On July 9th 2020, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) launched its recent report ‘Protecting and Supporting Vulnerable Groups Through the Covid-19 Crisis.’ The report offers insights into how some of the most vulnerable populations have been affected by restrictive Covid-19 measures by governments and non-state actors, which for many communities have meant choosing between lives or livelihoods.
The findings of the report are based on an extensive survey of 329 responses from 82 countries, mainly completed by academics and practitioners from UNRISD’s own global network. While the report presents a wide diversity of 11 vulnerable groups at risk of experiencing socio-economic marginalisation during Covid-19, the situation of religious minorities is not covered in the report.
At the launch of the report, I raised the issue of the absence of religious minorities, questioning whether this was intentional and if so, the reasons behind this. Eva Bortolotti, UNDP consultant and co-author of the report, responded: ‘instead of being recognised as a vulnerable group we saw how active [religious minorities] were in the responses. So, we saw that they actually provided solutions during the crisis.’ Bortolotti added that ‘in India there were Muslim minorities that organised, and tried to bring their community together, distribute masks… yes, they are vulnerable – but they also try to organise themselves and provide responses to the crisis.’
The response far from addresses the issue and adds to the contemporary institutional neglect of religious minorities in development. Indeed, an earlier UNRISD draft paper Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization, from November 2018, shed light on how the focus on ethnic and religious minorities has been absent from development initiatives to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 (reduce inequality within and among countries). This despite, as the report shows, ethnic and religious minorities constituting a large proportion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.
Despite the earlier identification of the issue, the new UNRISD report makes a U-turn on the findings and neglects the situation of religious minorities yet again. What is even more concerning is that the justification provided by Eva Bortolotti conflates two issues; first, experienced inequalities on the basis of belonging to a religious minority group, and second, responding to inequalities and the discrimination faced. As a result of conflating these two, one can come to a concerning conclusion that if a group is coping well, their experiences and inequality can be ignored.
Despite the growing attention to multi-faceted inequalities and the increased attention to the role of religion in development, along with the role of faith-based organisations (FBOs) and other religious actors, inequalities and discrimination on the basis of religion or belief remains a glaring blind spot in development. As such, the confusion, institutional inconsistency, and lack of in-depth engagement with religious minorities within the regime of international development governance and non-state actors involved with poverty reduction and humanitarian responses among vulnerable populations does not come as a surprise.
The new UNRISD report is not blind to the issue of minorities per se. However, it defines minorities as black and ethnic minorities only, and hence its scope is too narrow to be comprehensive. It can be conceded that religious identity and religion, as a specific variable, can be complicated to isolate, since it sometimes intertwines with other characteristics, for example ethnicity. As such, marginalisation and exclusion experienced by religious minorities are in many instances closely related to the challenges experienced by other minority populations. These intersecting inequalities range from underrepresentation in political participation and decision-making processes, denied access to humanitarian aid, health care, employment, education, rights to accommodation, land ownership, and to general financial services. Furthermore, exclusion of religious minorities does not always coincide directly with socio-economic exclusion. It can also be manifested in a lack of civil and political rights.
This connection between discrimination, inequality, and poverty, often entrenched over generations, must be approached with targeted interventions and solid aggregated data towards the realities of religious minorities and indigenous people. Development interventions, at all levels of the spectre, must move beyond the sole focus of weak governance and socio-economic resource limitations, to increase the necessary participation of these marginalised communities.
One of the answers to the lack of engagement with religious minorities lies in the thematic complexity of the cultural and socio-political circumstances surrounding contexts of religion and belief. While engaging with religion and belief may be a time consuming, sensitive and porous area, it is vital in order to achieve the SDG agenda. This issue was correctly raised by the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) era, where the World Bank concludes in their annual 2014/2015 Global Monitoring Report that the so-called ‘remaining poor’ ‘…may be members of disadvantaged groups that are subject to religious or ethnic discrimination that excludes them from labour or credit markets,’ and that they might be ‘…unable to participate in the broader growth process and benefit from it. Or they may lack the requisite human capital to obtain higher productivity jobs, or the financial capital to invest in productive activities.’
However, this does not mean that the issue has been addressed. Indeed, while the MDGs made important progress in recognising inequalities and discrimination on the basis of gender, minorities and indigenous people were almost absent within the framework. The SDG’s agenda to ‘leave no one behind’, aims to limit horizontal and vertical discrimination, inequalities and poverty for those who have previously been ‘left behind.’ But the dichotomy between the UNRISD reports mentioned above, unfortunately, adds to the issue of neglecting the religious minorities that continue to fall between the cracks.