International Development. When you hear this what comes to mind? If at all anything does? A question that is often met with brows furrowed in confusion and the attendant “Uh”, “Um” and “So…” whenever people ask me about my area of study.
“I have no idea what that is” they would say, if courageous enough to share their unfamiliarity with what has become my academic preoccupation.
Suddenly, I’m filled with dread as inquiring faces wait patiently, knowing that the anticipated expectation of this social interaction is that I— in the unofficial ambassadorial role of international development representative—will provide an intelligible, succinct definition.
“Uh, Um, So …, well it’s about issues and concerns of poverty and global inequality and how to best address this”, I would explain hurriedly trying not to fumble over my rehearsal of a definition I once found some years back—while frantically scanning their faces for reassurance.
I think it’s reasonable to speculate, given the interdisciplinarity of development theory and practice, that most responses will fall somewhere along a quantitative-qualitative continuum of macroeconomics, structural adjustment programmes, international trade policy, ‘poverty reduction’, so-called ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ nations. Or related concepts of quality of life and subjective well-being—interpretations are seemingly endless. As such, the impression is that international development is at once amenable to categorisation and the subject of revision. While international development is fraught with multiple interpretation and analysis, less considered are the broader understandings of development that are informed by religion and faith subjectivities, especially for African diaspora communities engaged in development work.
Despite the fact that that religious communities—many of whom are diaspora—make significant material contributions to local and international forms of ‘development’ in practice, until recently this was largely marginalised within academia and by key international development players. This is partly explained by the received wisdom that religion is largely opposed to technocratic rationalities and materialisms of economic development and that, as societies modernise the functional enchantment of religion will become obsolete. However, these deterministic assumptions of religion and society’s inverse relationship have been critiqued, problematised and debunked by different academic disciplines. Rather, than declining or all-together evaporating into thin air, the functionality of religion(s) for development is widely accepted even if its role is both complex and controversial. As such, while religion is basking in the unremitting glory of its long-awaited Cinderella moment, given its ‘policy-sexy’ significance in development agendas— What space does religion(s) occupy in the seemingly bound-ary-less elasticity of international development?
Addressing this gulf in knowledge has important implications for the scholarly and programmatic application of development and attendant policy recommendations. This is especially true when recognising African diaspora identities as critical for engendering particular forms of cooperation and alliance with religious members of these communities. So too, how and to what extent their religious orientations shape and determine their different priorities, strategies and traditions of ‘help’ and ‘giving’ in and for their countries and communities of heritage.
As such, are we to assume that religion(s) and faith identifications are inconsequential or secondary to how diaspora participate in and negotiate understandings of international development? Or are they much more significant and constitutive than we think? Is there space for religiously informed interpretations of international development that move beyond its definition and operational preoccupation with technocratic rationality to allow for new and extended conceptual possibilities? All these speculative questions and theoretical possibilities constitute the intellectual space within which my latest article: “An Outward Sign of an Inward Grace”: How African Diaspora Religious Identities Shape their Understandings of and Engagement in International Development’, is concerned.
Using first-and-second-generation London-based Christian and Muslim Nigerians, as a case study, the article reveals that religion, religious identities and ‘narratives of faith’ are all instrumental for understanding how these diaspora communities, as development actors, assign meaning to and participate in international development. This is best understood in their religiously moralised evaluations, rationalities and theological obligations for engaging in development-related activities largely in the form of private remittances and allied non-monetary contributions and services to Nigeria and continental Africa more generally, via their places of worship.
That is, for Nigerians, their Christian and Muslim identifications provide the theological and doctrinal foundation and vocabulary through which they articulate (and demonstrate) their interpretations of/for international development. These faith(ed)-vocabularies of development are guided by and organised around embodied discourses of humanitarianism, compassion, and justice. The significance of this religious moralising by Nigerians also extends to their conceptualisations of their development activities as “consecrated acts” operating within systems of meaning and practices associated with and constituted by, moral expectations and cultural obligations that frame and which signify their religious and faith orientations.
Within this frame, development is dually understood by Nigerians as a ‘performance’, practicality or an ‘action-ing’ of their religious-faith identities and of their embodied ‘religious selves’. Certainly, these communities conceive religion and their religious selves as not just significant for or in kind to development practice but as development itself. Consequently, my article calls for a (re)theorisation of international development that affords space to alternative articulations that necessarily include transnational Afro-religious diasporic performativity.