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Religion plays a key role in Bolivia

Bolivia became a secular state in 2009. Religious traditions, however, are central to both daily life and politics. Religious institutions negotiate between various perspectives on development and religion.

Arnhild Leer-Helgesen, foto
Arnhild Leer-Helgesen is associate professor at the University of Agder and has lived in Bolivia while working in international development and doing fieldwork for her master’s degree and her PhD. Her new book on religion and negotiation in religious organisations in Bolivia is based on her PhD thesis.

Bolivia is among the poorest countries in South America. International development actors like the UN and non-governmental organisations have been doing extensive development work in the country, as  do Christian organisations with international support, also from Norway.

But how does Christian work go along with development work? Do religious institutions stand in the way of the development of poor countries, or advance it?

These are issues Arnhild Leer-Helgesen explores in a new book on development work in Bolivia. She is associate professor at the University of Agder (UiA) and has just released the book Negotiating Religion and Development, Identity and Contention in Bolivia (2019), published by the British publishing house Routledge.

“The debate is often between those who claim that religion contributes positively to development work and those who claim it hinders it, but the truth is more complex. My goal has been to study the role of religion in development work in Bolivia, for better or worse”, Leer-Helgesen says.

Omslaget på boken Negotiating Religion and Development, Identity and Contention in Bolivia

Negotiating values and identity

Leer-Helgesen has studied the work of two national Christian institutions in the Bolivian Andes. One is an ecumenical evangelical organisation with links to the Norwegian Mission Alliance, the other one is a Lutheran church supported by the Lutheran World Federation among others (Misión Alianza de Noruega en Bolivia and Iglesia Evangélica Luterana de Bolivia). 

Her work shows that religious institutions have special resources which can contribute positively to development work.

“Representatives from faith-based organisations in Bolivia negotiate daily between theology and development theories, because both sides are part of their identity. They are influenced by local cultural and religious practices on the one hand and international development strategies and Christian traditions on the other”, Leer-Helgesen says.

The Bolivian organisations and their employees negotiate between religion on the one hand and development theories on the other, and between Christian identity and indigenous identity. The contention can be around various religious traditions locally, regionally and internationally.

“The relationship between religion and development is not given but is created through negotiation. For religious institutions, development work is part of their faith, and they work towards religious and development goals at the same time. Tensions between faith and development thinking are always present, and that can be both a problem and a source of deeper understanding”, Leer-Helgesen says.

Secular state and religious people

Religion plays a key role in the everyday life of people in Bolivia. About 80 percent of the population identify as Catholic. The number of Protestants rises quickly and is closer to 20 percent. Indigenous religious and spiritual faiths and practices are both a separate tradition and part of the two Christian denominations in Bolivia. Indigenous peoples constitute around half of Bolivia’s population of 11 million.

The country has had its first indigenous president, Evo Morales, since 2006. A new constitution, ratified in 2009, emphasises indigenous peoples’ religiosity, development ideas and the good life. The constitution focuses on the country’s own traditions, societal structures, and thinking, and criticises western influence, historically and today.

The word of God and human development

For Lutheran and evangelical organisations, mission is grounded in the interpretation of Scripture, and development work must be in accordance with human rights and other international principles.

According to Leer-Helgesen, the idea of human development – which is central to the UN and other international development actors – is what dominates strategies and leadership in the Christian organisations. Human rights, equality, health, education for all, economic opportunities and individual empowerment are central.

The discussion about who gets to define development has been at the centre of political debate in Bolivia over det last ten years. Government plans use indigenous peoples’ terms to describe the good life and society, presented as a contrast to western understanding.

Leer-Helgesen explains that in their official documents, the two faith-based organisations are in line with the views of international development actors; whereas their staff utilise language and ideas from indigenous philosophy.

“Christian thinking is in harmony with both indigenous and UN philosophy in many areas, with ideals like human rights, the right to education and equal rights for women and men. These ideas are often supported through theological arguments, but we also find important tensions here”, Leer-Helgesen says.

Equality is problematic

Some of the most contentious issues in international development debate today are questions regarding gender and equality. Strong religious actors attempt to dilute this agenda in the UN, based on a conservative interpretation of both the Bible and the Qur’an.

“Gender equality was also an underlying tension in the two organisations in Bolivia. Both worked to strengthen the role of women in society and in politics. While the Lutheran church also worked theologically to change the role of women, this was a non-issue in the evangelical organisation. Internal disagreement around the interpretation of women’s role put a lid on the debate”, Leer-Helgesen says.

From financial to human growth

During the nineties, we saw a shift in the UN, among politicians, in research communities, and in humanitarian aid organisations where focus was less on economic growth and more on human development and quality of life.

“This shift made more room for religious actors. People had to define for themselves what constitutes development. Local participation became important and a holistic approach to living a good life was encouraged. This suited the religious organisations who could include spirituality and good relations as central aspects. In addition, churches and mosques were considered central grassroots actors in large parts of the world”, Leer-Helgesen says.

Taking God seriously

Minister of International Development Erik Solheim reflected this development in 2010 when he talked about taking God seriously in development work. This commitment at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was at a low point for a while, but the new Minister of International Development Dag Ulstein (Norway’s Christian Democratic Party, KrF) has again raised the initiative.

Leer-Helgesen is critical to attitudes demanding the separation of religious goals and the development agenda through official guidelines. But she also warns against viewing religious actors as better or more legitimate than secular ones.

In her book, she concludes that the Christian organisations are in line with UN’s ideas about human development, and that they in many cases strengthen the local community and groups of people. But the underlying tensions and contradictions between differing goals and religious interpretations cannot be ignored.

“My experience and studies show many examples where faith gives added motivation for change, but there are also several instances where theological interpretation opposes central development goals. These are often simultaneous processes within the same organisation”, Leer-Helgesen explains.

She argues that religion should not be stamped as either good or bad for development.

“Research and practice in development work should recognise this complexity. Both differing theological interpretations and theories of human development characterise the ongoing work in these organisations”, the researcher thinks.