International Development: Christian perspectives

The multidisciplinary academic field

As an academic subject, International Development is relatively new, emerging during the period of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, but only really being accepted as a university discipline in the 1970s and 1980s. It is an inherently multi-disciplinary field, drawing on economics, sociology, political science, anthropology, public administration and engineering, among others. Although economics has tended to be the dominant influence, that is increasingly being challenged. Within each of these disciplines, there are many academic debates that impinge on international development, and on which there may be particular Christian perspectives.

Until recently the study of international development has tended to avoid discussion of issues of religious faith, despite the fact that religious faith (of one form or another) has a profound influence on the way people behave, and therefore on the prospects for development. This has now started to change, for a number of reasons, including the opposition of religious groups (notably Muslim) to the advance of western values, the religious dimensions of conflicts that impede development, and, more positively, the recognition of the significant contribution that religious believers can make to development (Reinikka and Svensson, 2003; Keough and Marshall, 2004; Tyndale, 2000).1

Diversity of Christian approaches

International Development is a field that has attracted a great many individual Christians and Christian organisations, not least because of the obvious connections with Christ’s injunction to take the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28: 18) and his affirmation that this gospel is good news for the poor and oppressed (Luke 4: 18). However, it should be acknowledged that Christians bring widely differing interpretations of the Christian faith to the issues in this field, making it difficult to specify a unique “Christian perspective” on international development. These varying strands generally emerge out of particular religious, economic and social contexts. They include2:

– evangelical fundamentalism, which emphasises people’s need for salvation as having priority over their material needs;
– social gospel (often associated with more liberal churches), which emphasises the prior claim of material needs of the poor over their spiritual needs; the social gospel may also emphasise the need for political change, and includes Quaker and Anabaptist traditions of pacifism and non-violence;
– radical and “liberation theology” (typically arising from radicalised Catholicism in Latin America), which emphasises political empowerment of the poor, problems of “structural sin” and the need to overthrow oppressive institutions;
– prosperity gospel (often associated with Pentecostal churches), emphasising prosperity as the sign of God’s blessing, and at times suggesting that poverty is a consequence of individual sin;
– conservative approaches (associated with traditional Catholicism, Orthodox churches and traditional reformed churches) which emphasise the “God-given” nature of the status quo, and separation of the sacred from the secular.

It is not hard to see that these different theological starting points may lead to very different conclusions about the approach to international development. In the following sections, I identify a number of key aspects of the subject that raise issues for Christians, although the conclusions of Christians may differ significantly depending on their particular traditions and perspectives.

1. Stewardship of the created world. In the biblical account of creation, God gives humanity dominion over the natural world, to look after it and to use its resources as God intends. This has always provided the Christian justification for material progress and the generation of wealth, but with a recognition of our role as stewards of God’s creation rather than owners. Thus, Christians have a particular responsibility in relation to the environment and issues of sustainability. This is more evident now that the continued growth of the rich nations threatens destruction of life as we know it through global warming and other environmental changes.3

2. Population growth. In the book of Genesis we read how God exhorts men and women to increase in numbers and fill the earth (Gen 1:28). Yet we are now reaching a level of world population that may be unsustainable, given the levels of resource use in western nations. Christian teaching about the sanctity of life implies that artificial methods of controlling the population such as abortion and euthanasia are unacceptable, while the largest church in the world prohibits attempts to limit population by birth control. This raises important questions for Christians about whether and how population growth should be limited. It also raises wider ethical questions about the treatment of the natural world if the only way in which the increased population can be fed is through genetic manipulation of plants and animals.

3. Economic growth and material wealth. The Old Testament speaks of those who obey God being favoured by him with material prosperity. Yet Jesus makes it clear that riches can come between us and God, and that the search for wealth can deflect us from what really matters – following Christ. Thus, the pursuit of economic growth – a central feature of international development – raises challenges for Christians (and others) about what is really important. Quite apart from the issues of sustainability, it is all too evident that material prosperity does not bring satisfaction; yet economic growth remains the focus of attention in international development, not least because it is the most easily measured aspect of human progress.

4. The wider meaning of development. For these and other reasons, many have been dissatisfied with economic growth as the dominant goal, suggesting that development consists of much more than material well-being: peace, justice, human rights, dignity, education, culture, participation in decision-making, and so on being equally important. Whilst some of these can more easily be achieved through economic growth (which provides increased resources to finance them), there is no automatic relationship between economic growth and these other objectives – and indeed, there may be conflicts between them. For Christians, there are clearly values beyond material well-being, not least the whole spiritual realm of our relationship to God. Christian organisations like Tearfund talk about development as involving transformation of people and communities, through faith and empowerment, leading to transformed relationships and holistic development (Tearfund, no date)

5. Redistribution versus growth. The Bible frequently refers to God’s concern for the poor and lowly, and the responsibility of believers to meet the needs of those who live in poverty. However, a fundamental debate within international development (as more generally within economics and politics – see Todaro 2005) is whether poverty can best be addressed via growth or via redistribution (a bigger cake, or the same cake divided more equally). The accumulated evidence (not least from the former Soviet Union) is that simple redistribution is not a solution: not only will that be resisted by those who have more, but also it removes the incentives to create wealth, leading to an outcome of shared poverty. On the other hand, growth without redistribution produces huge inequalities that can be socially destabilising. Recent evidence suggests that greatest impact on poverty has occurred in countries that combine relative equality and rapid economic growth, such as China, Taiwan, Korea (World Bank 2000). Achieving the right balance, and applying the right policy instruments to achieve it, is one of the central challenges of development economics.

6. The individual versus the collective. International development raises many issues of concern to Christians about the respective roles and responsibilities of individuals compared to those of the community or the state. Contemporary western Christianity is very individualistic. This reflects (in part) the teaching in the New Testament about the need for each person to respond to Christ. This current emphasis on individualism underplays the collective, as reflected in the OT injunction for the whole community and nation to follow God together. The emphasis on the individual fits with the focus of neo-classical economics (the dominant model in development economics during the 1980s and 1990s) on individual choice in the market place. Yet it is well known that the free market does not always (or often) produce socially desirable outcomes. Hence the collective interest has to be represented through the various roles of government, in regulation, taxation and public provision. On the other side, governments can (and often do) abuse their power in the interests of some rather than all. Furthermore, too much emphasis on collective interests can undermine incentives for individual responsibility. The balancing of individuals’ interests with the collective interest is constantly debated in the literature on international development (as elsewhere is economics), for example in relation to the respective roles of the market and the state (World Bank, 1997).

7. Unequal world. While a large proportion of the world’s population live on less than $1 per day, a small proportion have more than 100 times that amount, and this gap is growing. There are various explanations for this growing inequality, including colonial and post-colonial patterns of exploitation, the nature of free trade, unfair trading rules, inherited levels of debt, and the power of multi-national companies – many of which have turnovers far larger than the economies of some poorer countries. For many Christians (and non-Christians), addressing these issues is an urgent matter – for example, the Jubilee 2000 debt campaign, the Trade Justice Movement and the Make Poverty History campaign. However, any attempt at global redistribution of resources requires an acceptable mechanism of global governance – something fiercely opposed by some (rich) fundamentalist Christians as being the representation of the anti-Christ.4

8. Public service and good government. National (and international) governance requires political leaders and public servants who are motivated to serve in the public interest. Western models of public service are imbued with Christian values (as indicated by terms such as service, ministry, etc), although these ideals have often become tarnished. In many parts of the developing world, politics and public service have become centres of corruption, creating serious impediments to economic development. Hence an important focus of endeavour in international development has been to establish systems to ensure that public resources (including international aid) are properly used and that governments serve the interests of all, and particularly the poor. This has clear resonance with biblical injunctions to justice and honest dealing in public affairs, and to the accountability of leaders for their actions (e.g. Amos 5). These days, many see democracy as being a pre-requisite for good governance, although interestingly, there is no biblical support for this model.

9. Methods of implementing development. The methods and approaches used to achieve international development also raise profound questions for Christians. There is still a strong legacy of colonialism in much development practice, with international agencies (mostly dominated by the rich nations) and governments of developed countries dictating to poorer nations what they should do. This also permeates to the NGOs sector, where those with the resources are able to dictate how those resources are used. This also takes the form of cultural imperialism, where the values and institutions of western nations (for example, democracy, liberal values) are imposed on the poor. For Christians, this poses a particular challenge, since we do believe that the Christian gospel is both unique and universal, but we have to be careful to avoid overlaying the Christian gospel with values, institutions and practices that are cultural rather than essentially Christian.

10. Other issues. There are also a number of specific issues in international development on which Christians have particular viewpoints, including:

Debt: the OT injunction to forgive debts at the Jubilee (Lev.25).
Trade justice: the hypocritical stance of western nations in protecting their own industries while requiring poorer nations to liberalise their economies would certainly have earned the rebuke of some of the OT prophets like Amos.
War and civil conflict: biblical teaching about loving one’s enemies.
HIV/AIDS: now one of the most serious threats to economic progress, especially in Africa, and one on which clear Christian teaching can have at least some impact, as in Uganda.

Some over-arching dilemmas

All of these issues involve dilemmas for Christians about potential conflicts between principles.

– Given limited resources of personnel, finance and time, is there a choice be made between preaching the gospel of salvation and meeting people’s physical needs? Or can the two be combined (“the whole gospel to the whole person”)? If they are combined, how can we avoid the risk of encouraging “rice Christians” – those who respond to the gospel only because of the material benefits offered (a problem that even Jesus faced – John 6: 26). In the end, the prime concern of Christians must be to help others come into a right relationship with God through a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Showing care for the material needs of others must go hand in hand with sharing the gospel, but it must be done in ways that do not distort the essential message. This is a challenge that Christian missionaries have faced throughout the centuries.

– The problem of sin (greed, jealousy, hatred) will always undermine attempts to improve the human condition, and certainly means that we cannot create heaven on earth. Development policies and processes of implementation should recognise that human nature is fallen and will always prevent the ideal being realised. Thus we must be realistic about what can be achieved through economic, social or political change. Christians need always to recognise that there is a spiritual conflict, not just an economic challenge.

– Two thirds of the population of the developing world belong to religions other than Christianity, and deeply held religious views profoundly affect the way people live and operate. Some of these religious values may be inimical to development (superstitions and fears of evil spirits, fatalism, discrimination against women or people of certain backgrounds, etc.), while others may be consistent with Christian values (honouring God, care for the poor). In the end, though, Christians are commissioned to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), which does imply that other religious views cannot just be accepted on an equal basis. This presents a dilemma for Christians working to bring about development within local communities that hold to other religious beliefs.

The encouraging thing in all this is that we are not alone in facing these challenges. With God’s help, and the actions of Christians around the world, we can continue to contribute to improving the situation of many of the world’s poorest. However, we can only do that if we “walk humbly with our God” in our efforts to use the knowledge that the Lord provides.

Bornstein, E (2002) Developing Faith: Theologies of economic development in Zimbabwe, Journal of Religion in Africa, 32(1)

Hay, Donald (1989) Economics Today: A Christian Critique of Economics, Leicester, Apollos [A valuable introduction to Christian issues in economics]

Keough, L and Marshall, K (2004) Mind, Heart and Soul in the Fight Against Poverty. Washington DC, World Bank.

Reinikka R and Svensson J (2003) Working for God? Evaluating service delivery of religious not-for-profit health care providers in Uganda. Policy Research Working Paper Series 3058, World Bank, Washington, DC

Sider, Ronald J (1997) Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, STL Books

Taylor, Michael (2003) Christianity, Poverty and Wealth: The Findings of ‘Project 21′, London, SPCK

Tearfund (no date) ‘Mission, Beliefs and Values: Christian Development’, Teddington, Tearfund

Todaro, Michael P (2005) Economic Development, Prentice Hall [Basic textbook on economic development]

Tyndale, W (2000) Faith and economics in ‘development’: a bridge across the chasm? Development in Practice, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 9-18

Wallis, Jim (2005) God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, HarperCollins

World Bank (2000) Attaching Poverty: World Development Report 2000/2001, Washington DC, World Bank

World Bank (1997) The State in a Changing World: World Development Report 1997, Washington DC, World Bank.


1 An example of this growing interest is the recent commissioning by the UK Government’s Department for International Development of a major study on the relationship between religious faith and development. Such a study is, of course, concerned with instrumental role of religious faith and implies a neutrality about the substance of religious faith, therefore raising questions for Christians who claim a uniqueness for their faith.
2 I am conscious that these brief notes may be caricatures of much more complex theological positions, and that, as a non-theologian, I may have misrepresented these positions. Also, they are not self-contained theological positions but may overlap at many points. There is further discussion of some of these points of view in Taylor (2003).
3 This in turn raises questions about when and how God will judge the world, and whether He will allow humanity and the earth to be destroyed by human action in this way.
4 The Bush administration’s hostile attitude to the UN is a reflection of this view in the USA.