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Papua New Guinea

Religion and Development

By Lachlan McPhee
Papua New Guinea Programs Director

In November 2016, a group of three Oaktree volunteers, including myself, visited Papua New Guinea. During our stay, we conducted an end of project review of Yangis Community School and Kumbareta Baptist High School, implemented by our partner, Baptist Union of Papua New Guinea, and explored Oaktree’s strategic direction in PNG over the next few years.

We often heard people ascribe the success or failure of their endeavours as divine intervention from God, or place Christianity at the very centre of how they explained their identity and their relation to the world. We were privileged to be able to attend a baptism ceremony whilst in Mt Hagen, where over 20 young men and women were symbolically washed of their sins and inducted into the church community.

We were privileged to be able to attend a baptism ceremony in Mt Hagen.

Religion is a contentious topic, and can be quite difficult to analyse from an outsider’s  perspective, given the highly personal nature of faith. That said, we can still make some concrete statements about the role of religion in development processes, and approach the interaction between the two from a critical perspective. As PNG is my area of interest - I won’t say “expertise” - I will talk mostly about that country, however there is an extensive literature on religion in development in a number of different countries.

"In PNG, Christianity is a mile wide - and an inch deep."

-Mission Aviation Fellowship Pilot, Western Highlands Province

A large majority of Papua New Guineans identify as members of a Christian church (96% in the 2000 census); however, many combine their Christian faith with traditional indigenous beliefs and practices. Older forms of ancestor worship and animism, or the belief in spirits (both benevolent and wicked), are still prevalent, especially in rural areas. Western religious organisations are the primary service-delivery agencies for health and education, especially in rural and remote areas which remain unserved by government.

Yangis Community School, 2015.

Organisations like Baptist Union of Papua New Guinea, a longtime partner of Oaktree in PNG, have developed expertise in working in remote and rural areas of the country as a result. This access and expertise is primarily due to the history of western religion in PNG. Missionaries first came in the 18th century, and in the interest of saving as many souls as possible, tried to get to the most out-of-the-way places. Missionary posts quickly developed into churches, health clinics, and schools. Today, they provide an entry point into communities for other development organisations, where their strategy and priorities align. Given this, however, there is still reluctance in much of the development community to engage too much with faith or religion in their work. Why is this?

The spread of Western religion to areas of the developing world was often the vanguard of colonial domination and exploitation, as it was in PNG. I think development practitioners  often shy away from engaging with religion in their work, for fear of appearing to echo cultural imperialism, or obscuring the ‘local’ and ‘traditional’. It’s generally agreed that broader participation of diverse stakeholder groups in development processes improves outcomes, and the attitude is that development shouldn’t come with a side of religious salvation. This can be seen especially in the way that organisations address sexual and reproductive health, an often contentious issue in highly religious societies. Most agree that fundamentally, evidence, not ideology, should drive policy.

Development inherently implies progress. The idea of change, from one state of affairs to another that is seen as ‘better’, is pervasive. Disagreements might arise as to the definition of ‘better’, or the appropriate way to get ‘there’, but it is generally agreed that change is the goal. However, a belief in the afterlife can soften ambition to make change happen. Why seek to improve your lot in this life if all your needs and desires will be met in the next? Maybe it’s easier to suffer in silence, with your reward to come in Heaven.

Baiyer Valley in Western Highlands province, near Kumbareta. 

Religious belief is sometimes also used to argue against overthrowing established power structures that perpetuate injustice. The basic idea of the Christian saying that “the meek shall inherit the earth” is that the downtrodden and victims of injustice will turn the tables on their oppressors in the next life. So, again, why try and improve things for yourself now if you will have justice in heaven?

"Oaktree’s presence was a gift from God"

- Yangis community member, Enga Province

Aside from being quite unsettling to a devout agnostic such as myself, encounters such as this caused me to think more deeply about the role that religion plays in development. When people would describe the impact on their family or community from their participation in the projects as a gift from God, I wanted to stand up and point out that their own motivation and ambition to build a stronger community, and a better life for themselves and their family, was at least as responsible. Giving all the credit to God takes agency away from everyone who worked so hard to make an impact in the community. It would be far  better, from my perspective, to thank teachers for their instruction, or parents for their belief in the importance of learning, or students for having a hope for a better life!

At Oaktree, we focus on social justice and personal empowerment as an integral part of the change process, which can sometimes jar with what we see on the ground. Religious organisations such as BUPNG do work that is creating massive impact in the communities that they touch. In the end, if people want to thank God, and lean on Him for help in future endeavours, does that really change the nature of that impact?