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Student Profile

Development: The Importance of Religion and Activism

Thelma Young

Before I moved to Washington, D.C., a friend of mine was worried that I would lose my idealism in the face of scoundrel politics. In fact, my frustrations with the government have decreased, while my frustrations with the NGO world have grown significantly.

Development has become as much about prestige, control of ideas, and money as any other field. The names of countries are used as status symbols—education work in Kenya for a few months, why, that’s equivalent to trotting around carrying a Louis Vuitton purse. Celebrities are praised for going to a remote village for a day and patting some poor brown children on the head, while those who are actually on the ground, and who have been working to help those communities for decades, receive little acknowledgement. Some development projects never get finished, money lines the pockets of corrupt officials, and bureaucracy continues its self-perpetuation. In the struggle for a better world, there is sometimes too much struggle amongst individuals and organizations to be the biggest, brightest, and most praised or funded.

The field of development is unusual because it is essentially working to eradicate itself. It is not about a solid, self-aggrandizing career. It constantly changes, and progress depends not on how much we gain, but how much others gain. These concepts are so drastically different from the usual fields of work that too often they get intertwined.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Development is as much about the process as the end result. Aung San Suu Kyi, the imprisoned democracy leader in Burma and a firm believer in nonviolence, preaches that a revolution must also have a revolution of the spirit or else all is lost. “Without a revolution of the spirit, the forces which produced the iniquities of the old order would continue to be operative, posing a constant threat to the process of reform and regeneration.”1 A revolution of the spirit has to be kept in mind with development as well.

I’ve been discussing development with a friend of mine who is working in Namibia, and her view from the bottom is similar to my view from the top. She says, “There needs to be less sympathy and more willingness to let the people do what needs to be done on their own.” Sustainable development is about constantly processing why we are doing what we are doing. It’s not just analyzing the effectiveness of the program to bring out results. It’s knowing what our true intentions are and whether our intentions will further our spirit as well as the spirit of the people we are trying to help. Are we going abroad just so we can say we spent our summer overseas? Are we doing certain projects just to ease our conscience? Or are we asking ourselves, what is honestly needed most?

I’ve often felt that there needs to be more activism in religion, and that we need to be willing to take Christ’s teachings and fight for their fulfillment on a social and political level. Now I’m also realizing the importance of religion in activism. With a full knowledge of the plan of salvation, we realize why it is so vitally crucial that we help lift our brothers and sisters. It’s not just about getting a warm fuzzy feeling, but it is essential for our spiritual future. I know a lot of great people who get into activism or development because they have a feeling inside of them, an urgency for social justice, but sometimes that yearning isn’t enough make it through the corruptions of this world. Furthermore, the plan of salvation brings hope to this often overwhelmingly painful work and helps me have faith in the process of things in this life. A revolution of the spirit is just as essential as overthrowing a dictator—the two must go hand in hand.

The monks in Burma marched through the streets shouting words of kindness, and some people looked at the revolution and claimed that it failed. Even though many are now in prison or dead, they have indefinitely set the tone for the democratic movement in Burma and, in the end, that spiritual revolution will win. When I think of the monks and the many other people in this world working for what they believe in—without hope of fame—my idealism is restored.

1. From her essay, “Freedom from Fear,” which was first released for publication 10 July 1991 as acceptance of her 1990 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought award bestowed by the European Parliament.

Young is a campaigns coordinator for U.S. Campaign for Burma.