Bank and churches to work together

Published June 1, 2000

World Bank President Robert Wolfensohn defended the bank at Lambeth ’98.


IHE WORLD BANK moved decisively to grab the hand of friendship which African church leaders extended to it recently. The parties need each other.

The bank wants new and more dependable partners in Africa; most of their programs there are not succeeding. And churches need a partner with the resources and influence the bank commands.

In mid-March, a large delegation of senior World Bank staff members met with 150 key leaders of a cross-section of African churches at a historic conference in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference, sponsored jointly by the bank and the Council of Anglican Provinces in Africa, agreed to combine the bank’s global perspective on poverty with the church’s deep influence among the urban and rural poor of Africa to spur economic and social development.

This marks the first time the bank has partnered on a regional level with the church. It also represents a major shift of attitude, especially for the church leaders.

Just two years ago, the World Bank was a favourite whipping boy for African church leaders. The bank represented much that was wrong with the new world order: unfair world trade terms, crippling debt burden, failed development strategies, neglect of gender issues, and, worst of all, insensitivity to the suffering of the poor.

For years, the bank maintained a studied, even disdainful, silence over the criticisms. Things began to change in July 1998 when bank president Robert Wolfensohn attended a session on debt relief of the global decennial meeting of Anglican bishops in England, Lambeth ’98. The session opened with a video, Chains of Debt, produced by the British charity Christian Aid, which all but accused the World Bank and rich nations of “helping to keep developing countries poor.”

Visibly upset, Mr. Wolfensohn complained “the tape would have you believe that I rather like children dying, that I have no faith, that my interest is to collect debts, that I have no understanding of education or health, that I know nothing about the impact of payments imposed by governments. And all I can say to you is that I believe that each of those assertions is wrong.” Then he left, taking no questions.

But a small crack had opened in the granite wall of the World Bank and African bishops glimpsed a possible new partner.

“Everyone is needed on this mission, including the World Bank,” said Kenyan Primate David Gitari, who hosted the Nairobi conference. “We are both fighting poverty. We can service the poor better together. We can influence governments better together.”

“Religions in Africa,” said Callisto Madavo, the bank’s top official for Africa, “can play a key role in development because of their deep roots in African communities and the World Bank must listen to their various voices ? If we listen to the people we are trying to help, if we treat people as subjects rather than objects of development, if we consider not just the economic and the social aspects but also the cultural and, yes, even the spiritual, aspects of human aspirations, we can be a valuable instrument in building a new future for Africa.”

“Poor people want their governments to work,” said Deepa Narayan, a bank researcher, “but they experience government as inept, corrupt, and sometimes harmful.” Churches can help by creating social movements that address issues of the poor and hold politicians accountable, she told the delegates, and challenged churches to “use their moral authority so that corruption is not expected.”

Delegates pledged to work against corruption, especially the abuse of public office for private gain, which is undermining public morale, private entrepreneurship and even Africa’s traditional spirit of volunteerism and community service. It is depressing foreign investment in Africa and also working against the ongoing global campaign for the cancellation of debts to the world’s poorest countries, most of which are in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Christian churches, which continue to grow at a phenomenal pace in tropical Africa, are assuming increasingly critical roles in relief and development work. As traditional social institutions crumble in the face of Africa’s many crises, wherever government authority collapses, church communities and facilities become the only available source of refuge, sustenance and comfort for the people.

In addition to traditional roles of running schools, health centres, orphanages, refugee camps and of providing basic social services in rural and urban slums, churches are beginning to shoulder expensive new responsibilities. These range from compassion centres for AIDS orphans and rehabilitation homes for rescued child soldiers, to credit unions for women entrepreneurs and micro-enterprise development. Without significant new sources of aid, African churches would be overwhelmed.

Beyond humanitarian services, African churches have also become powerful voices of conscience at national and continental levels, promoting good governance, peace and reconciliation, conflict resolution, civil rights, social justice and gender equality.

Through the new partnership, the bank and church will focus on development issues ranging from governance and corruption to gender equity and post-conflict reconstruction, and aim to “break the conspiracy of silence on AIDS.”

Yet questions remain on just how well churches and the World Bank can work together. Churches, used to doing God’s business, will be adjusting to action plans and achievement targets drawn up by committees of experts. They will have to evaluate their methodologies and performances according to manuals.

And the bank will need to grow a new heart, and learn a new set of “administrative words” – among them: compassion, repentance and forgiveness.

Odhiambo Okite is a Kenyan journalist.


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