The Influence of Religion on Sustainable Development

Prof. Dr. Matthias Basedau
2015 - 2018
Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ)



Research Questions

Religion plays an important role in the process of social and economic development. In most societies, especially in developing countries, religious beliefs strongly shape the political and economic institutions, and hence either hamper or spur overall development. However, despite its potentially important role for prosperity, religion has been a neglected area in development policy and development cooperation. This project thus seeks to investigate empirically what conditions of religion stimulate or retard sustainable development. Given the relevance for development, it also seeks to provide policy recommendation for development policy and development co-operation.

Contribution to International Research

The project contributes to the international research on religion by delivering an up-to-date literature review, by compiling and analysing a comprehensive database on religion and sustainable development, and by analysing the data from the qualitative case studies, the elite surveys, one representative survey, and behavioural experiments.

Research Design and Methods

These research questions will be addressed in three modules. In module 1, the project team thoroughly reviewed the literature and identified pertinent research gaps. In module 2, as the core part of the project, the team conducted a number of empirical investigations, for which a mixed research design will be employed, containing three major elements. First, the project compiled a comprehensive data set on 180 developing and developed countries (1990-2014). Second, the team conducted three qualitative case studies, including field work in Ghana, Sri Lanka and Tanzania to four mostly African countries. The third element is the use of quantitative methodologies in the country cases, which will complement the qualitative component, namely two elite surveys, one representative survey on the whole population, as well as behavioural experiments. On the basis of the empirical findings from module 2, the team has developed in module 3 a number of conceptual propositions for development policy in general as well as for practical development co-operation.

Preliminary Results

The review of the quantitative literature revealed manifold causal mechanisms linking the several dimensions of both religion and development; data on countries in the Global South is frequently missing. The main challenge is the identification of a causal link between religious dimensions and development. As a result, only few results can be considered robust (e.g. a positive impact of religion on well being and mental health and a negative one on gender equality). The empirical module of the project has tried to address some of the research gaps. Analyses reveal important insights that are also an important part of the project on “Religion and Conflict: On the Ambivalence of Religious Factors in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East”. Surveys indicate that when elites reject secularism their acceptance of violence increases. Experimental evidence from artefactual field experiments with 1,254 Muslim and Christian believers in Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) and Accra (Ghana) suggests that the belief in “one true religion” leads to more intense out-group discrimination and reduces the likelihood of interreligious cooperation. Thus, to promote peaceful coexistence between religious groups, it seems indispensable to emphasise religious teachings that are particularly tolerant towards all religious groups. We also find that leaders tend to be more religious conservative and that they seem to exert influence on ordinary believers. Many opportunities for prevention and intervention exist, mainly the promotion of theology that favours secularism and interreligious conviviality.