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Conferences and Workshops

Religion and the Politics of Development: Priests, Potentates and “Progress” Print
Date: 28 Aug 2013 - 29 Aug 2013
Venue: Auditorium Level 2, Lee Kong Chian Wing
University Hall @ NUS Kent Ridge Campus
21 Lower Kent Ridge Road Singapore 119077
Organisers: A/Prof FEENER Michael
Dr BUSH Robin
Dr WU, Keping

The “Religion and the Politics of Development: Priests, Potentates, and ‘Power’” international conference was held at University Hall, National University of Singapore, on August 28-29, 2013. This conference was co-organized by Robin Bush, Philip Fountain and Michael Feener, and jointly-funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Asia Research Institute.

The event was well-attended, attracting an audience of over 100 people, including scholars from multiple disciplines and universities in the region, practitioners from a range of development and humanitarian organizations also spanning the region, civil servants, and students. It began with introductory remarks by the organizers, calling attention to recent shifts in the geo-politics of development assistance and the power imbalances that still mark the fight against poverty. The organizers called for an introduction of analysis of ‘religion’ in conversations on the politics of poverty, and discussions of ways in which development and religion are mutually constitutive. Both days of the conference began by a dialogic keynote panel in which two senior scholars made substantial presentations, followed by commentary and discussion. On the first day, the keynote session, featuring Katherine Marshall and Jeff Haynes, focused on ‘Development Actors’, and on the second day, the keynote session, featuring Carole Rakodi and James Putzel, focused on ‘the Role of the State’. Following each keynote session on each day were parallel break-out panels in which 18 scholars presented papers across the broad sub-themes of: ‘Transnational Religious Actors’, ‘Humanitarians and Religion’, ‘Interrogating Religion’, ‘Entanglements with the State’, ‘Engaging Islam’, and ‘Secularity’. These sessions featured rich, empirically grounded material from case studies on the nexus of religion, development, and politics in diverse contexts across East, South, Southeast, Central, and West Asia. A number of the papers presented by junior scholars were particularly strong, with exciting new data and rich analytical frames being presented and discussed.

One of the foremost objectives of the organizers was that this conference would facilitate conversations not just among scholars, but also with development practitioners’ as integral elements of the discussions. As such, one of the innovations of the conference design was a Practitioner’s Panel – held as the capstone session on each day of the conference. In these panels, 8 senior development practitioners representing OECD, AusAID, ICRC, Tony Blair Faith Foundation, The Asia Foundation, World Vision, Save the Children, and the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, shared their insights into the role that religion plays in various aspects of development. On the first day, the practitioner panel focused on discussions of development policy, and on the second day, it focused on grounded and field-based experience. Many people remarked on the practitioner panels as being a forum that worked remarkably well, and that were a highlight of the conference. The debate and interaction between practitioners and scholars was not just limited to these panels, however – it prevailed throughout all of the sessions of the conference, and indeed became a primary theme of discussion. That is, the ‘bridge building’ objective of the conference became a point of discourse itself, and as a point of dialogue was enthusiastically embraced by participants. Points of potential collaboration that were identified included the need for more rigorous data and evidence, the need for systematic and detailed mapping, and the need for comparative case studies. In terms of networking, both practitioners and scholars mentioned their appreciation for the opportunity to meet and connect with cross-disciplinary colleagues.

Across the two days of the conference, a number of key themes emerged as prevalent talking points. One of these was the broad disjunction between many scholars, who felt there was a ‘resurgence’ of interest in religion in development studies and social science more broadly, and some practitioners who were more ambivalent about engagement with religion. Another frequent theme was the lack of data or evidence on how engagement with religion affects development outcomes, and vice-versa-- how engagement with development shapes religious institutions and identities. A third point of discussion was the complex and varied relationship between the state and religion in differing historical and political contexts, and ensuing implications for citizen welfare. While the goal of the conference was not to arrive at a general consensus or overarching conclusions, generally it was felt that the provocative conversations enabled a more nuanced and complex understanding for both scholars and practitioners about how religion, politics, and development interact. Conference organizers are in the process of compiling some of the papers presented at the event into an edited volume.


Conference Conveners

Dr Robin BUSH (

Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Dr Philip FOUNTAIN (

Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore


Mr Jonathan Lee (
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore

Contact Person: Mr LEE Ming Yao, Jonathan