World Bank finds God: Now that the windows are all smashed, what happen s next?

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The Independent Online
It is axiomatic at international gatherings that the more diverse the group, the more bland the statement at the end of the meeting. Which may explain why a group of 30 of the world's leading religious figures conjured a communique at Lambeth Palace the other day which was positively soporific. After all, it did have to encompass the worldview of the Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Taoist faiths, not to mention one of the most unyielding of religious dogmas, that of the free-market economists of the World Bank.

The meeting was hosted jointly by Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank. Its subject was the relationship between religion and development. Its delegates included a variety of luminaries from the Crown-Prince of Jordan to the head of the Vatican's Justice and Peace pontifical commission and a Lutheran bishop who is a member of the Masai tribe. You might be forgiven for wondering if it was all a massive PR job. Certainly one of those present in the meeting voiced such a concern. Wasn't it all window-dressing? asked the Hindu, Dr Vandona Shiva.

"You've smashed all our windows," was the devastating reply from Wolfensohn who went on to acknowledge that the Banks' Structural Adjustment Programmes had not always been sufficiently conscious of the need to protect the Third World's poorest people. The rest of us knew this. Too often, also, its medium-term policies were in conflict with the short-term exigencies of the approach of the International Monetary Fund. Too often, in addition, its grandiose schemes for dams and power stations further enriched the wealthy caste in poor countries, or increased trade or GDP, but did nothing to help the really poor.

Now here it was repenting, in private, before the world's religions. What was going on? "We used to arrive and look at a country purely economically," said one Bank official privately. "We ignored the cultural capital of the society: how the family works, how apprenticeships work, what is the role of the mosque. Our attitude to cultural traditions was only that these were museum fodder for tourism. We failed to understand the role these play in making a society work. In the absence of the social and the cultural we were promoting a lobotomised development."

There was, admittedly, something venal about the conversion. "Look around," said the official. "Everyone in this room can mobilise millions of people." The faiths had three strengths denied to the powerful self-consciously secular Bank. "They have the moral authority to stand in the public square and denounce corruption. They have detailed knowledge of what goes on at the grass roots. And they have effective organisations and delivery systems." As if to prove the point at that moment a diminutive figure in bright orange robes padded by. "Have you seen the Aga Kahn?" he asked. He was Swami Vibudhesha Teertha, one of India's most senior Hindu monks. His fiat determines the economic, transport and education policies in 1,250 villages and towns and hundreds of primary and secondary schools.

Even so there are many back at the World Bank who regard Wolfensohn's latest idea as "flakey". They took a similarly dim view of his insistence, after he took over in 1995, that the top 400 of its 10,000 employees each had to go and live in a Third World slum for one week. That was why the concluding statement was so bland. "We wanted nothing too emotional or laden with the vocabulary of faith which those back in Washington could dismiss," said one of the drafters.

The plan now is too set up a number of joint Bank-Faith action groups alongside exemplary practical projects. The Bank wants to finance the training of Buddhist monks in reconciliation skills in Cambodia. In Anandpur, where the Sikh brotherhood was founded in 1699, a project is to be encouraged to control the growth of the town in a way which embodies Sikh values, using solar power and recycled waste as energy sources, developing alternative transport mechanisms and setting up 5,000 light industrial units which only produce environmentally-sustainable goods.

"This is a post-Enlightenment world, not a post-religious one," said one senior Bank official. "As governments have lost their legitimacy so people have turned to faith and the social contract has been renegotiated. It is the religions which stand between the state and the market - both of which people don't fully trust - as communities which are trusted, which link the macro and the micro, and which protect the interests of the poor. Give us a year and we'll show you something new." The risk, of course, is that the religions may find themselves being used merely to add respectability to an unpopular secular agenda. But, just perhaps, something worthwhile might emerge. It is a risk worth taking.