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Reflections from Dhaka: Participants Share Perspectives from Leaders of Influence Conference

March 31, 2010

Upon their return from the Leaders of Influence (LOI) regional conference in Dhaka March 21-24 that convened over 80 participants from 14 countries, In Asia spoke with Rosita MacDonald, program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Governance, Law, and Civil Society program, and Russell Pepe, chief of party for the LOI program in Bangladesh, on what they heard.

Q: Was there a sense from conference participants that progress has been made since U.S. President Obama’s much-heralded Cairo speech last year in which he declared the U.S.’s commitment to reengage with the Muslim community?

Rosita MacDonald: There was a lot of talk from the U.S. delegation about the shift to enhanced engagement with the Muslim community as well as with other religious communities. This point was acknowledged by several of the delegates, but they also made the point that the U.S. needs to be more effective in its public diplomacy efforts in Asia and to highlight tangible examples of engagement with, and support for, the Muslim world. There is optimism to be sure, but still a lot of uncertainty as to what this “engagement” actually involves and how deep it runs.

Russell Pepe: Participants were encouraged by President Obama’s speech, but several also expressed a need to see more concrete actions. LOI was cited as a very good example of how the U.S. can support a wider engagement with the Muslim community, and can effectively build bridges between different faiths and secular groups.

Q: The conference has been described by some as “groundbreaking.” In what ways did it impress you most?

RM: The most significant achievement in my mind is its most simple aspect – it brought together leaders of different faiths from across Asia, activists, and government officials, and provided a space for them to discuss really critical issues that received little attention at the regional level up until about five years ago.

I was also impressed by the pragmatism of most of the delegates. Yes, there was enthusiasm, but these are experienced leaders who understand the severity of the challenges their communities face.

Part of what impressed me most about the conference were the really difficult issues raised by the delegates, and their willingness to tackle them. One of these was a point raised in the final session addressed specifically toward the U.S. government officials and international development community representatives attending:

“You need to be clear of your objectives in pursuing this kind of development initiative, and you also need to be very clear about ours. As religious leaders we are concerned with more than making good roads and improving government services. These issues matter of course, but we are concerned with the spiritual and moral welfare of our communities. This is our central role and our primary responsibility. The religions of the world have these values and morals in common. We all need to be clear about the values and motivations that underpin our actions. However, it isn’t clear to me where the U.S. and the international development community stand. What values underlie your policies and your actions?”

Another delegate spoke of the need to shift the development discourse away from “rights” which tends to dominate Western development discourse to the “responsibilities” of both leaders and citizens which he (and others, shown by the vigorous nodding that went on around him) said he saw as more relevant to many communities in Asia and to the teachings of their faiths.

RP: It is groundbreaking that the leaders of all faiths and secular leaders discussed mutual development challenges that affect them, and explored ways they might work together to address their development challenges. At the end of the conference the leaders developed action plans on how they might work together upon their return home. One participant commented, “This is much better than a declaration!”

Q: How do best practices in Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country with a small Hindu and Christian population, translate to the other countries that participated?  For example, a country like Thailand, which is almost 95 percent Buddhist with a very small Muslim population?

RM: There are certainly approaches that resonate across contexts to engage religious and community leaders, of whatever faith, in national development efforts. However, I think we need to be careful about looking for “best practices” and seeking to apply them in different contexts as they tend to be used as short cuts for a detailed country analysis, and often miss the unique cultural and political factors that result in a certain type of approach or a program taking root.

RP: Thai participants were impressed to find religious leaders of different faiths and community leaders (male and female) working together to remove obstacles for development. They said that they would take the experience back to Thailand and explore how they might work with their minority groups.

Q: The Leaders of Influence program in Bangladesh covers many subjects often considered taboo, such as HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness, contraceptive methods, and women’s empowerment. How does the program break down strong cultural barriers in order to engage in dialogue?

RP: The program’s approach is down-to-earth – we start by building trust between different communities by exposing faith-based leaders to community leaders, civil society development practitioners, political actors, local government, media, private sector, women, and youth leaders. For example, at the start of a three-day orientation for a group of 100 imams, one of our USAID-facilitating partners, the Smiling Sun Health Clinic, made a presentation on mother-child health services and family planning. Another presented HIV\AIDS, Save the Children USA presented on early childhood education, and IOM made a presentation on anti-trafficking.

Immediately following this session we took the participants on a field visit to various programs. Often before we depart to visit a Smiling Sun Clinic participants ask, “Why are we visiting these health centers when we have heard bad things about them?” However, following the visits we often hear, “Sir, I was surprised to learn about the services they provide, the doctors were very respectful of the women folk and the clinic is modern and reasonably priced. We were surprised to find the price list on the wall so there is no scope for cheating us – if my daughter or wife fell ill tonight I would now take them to visit this clinic.”

This scenario repeats itself in almost every visit we make. In this example, these 100 imams did not have previous exposure to the development organizations they visited. By visiting these centers they became aware that it would benefit their community to have access to these rural clinics. The following week these 100 imams introduced the concept to their community during their Friday sermons.

Q: At the conference, President Obama’s Special Assistant Joshua DuBois called Bangladesh a model of how people from different religious backgrounds can work together in peace. Did participants from other countries express interest in implementing the LOI program in their own countries?

RM: Yes, many of the conference delegates expressed an interest in developing aspects of the LOI program in their own countries. One of the key issues raised by many of the delegates was that religious leaders in their country did not have, firstly, an adequately detailed understanding of their own religious texts and the methodologies to apply them to the challenges facing the modern world, and secondly, an adequate understanding of the development challenges in their country and how these issues can be addressed at the community level. Some delegations spoke of wanting to provide training programs for religious leaders, some theological in nature, some to build critical reasoning skills, some to develop their understanding of how to combat development challenges like illiteracy and government corruption, and some to build the capacity of leaders to perform the many functions they are required to fulfill in their communities:  mediators, marriage counselors, personal advisors, and local government leaders.

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