A Joint Response to the Challenge of Religious Illiteracy

23 June 2020

Charlotte Ariese-van Putten is policy influencing coordinator at Prisma, a Dutch umbrella organization representing around 20 Christian organisations working in the development cooperation sector. Recently, we met Charlotte, and we discussed how RESILIENCE and an NGO like Prisma could benefit from each other.

Prisma is an umbrella organization representing around 20 Christian organisations working in the development cooperation sector. Through lobbying activities, they highlight the important role religious actors play in working towards sustainable development. In her work, Charlotte is regularly confronted with religious illiteracy: the lack of basic knowledge about religion and religious backgrounds, with all their  negative consequences.

Charlotte, what do you think religion has to do with development aid?

“Religion and development cooperation are inextricably linked. Recently, I read a striking metaphor about the difference between a memory stick and an operating system of a computer. A memory stick you can just plug in and out. That doesn’t apply to the operating system which is the most important software that runs on a computer. Religion – faith – is the core from which people live and act (operating system). It influences the way people see themselves, each other and the world around them. Therefore, it is essential to take religion into account in working towards sustainable development. A subject Prisma advocates for on behalf of its members.

In addition, religious organisations are the oldest providers of development aid. They have always been involved in combating poverty, inequality and conflicts and strengthen the position of vulnerable groups.

Speaking of religious illiteracy, what issues do organizations or people active in development aid run into?

A lot of Western countries and organisations tend to underestimate the importance of religion for sustainable development. This happens for many reasons, but particularly because of a secular bias as well as religious illiteracy. Most of the time people are not aware that about 80% of the world’s population identifies as belonging to a religious group. The prevailing image in secular countries –  such as the Netherlands – is that religion imposes oppressive rules on people and incites intolerance and violence. Sometimes that turns out to be the case. However, religion can also have a huge sustainable and positive effect: it motivates people to reconcile. For example, religious actors often play an essential role in post-conflict reconciliation.

Moreover, faith-based organisations (FBO’s) are well able to reach into society at its most local level. This allows these organisations to play an invaluable and unique role in building the resilience of individuals and communities. Faith leaders and FBOs hold a high degree of trust and influence in their communities. They often support the most vulnerable to access government services and support the local government to understand the needs of the community. Moreover, they are often present in hard to access regions where no other networks are present, including in insecure areas.

The knowledge that faith leaders have of the local cultural, economic and social norms of their community is indispensable and they are often the first responders in the aftermath of disasters. Furthermore, their religious sensitivity allows them to enter into dialogue with key figures in communities such as religious leaders, something that would otherwise not be possible. When it comes to deepening and broadening knowledge about religion and its importance for sustainable development there’s still a world waiting to be conquered.

Can you tell us what the needs of these people and their organisations are regarding religious illiteracy?

Compared to a few years ago there is increasing attention to the importance of religion for sustainable development. Last year the Netherlands had even appointed a special envoy on freedom of religion and belief. One of his duties is to promote religious literacy at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. An important duty, since in international (development) cooperation civil servants and diplomats are looking for ways to deal with human and religious rights and they are entering into partnerships with religious aid organizations as well as integrating religiously inspired visions of development into the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Therefore a thorough knowledge of different religions and religious sensitivity is indispensable. It is essential that policy makers at the local, national and international level are encouraged to collaborate with faith-based actors in the design and implementation of development aid projects.

What should RESILIENCE in your opinion offer to NGO’s like Prisma and their partner organisations?

One of RESILIENCE slogans is ‘Serving Research, Building Knowledge’. It would be great if RESILIENCE could make a transcendent contribution in promoting religious literacy in various sectors and policy areas by sharing relevant research. For Prisma and her member organisations it would be very helpful if studies were made available on the importance of religion in general, but also on the intersection of religion and international (development) cooperation.

Making these studies easily accessible could help Prisma and other NGOs to highlight the importance of religious literacy in a specific sector. But also vice versa: many Prisma members are researching the importance of working together with religious actors such as faith-based organisations and religious leaders. These studies could also be included in the digital infrastructure. In this way you can increase knowledge sharing and response to the challenges of religious illiteracy.

Moreover, close cooperation between RESILIENCE and the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs would be beneficial to all organisations working with faith-based actors. Increased knowledge of religion at a government level is indespensable for structural inclusion of faith-actors in developmental work.”


Thank you, Charlotte, for this inverview! We hope to see you again in future.

Prisma’s website