separate orga- nizational field within the humanitarian and development sectors. Conceiving development in purely secular terms, this approach not only builds upon, but also reinforces a rigid sense of distinction between the sphere of ‘religion’ and that of proper ‘secular’ development. This conception, which obscures some of the trans- versal features of many of these organizations, overlooks the historical genealogy of discursive distinctions as a prominent feature of Western modernity, including academic discourse on the mutual constitution of religion and the secular as developed in anthropology (Asad,   Bolotta et al.  247  Progress in Development Studies  19, 4 (2019) pp. 243–2631993; Fassin, 2011). Moreover, by focussing on organizational and institutional dimensions as they are defined in international policy-making circuits, Berger’s framing of her approach at the level of UN institutions and the organizational distinctions that inform her typology largely overlook the experiences of aid organizations’ practices in the field. This in turn produces a further divide between policy conversations in places like Geneva and Washington, and the aid recipients’ experiences and perceptions of development interventions in their lives.In the years that followed Berger’s article, scholarship on the topic—especially in the field of development studies—seemed to reinforce this sociological and institutional distinction between secular and RNGOs, while paradoxi-cally recognizing that both operate within the same legal and policy frameworks of interna-tional development. The unstated assumptions at work within the taxonomic imperative that shaped such studies facilitated the construction and dissemination of maps of the field that proved particularly well-suited to the macro- analytic perspectives and managerial desires of administrators and auditors (Fountain and Feener, 2017). The methodological designation of a ‘unit of analysis’ for RNGOs supports agendas for the instrumentalization of RNGOs in the service of projects driven by established development actors. Work structured within such utilitarian, donor-driven frameworks has accordingly tended to focus on the ways in which RNGOs might serve as useful apparatus in the implementation of particular develop-ment projects. As Jones and Petersen (2011) have argued, the narrow focus as well as the normative assumptions and instrumentalist orientations of such work reflect the fact that early scholarship on religion and development in the UK did not grow organically out of the interests of academics, but rather was stimu-lated by the funding made available for such work by the Department for International Development (DFID). At the same time, a fictional distinction between clearly delimited ‘organizational fields’ makes it relatively easy for religious actors to promote their projects in ways that resonate with international organizations, while not necessarily ‘purifying’ their projects of values and practices specific to their own faith convictions (i.e., Bolotta, 2018; Shih, 2018).In her critical review of these developments, Emma Tomalin refers to what she sees as ‘very clear evidence of the recent “turn to religion”, with donors increasingly funding such organisa-tions and, in some instances, choosing to favour them over purportedly secular organisations’ (2013: 205). In an attempt to explore what, if anything, makes FBOs ‘distinctive’ in this context, she proposes another classification grid, identifying a number of characteristics that would be typically associated with this type of organization. This includes FBOs’ ‘higher effectiveness’ in reaching out to and being acknowledged as legitimate actors by the poorest, and in providing an ‘alternative’ to secular theories of development. Unlike Berger, however, Tomalin concludes that: the distinction between ‘faith-based’ and secular organisations may not be useful in contexts where religion permeates almost all aspects of people’s lives. … The model of an NGO-like FBO does not capture all types of religious organisations engaged in development activities, and the term ‘faith-based’ may reflect a largely Christian view of religion and a Western (mainly US) context characterised by particular forms of secularism … Moreover, there is little evidence that many of the supposedly distinct characteristics of FBOs are exclusive to them, or more prevalent in them than in other sorts of organisations. (2013: 227) Tomalin’s concerns here highlight the need for more critical reflection on the topic, both at an epistemological and political level. Post-colonial history, the sociology of science and the anthropology of development (e.g. Escobar, 2011; Good et al., 2008; Latour, 1999; Mosse 2005) have provided important theoretical and methodological perspectives that could facilitate more nuanced and
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