U.N. Millennium Development Goal: Harnessing the Power of Religion for Good

09/13/2011 03:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2011
  • Ajarat Bada Ambassador, One Young World. Director, The Missing Millennium Development Goal Initiative

The eighth United Nations Millennium Development Goal calls for the development of a global partnership for development. It includes targets focused on fair trade, debt relief to developing countries, the role of pharmaceuticals and a global technological advancement with the influence of the private sector. These are areas of high importance but there are perhaps other unexplored avenues for global partnerships. Personally, I see global partnerships to have greater momentum when they are able trickle down to be collaborative efforts involving grassroots initiatives.

Grassroots initiatives are very vital in development strategies. These initiatives build up on the gems of communal living that harness the potential of religious and traditional institutions to unify people to a common greater good. Take for example micro-finance, which started as a community initiative scale-up of social business and is now the new motto for business in general. Great success is often met when these initiatives are scaled up. One particular area of collaboration that is yet to be fully harnessed is religion.

Religious institutions are one of the largest institutions in society. They not only influence the social and educational structures of society but have a part to play in the economic welfare of people. In some tribal communities in the past, affiliation with a religious group gave people the right to trade, tax breaks and even special protection under the law. It gave people political and economic advantage. More importantly, though, is their ability to motivate people and unify them to a common cause.

Religion's potential transcends Marx's opium theory. Religion is not simply a panacea for the psychological imbalance of the masses as purported but a concern for something greater than the masses themselves. We must pay attention to something that has the enormous potential to unify people. As we have seen, it has the power to unify people to commit and support acts of terror. Imagine if we can harness this energy for good, the world would be much better and in no small way.

Religious groups know how to unite their members and affiliates on common causes. For example, the largest aid -- both financial and physical -- to development initiatives, which even exceeds government aid in some areas, is from religious institutions (the example that comes to mind is the Catholic Church). They are able to mobilize their members to support causes for good. So why does a global partnership development agenda not involve the contributions of religious institutions and groups?

The power of religion to unify people can also be used for evil. A quarter of the conflicts/wars going on presently have religious undertones. We continue to see the many devastating consequences of war-loss of life and lost development opportunities as we spend a disproportionate amount of resources on waging war on terror at the expense of fighting its root causes. The consequence of this misplaced priority implies different things. But the greater disturbing reality is that it hinders "global development," a shared agenda that has become the motto for the 21st century.

Come 2015, many nations will fail to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goals largely due to a lack of resources -- both human and financial. While the U.S. alone spends over $100 billion on security and counter-insurgency related to religious violence, the IMF estimates the total debt of 40 Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) at around $71 billion, and that $45.7 billion of debt relief would be required for 62 countries to meet the Millennium Development Goals.

However, the burden is even more real when we consider human resources. Achieving the MDGs in HIPC countries would directly impact the lives of 600 million people in these countries. There are 4.7 million refugees under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Work Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East. These refugees are bound to poverty, poor sanitation and the lack of healthcare services. One in five refugee children is not part of the formal education system. This 4.7 million is part of humanity that lives in the direst circumstances -- circumstances that were not caused by natural disasters, but by our failure to understand each other's beliefs and values. The figures quickly become exponential when we consider the crisis with the Lord's Resistance Army in the DRC and Sierra Leone, with the Boko Haram fighters in Northern Nigeria and the other parts of the world where we have turned religion into a menace.

While some have been able to harness religion's power to thwart a global development agenda, collectively, we must get busy regaining that enormous power to motivate people to do good, to better humanity's shared cause.

Ajarat Bada is presently working on a campaign for the Missing Millennium Development Goal to Ensure Interfaith Collaboration for Peace, which aims to harness the positive potential of religion to unify us on this global development agenda.