Putting the faith back into development


The Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia, former Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, could be investigated for war crimes by the International Commission of Jurists (Australian section). He is accused of being in command when subordinates fired on some of the 40,000 civilians reckoned to have died during the war's final weeks.

The Australian Government can be sure that the reaction of the Sri Lankan government will be fierce.

I returned from Sri Lanka recently, having facilitated a meeting on the Church and development in Sri Lanka for Caritas Sri Lanka and its partners from Australia, Europe and the US.

I got to know and love Sri Lanka through my work for Caritas in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. In subsequent visits I was pleased to see the huge progress made through the efforts of Caritas and other agencies in serving the Sri Lankan people — people of all faiths and ethnicities — as houses were built, livelihoods restored and hope and confidence began to flourish.

It was heart-warming to see people of all faiths working together to build a better and more just Sri Lanka out of the ruins of the old.

With the end of the war, we are now in a new Sri Lanka. That war cost the country dearly in terms of lives lost, distrust sown and loss of revenue. There is still a great deal to do to build up the country, get rid of the poverty gap and heal the divisions of the past.

Sending people back home to their bombed villages with no assistance and forcing them to live under the trees with nothing is not only inhuman but, as it will be seen as collective punishment against innocent people, will sow the seeds of future discontent.

As in all wars, no matter how many victories you win or ceasefires you sign, unless work is done at the grassroots to get rid of the injustices which caused the war, unless people are treated with mercy and everyone works towards community reconciliation — unless peace with justice is put in place — then the danger of resentments spilling over into conflict will always be present.

A new development model which has reconciliation at its core is needed. As in the tsunami response, this is where the role of religion can contribute to the wellbeing of the country.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the development theory of 'modernisation' basically taught that all old traditions, including religion, had to disappear for people to be 'developed', for people to become 'modern', by which they meant almost solely growth in income and material welfare.

This was a purely Western model which is now seen wanting. Now there is a growing interest in the role of religion on development as there is a general realisation that faith is a primary source of meaning for most communities in 'developing' countries, that religious organisations are often closest to the poorest, are the most trusted institutions, and have the largest networks to respond.

All faiths put the human person at the centre of development, not economic theories which tend to forget we are dealing with people, not things.

The righteous Muslim seeks social justice for the poor and disempowered. For Hindus, working for the betterment of their communities is an integral path of liberation. The Buddhist contribution to development is to remind us that material progress alone will never satisfy human desire.

And the Catholic view is that development must be based on the innate dignity of the human person and lead to human flourishing.

All point to another central truth — that values and beliefs are important to organisational behaviour and change, which are necessary for authentic development to happen.

It is to be hoped that in evolving a new paradigm for development in Sri Lanka, the voices of all faiths will be listened to. However, there is one caveat. No faith community can act alone.

Just as the response to the tsunami was a success because people of all faiths worked together for the good of all of Sri Lanka's people, so they must come together to dialogue and work in harmony to promote good integral human development practices, rooted in the culture of the people. They must underpin the cessation of violence with the justice element of peace.

There is no place for a fundamentalism which, in sociologist Anthony Giddens's words, 'refuses dialogue in a world whose peace and continuity depend on it'.

Fundamentalism isn't about faith but fear and ego. We should never forget that the tsunami was blind to both ethnicity and religion. Singhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus were all swept away by the fury of nature. It is only by all Sri Lankans of all faith traditions working together that the country can be healed and can prosper.

After the tsunami I met a woman in Galle in southern Sri Lanka. Her only son had helped her out of the water that had flooded their village. He was then speared by a railing and swept away.

She recounted her tale time and time again in tears, and said how grateful she was to the people of the community that was housing her. They came from differing religious communities but had looked past such differences to our common humanity, and had opened their hearts and doors.

In rebuilding Sri Lanka, people of all faiths working with the government must do likewise. Equally, those who betrayed the rules of war must face justice. That is the least those who lost friends and loved ones in the final days of the war can expect.


Duncan MaclarenDuncan MacLaren, a former Secretary General of the Caritas Confederation, was in Sri Lanka to facilitate a meeting of the Caritas International Sri Lanka Working Group. He will be lecturing in international development studies at Australian Catholic University from 2012 and coordinates ACU's program to offer tertiary education to Burmese refugees on the Thai-Burma border. 

Topic tags: Duncan Maclaren, Sri Lanka, Caritas, development



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Existing comments

Quite so. This tale exposes the myth of religion. It takes a disaster for people to realise that their gods have deserted them just as 'the other' has been deserted by their gods.

Life is calmer without constant battling over following the diktats of religious behaviour.

Time to let it all go, and grow up.

Next stop, ending the folly of nationalism.

Harry Wilson | 27 October 2011  

Those who betrayed the rules of war especially the Tamil Tigers must be held totally and unequivocally responsible , for they started it and the Western world must look at this problem without the filters favouring tamils.

james corea | 29 October 2011  

Rules of War?! Is this some kind of bad joke! The only Rule of War is to Kill or be Killed! One does not go into a battle field to shake hands and have a cup of tea (although the idea might be nice) General Patton said " No one won a war by dying for his country He won the war by making someone else die for their country!" When one looks back at all wars atrocities are committed by the so called good guys and the bad guys! And it is generally the losers that suffer and have to pay for the crimes!

Louis Denikeguy | 05 November 2011  

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