Can There Be Development Without Spiritual Capital

Can There Be Development Without Spiritual Capital?

Olav Kjorven 15/07/2014.

The headline of this article might sound like an oddity, but hear me out
on this. Negotiators at the United Nations are currently debating a new
global development agenda under the headings of sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. They are discussing whether things ranging from child nutrition to road safety to violence against women should be part of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will pick up from where the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) leave us by the end of 2015. It’s an expert’s dream circus.

But let me offer three quick snapshots to try and convince you that agreeing on shared global development goals, and then actually achieving them, depends on more than expert — or even market — solutions. They require a good dose of faith and spirited energy and action.


Snapshot 1: As a young boy growing up in Norway, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my grandfather. He was a farmer who lived,
breathed and talked sustainable development without knowing it, decades before the concept was invented. He knew deeply that the productivity of his farm depended on ecosystem services and on social capital in his family and the wider community (he didn’t know those terms either) alongside smart investments in machinery, seeds and fertilizers. He was also a deeply spiritual man. To him, there was no separation between the toil and accomplishments of his work and worship. The two were inseparable and both infused his life with meaning. My grandfather left a lasting impression on many, including me. I know for a fact that I
wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today if it was not for his influence.
And I suspect many, if not most of us, have had similar influences early
on in our lives, shaping who we are, what we do, and why we do it.


Snapshot 2: As we speak, in hundreds of thousands of communities all over the world, people and institutions inspired by faith or other sources of purpose are busy at work, day in and day out, addressing the challenges laid out in the first set of shared global priorities — the Millennium Development Goals. If it wasn’t for these people and communities, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today in reducing maternal mortality, getting girls and boys to school, halting the spread of HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, providing safe drinking water, etc. These communities are a central part of the immense depository of social and spiritual capital around the world that makes change for the better a reality in so many ways — and that can make even greater things possible in the future.


Snapshot 3: A few weeks ago, I was again struck by luck. I got to attend
a remarkable gathering in Ise, Japan, home to the holiest of shrines in
the ancient Shinto tradition. For the first time in a history that
apparently stretches back to the Bronze Age, representatives of major
world religions, as well as the United Nations (me!), were invited into
this most sacred place of worship — the Ise Jingu shrine — to partake
in a ceremony that committed the Shinto to the cause of building a more
sustainable and peaceful world, drawing on their unique vision of
humanity’s oneness with nature. (I sometimes wonder if my grandfather was at least partly — and, again, unknowingly — a Shinto?)

Their decision reflects, in part, growing concern about global challenges
such as climate change and how it will affect Japan and the world. It is
equally inspired by the work underway at the United Nations to forge a
new, global development agenda founded on the UN’s universal principles and dedicated to achieving sustainable development. And the Shinto are far from alone: Global spiritual and faith traditions and leaders, from Pope Francis and Chinese Confucianism to the Eco-Sikh movement and thousands of Muslim Mosques in Africa, are coming up with their distinct reflections and contributions to the emerging agenda. And whereas global leaders will agree to a 15 year agenda at most, the faiths, once they get going, keep at it for generations.

So there is a spiritual dimension to this agenda. It’s inside each and
every one of us, motivating us for action. And it is alive in churches,
temples, mosques and in all sorts of other human groups and networks
around the world, way beyond religion — at the individual level, the
community level and the institutional and global levels. Negotiators will
come to an agreement on the what and the how, hopefully. The why comes from deep inside us, often inspired by our various ancient, as well as newer, faith and thought traditions.


There are some other reasons why the often overlooked faith-based world matters. Around the globe, people tend to listen more to their faith
leaders than to most other voices of "authority." Sometimes
that’s a problem, sometimes it’s not. But it’s the way it is.

Furthermore, religious institutions are often the main providers of
education and health services, of central importance to development. They are a major player in the financial markets, estimated by some to be the fourth largest category of investors. If and when they decide to invest only in the ethical, clean and green, it will have a major impact. They own huge swathes of real estate and land around the world, including forests. In short, it matters greatly what they say and do. We have every reason to expect that the faith-based world will mobilize in old and new ways to contribute towards achieving the next set of development goals. They can make a huge difference for people and the planet, and we should encourage and welcome that.

I think the truth is rather simple. Despite all our divisions and
parochialism, it is the human spirit that’s at work, that reacts
instinctively and positively to the notion of a shared human endeavor,
dedicated to dignity and justice for all, to finding ways to make peace
with nature (Creation), and to future generations being able to find a
livable and beautiful home on our shared planet Earth.

I know my grandfather would have loved to take part.

Olav Kjorven – Director of the Public Partnerships Division, UNICEF;
Asst. Secretary General of the UN (2007-2014)