Asia’s Prominent Religious and Community Leaders Challenge Status Quo
March 31, 2010
There is an instant before the start of a large event when, with logistical arrangements set and the agenda fine tuned, attention shifts to participants. One draws a breath and wonders what the chemistry of personalities, perspectives, and experience will yield. So I reflected at the start of last week’s regional conference on the role of leaders of influence in national development efforts in Dhaka. Over 80 participants representing 14 South, Southeast, and Central Asian nations sat in country teams, a human landscape of traditional white and saffron robes, capes, and headscarves, elegant saris and shalwar kameez, colorful batiks, and jackets and ties. Microphones crackled to life from the podium, and the session began.
Convened by The Asia Foundation and USAID, the conference provided a forum where those gathered could share views and experience drawn from different country contexts and working environments. The Bangladesh Leaders of Influence (LOI) program, which since its launch in 2004 has introduced over 15,000 religious and community leaders to key development issues, served as a working model for conference participants.
The four-day program featured a set of core themes that aimed to stimulate discussion and inform the development of country action plans. Day 1 sessions laid the groundwork through a combination of welcome remarks by local host and partner organizations, a keynote address by former U.S. ambassador to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, Lauren Moriarty, and a panel discussion in which senior delegates from Pakistan, the Philippines, and Indonesia shared reflections on three frequently visited themes: the role of religious and community leaders in democracy and governance; inter-faith cooperation in development work; and approaches to development cooperation between religious and community leaders, government officials, and civil society organizations. Participants next shared background on individual country contexts, the challenges that religious and community leaders face in contributing to national development policy and activities, and examples of good practice to date.
On Day 2, country teams divided up and joined other participants to focus on one of four development challenges: good governance and corruption prevention; public health; gender justice and equity; or conflict resolution. Many reported that these thematic sessions were among the most interesting and productive of the conference. As facilitator of two sessions on good governance and corruption prevention, I was struck by the scope and candor of discussions. The first group moved swiftly to frame practical suggestions to enhance the role of religious and community leaders in raising public awareness and oversight of governance standards. The second group paused to reflect that religious and secular community leaders are frequently subject to the same challenges and pressures faced by political leaders and government officials in maintaining standards of transparency and integrity in their own work.
On Day 3, participants divided into three groups for field visits. Two groups visited the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh’s (IFB) Imam Training Academy and LOI-hosted public health clinics in the southern port city of Chittagong, while the third group visited IFB’s headquarters in Dhaka and a second LOI-hosted public health project site. All three groups closed the day by participating in local inter-faith dialogue meetings convened by LOI. In later feedback sessions, participants shared positive impressions of Bangladesh as a model of communal harmony and religious tolerance for other Asian nations with majority Muslim populations.
Participants reconvened in country teams on Day 4 to develop action plans to enhance the role of religious and community leaders in advancing development in their respective countries. They then shared them with the plenary and invited group feedback. We were especially struck by four points from these sessions:
First, while no two country challenges were alike, some common threads of experience suggested that a combination of inadvertent or deliberate factors have prevented religious and community leaders from meeting their potential to advance development efforts. For example, in some countries, religious and community leaders have simply been bypassed by a generation of civil society-led development efforts, while in others they lack the necessary knowledge, skills, or experience to keep pace with national development trends. In some cases, religious leaders have been deliberately marginalized through lack of understanding and trust among government policy-makers, civil society leaders, and the international community – based in some cases on a misperception that religious leaders oppose modern development goals, such as advancement of women.
Second, the country teams openly reflected on their past experience with thoughtful introspection and self-criticism, acknowledging errors, inconsistencies, and divisive tensions that have stood in the way of change. Rather than pointing fingers, the country teams seemed prepared to share responsibility and to learn from past mistakes.
Third, while discussion of sensitive issues among participants of the same and different faiths and backgrounds became quite heated at times, differences of opinion were voiced with great respect, and no hint of tension lingered as discussion moved on to new topics. A large and diverse group was united by a remarkable sense of community, common values, mutual respect, and convivial good humor.
Fourth, while individual country action plans reflected different priorities, most conveyed a common commitment to raise awareness of the value that religious and community leaders are capable of adding to development efforts so that government policy-makers, civil society organizations, and the international community will increasingly involve leaders of influence in development planning as a matter of course. Participants were clear on the magnitude of the challenges before them, while at the same time patient and optimistic in their commitment to take on leadership roles and to dispel lingering misperceptions.
The conference closed with delegate reflections from India and Malaysia and the good wishes of Joshua DuBois, executive director of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Mr. Dubois affirmed President Obama’s commitment to work with religious and community leaders as part of the President’s call, in his historic Cairo address last year for a new beginning in relations with religious communities worldwide.
Note: Conference materials and presentations are available on the LOI website and interviews with delegates are available on the LOI YouTube Channel. Following the Dhaka conference, delegates will continue to share ideas and resources through Facebook and Twitter.
Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Law and Governance, based in Bangkok. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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