Faith in action: religious organisations and development in Kolkata, India

Jenny Lunn

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


Religion has returned to the public sphere after a long absence. Ideas of progressive secularisation, dominant for the last century, have been proved wrong by the revival and spread of religion across the world. Accordingly, religion has emerged as a revitalised topic of enquiry in almost every social science discipline. This includes the field of international development, where religion has appeared on the agendas of academics, policy-makers and practitioners. This research is framed within postdevelopment theory, which seeks to identify alternative approaches to development that are culturally specific and locally rooted; this includes incorporating the religious or spiritual dimension into development.

One significant aspect of religion and development is the role of religious organisations as development actors. Although religious organisations have always been involved in development, their presence has been sidelined and their contribution undervalued: a better understanding is urgently required. There are major questions being asked about religious organisations in terms of the extent of their contribution to development, the ways in which they differ from secular organisations, their effectiveness, and the nature of their relationships with other development actors. This study joins the emerging literature that is seeking to address these questions; it offers a theoretically and conceptually framed analysis of the empirical complexities surrounding the role of religious organisations in development practice.

This thesis is based on data collected from religious organisations in the city of Kolkata, India. The fieldwork was divided into three main stages. A survey of the civil society sector revealed over 220 religious organisations registered in central Kolkata; these were scrutinised by type and activities to identify those engaged in development. A sample of 50 organisations from ten different religions was selected for further analysis; data were collected through interviews with senior representatives and the examination of organisational documentation. Finally, three of these organisations were chosen for in-depth study, involving participant observation over a period of four months.

The findings suggest that religious organisations form a significant part of civil society and play an active role in development. Many religious organisations are motivated to engage in development by their beliefs and values and see religion and development as inseparable. Some religious organisations also utilise particular religious resources and assets in development practice, with apparent effectiveness. Religious organisations tend to be situated within complex webs of interaction with a range of other development actors such as government, secular NGOs and the private sector; however, such relationships tend to be relatively superficial and the evidence of cooperation and collaboration in development is limited.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of Geography
  • Simon, David, Supervisor
  • Willis, Katie, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Apr 2011
Publication statusUnpublished - 2010


  • development
  • religion
  • religious organisations
  • India
  • Kolkata

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