Contending Modernities article

Democracy Blues: Reflections from Rome 2016



The two rich days of discussion in Rome complicated the questions that I wrestle with daily, both confirming concerns and irritations and illuminating emergent issues that demand my attention. In particular, I was struck by the need to continue to root our analysis in the actual dilemmas encountered in development, democratic, and peace practice, dilemmas that require us to engage robustly with the dynamics of gender, secularism, and religion.

Complicating dialogue: Any academic or policy encounter that does not pose questions in new ways, complicating what might seem straightforward, is hardly worth its salt. The recurring commentary about dialogue fit that category for me. Some suggestions (largely implicit) about differing types and approaches to interreligious or intra-religious dialogue, and the effort to distinguish inter-faith from multi-faith were useful. On two fronts, however, I left with the impression that there is still work to be done both to be persuasive about dialogue as an approach and to ensure that it achieves its intended results. First, the dialogue doubters need more robust examples of meaningful engagements that show what the contemporary policy world lumps together as “results” – that is, genuine progress as a result of conscious dialogue efforts. We need more than metaphors and platitudes if we are to convince policymakers that dialogue is a necessary part of democratic practices: one speaker referred to dialogue with the image of cucumber sandwiches, for example; another participant described long discussions with a rather token-ish group that concluded that all involved love one God. These are just two examples of the aura of skepticism surrounding interreligious dialogue that are a reality we cannot ignore. Second, the complicating elements encourage me to focus more sharply on the fact that dialogue is the means, not the end. Clarity on this point requires both greater attention to defining what the ends might be as well as focus on the processes involved in dialogue. As a means dialogue has many faces but two essential features are the effort to combine the objectives of humanizing contacts and allowing essential flexibility to create new approaches and results. Both are part of excellent processes. Dialogue for dialogue’s sake is not likely to garner much support or take us very far.

Fragile states and gender are two topics that deserve more attention in our academic reflections. First is the conundrums that go with democratic processes in the large and possibly growing group of what are termed fragile states. Yes, all states are fragile in some sense but some are plainly more fragile than others and the host of governance demands that are common everywhere–whether attracting inspired leadership, assuring personal security, resolving conflicts, assuring transparency of governmental processes in a meaningful way, and working fast and effectively to curtail corruption and gross inefficiency–take on new significance. A major lesson from recent development experience is that the traditional array of approaches, whether economic or social, do not work in fragile or failing states, so modified and even radically different approaches are needed. A similar comment applies for democracy. But the specific, workable models of the “radically different” approaches are few and far between.

The second topic centers on women’s roles, agendas, and leadership. Emma Tomalin challenged the group to probe the distinctions between gender equality and equity and their real-life implications. She and I agree that compromising on basic rights is not the right way, nor is pushing efforts towards equality into the future. Evidence that women’s roles and agendas are crucial in a multitude of ways to peace and development is robust. The complications but also advantages of “starting where people are” and addressing what are legitimate questions and concerns should be front and center in reflecting on how to deal with rampant inequality. The fact that gender issues are a central facet of engagement between religious and secular actors where peace, development, humanitarian, and climate change are concerned is too often buried in our discourse.

One irritation I recall was sparked by frustration at how rarely discussions made meaningful efforts to ground discussions in practical cases and issues. As with families, unhappy countries and tense interreligious relations tend to exhibit different characteristics. Until we face the differences it is difficult to move from theory to action and engagement. An example was the rather circular discussions around moderation in religion and especially Islam. Where do we come out, and how and why does the conclusion matter in terms of needed action? By remaining rooted in the practice of development, democracy, and peace, we might be able to clarify our differences while still finding areas of common work and, more significant to my mind, identify areas that are actionable.

Intersectionality came up quite often. At one level it is a deeply familiar concept for the development practitioner that I am – many aspects of development and peacebuilding, for example, are so tightly intertwined and overlaid that the common siloed separations distort reality and professional practice. But the way the concept of intersectionality was used has set me to thinking about what the interlinking implies for thought and action, for gender approaches but also for other topics, among them tackling elements of governance (corruption, for example) that are part and parcel of governance challenges.

Let me conclude with a call for more robust thinking about religious and secular literacy. It is an acknowledged fact that many professionals and academics have large knowledge holes where religious matters are concerned that stymie them in exploring their work’s important implications. But what kinds of training will truly appeal and truly help? And for religious actors, a similar question applies. What competencies, skills, and training do religious practitioners need for engaging an increasingly complex field of action? The topics of peace, pluralism, social, political, democracy and economic development are profoundly transdisciplinary, stretching the limits of any individual’s capacity. That implies attention to the what, the how, and the stages of approaches to address religious and secular literacy. Can we experiment with some challenging models and see how they work and how they need to be reinforced? My hope is that the conversations started in Rome will continue in order to push these challenging questions forward, building our capacity to engage constructively these pressing issues.


Katherine Marshall
Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, where she leads the Center's program on Religion and Global Development, and Professor of the Practice of Development, Conflict, and Religion at Georgetown University. After a long career in the development field, including several leadership positions at the World Bank, Marshall moved to Georgetown in 2006, where she also serves as a visiting professor in the School of Foreign Service. She helped to create and now serves as the executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Fully aware of the ways in which personhood has been denied based on the hierarchies of modernity/coloniality, we do not publish comments that include dehumanizing language and ad hominem attacks. We welcome debate and disagreement that educate and illuminate. Comments are not representative of CM perspectives.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.