COMMENTARY: Faith and Development Leaders Unite for a Worldwide Standard of Living

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) World leaders rarely bother about events outside their constituencies. While many enjoy and employ the benefits of globalization, few have sleepless nights over the condition of starving communities in developing nations.

But a recent meeting bringing together faith and development leaders, held in Dublin, Ireland, has me encouraged that a change in attitude may be under way.

The problems of poverty are undeniable.

About 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day and 3 billion live on less than $2 a day. More than 40 million people are HIV-positive and more than 3 million people died of AIDS in 2004.

Seven years ago, two extraordinary men got together to combine their different perspectives in an attempt to find answers to these and other problems. Jim Wolfensohn, the president of the World Bank, met with George Carey, who was then archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace in London. From that emerged the World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), a small but growing unique effort to “balance” the world.

I attended a fourth meeting of the WFDD, in Dublin Jan. 31-Feb. 1, and marveled at the progress that can be made when a man of God comes face to face with development issues and a man in charge of the most important financial institution in the world sees the power and widespread influence of religion.

At first, senior levels of the World Bank bureaucracy resisted Wolfensohn’s initiative. They dismissed religion as symbolizing the three D’s: dangerous, divisive and defunct.

Yet by blocking out religion they were not only denying the global power of spirituality but also basic sociological facts. For example, religious institutions own a sizable chunk of the world’s land. They organize extensive social, education and health facilities. And they engage in debate about development issues.

But animosity between religion and development is a two-way street.

Swami Agnivesh, who heads the Arya Samaj in India, initially disliked global institutions like the World Bank. He once denounced what he called “the unholy trinity” of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization.

But his opinions have changed. He has now asked Wolfensohn to join him as a patron of a center he is establishing outside Delhi.

Respect for other people’s spiritual traditions is a unique feature of the WFDD. Other world bodies gather distinguished participants for seminars and conferences. Too often these are official meetings with official position papers and plenty of public posturing.

But because the WFDD starts with the premise that every tradition is worth respecting, it generates enough goodwill for its participants to look at one another as part of a common global civilization.

All the hopes and despair, contradictions and paradoxes of globalization were in play around the conference.

When I arrived to check in at the legendary Shelbourne Hotel of Dublin where the great Irish literary figures had afternoon tea, I was greeted by crowds protesting against the World Bank by chanting “human need, not corporate greed.” They were not aware that it was precisely this philosophy that had provoked the creation of the WFDD.

What they didn’t know is that for the first time in human history a powerful consensus is emerging that says the global community must ensure that all people, wherever they live, must have a decent standard of living.

MO/PH RNS END

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is co-editor of the upcoming “After Terror: Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations,” Polity Press.)

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