''This is an historic moment'', Wendy Tyndale, a spokesperson for the international development agency Christian Aid, told IPS Friday. ''For the first time in the 53 years of its history, the World Bank has opened its doors to dialogue with the faiths.''
Working groups between the faiths and the Washington-based financial institution have been set up to discuss how best to ensure projects designed to eliminate poverty consider spiritual, moral and social factors as well as financial ones.
The two-day meeting, co-chaired by the head of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, and the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, was held on Feb. 18-19 at the archbishop's residence in London, Lambeth Palace.
Participants included leading figures from of nine faiths: Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Taoist. They conferred with senior World Bank staff and policy- makers from major British based international aid orgnaisations, including Christian Aid and the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development.
The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader or Imam of the Nizaris, the larger of the two main branches of the Ismaili Shi'a community, was also present. The Ismailis have developed a world-wide reputation for charity welfare and development work. In 1967 the current Aga Khan established the Aga Khan Foundation specifically to promote such humanitarian and cultural work.
Over the next 18 months, small working groups will combine people from different faiths working in the community and World Bank officials, and decide the role of the Bank in this new alliance between the churches development network.
''We shall be exploring vital questions about the definition of what constitutes successful development, bearing in mind the importance of religious, cultural, social and environmental aspects of a society's long-term well being,'' said Carey in a statement.
''We shall consider together, against this background, the kind of criteria which need to be built into effective long-term development policies and projects, and how faith communities and the World Bank might work together to achieve beneficial changes in the fight against world poverty.''
The move, initiated by Carey and Wolfensohn over a year ago, has been described by development experts as a major change in World Bank policy. One of the key decisions to have come out of what Carey called ''frank and intensive dialogue'' was a shift in the bank's understanding of development to include cultural, ethical and spiritual issues, aid agencies here said.
''Up until now, the World Bank has ignored the importance of cultural, ethical and spiritual values in development projects because it has focused on economic values alone,'' said Tyndale.
''Development is, of course, about economics, but, as the churches development network has known for a long time now, culture, spirituality and ethics should not be left out of the development equation either.''
The World Bank has often found itself at logger-heads with religious-based agencies and experts who have condemned its investment in giant projects that take little account of the needs of ordinary peoples or the social and environmental damage the can cause.
Non-governmental development agencies have attacked many of the bank's policies, including its 'soft' loans at lower rates for developing countries. This, they argue, has sucked the developing world into a spiral of escalating debt, conditional on economic policies not tuned to the needs, cultures, and existing structures in recipient countries.
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