The spaces and places in which community development happens, and their relationship to religion, are centrally important but have not always been considered in development studies. Earlier schools of thought in development have minimised religion as a private issue, blamed it as a bottleneck to development, or simply marginalised it compared to economic growth.

Yet community development principles such as valuing the local ought to at least be aware of and, at their best, maximise the contribution of religion. Military commanders may also learn from best practice of community development principles in being carefully attentive to local voices and important neighbourhood places – including religious voices and spaces.

This is especially important in developing regions of the world where most communities and people revolve their lives around religion, religion influences their motivation to help others, and their sacred places are often used as safe spaces for development and community safety. How, then, can we understand the interrelationships of religion and development? And in what ways are sacred places utilised to create space for community development (and by extension peace-making, Key Religious Leader Engagement [KRLE] and optimal Civil Military Cooperation [CIMIC])?

Community development scholars Professor Matthew Clarke and Anna Halafoff address these questions in their recent volume ‘Religion and Development in the Asia-Pacific: Sacred places as Development Spaces’. Clarke is now Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Development at Deakin University and has worked in the development sector for over 20 years, initially with World Vision and now at Deakin –focusing on religion and development, aid effectiveness, and measuring community well-being. Halafoff is Associate Professor in Sociology of Religion at Deakin with a research expertise in multifaith relations, and religion and peacebuilding.

As background they discuss the huge need for aid and development in the Asia-Pacific, celebrate the progress of recent decades, admit the vulnerability with pressing global issues, and offer a categorisation of how religion has been treated in development studies. The highest value and bulk of their book, however, is five Asia-Pacific case studies of how religion and development are interrelated. It is a fascinating multi-faith range of Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, multi-faith, and a more holistic spirituality initiative that demonstrates how religious places often undergird development initiatives by offering not just geographic space but trust, belonging, and continuity with existing community rhythms. These are the kind of community assets that military leaders and CIMIC officers can look for and build on for the sake of fostering peace and local community wellbeing.

In Vanuatu, Christian churches have often been used not just for worship but for political activism, community education, and sanctuary from natural disaster. Notably, the churches also offer in their teaching an impetus for development and for empowering women as well as men.

The Buddhist Songdhammakalyani Monastery in Bangkok advocates strongly for Buddhist women and their leadership. It underlines these efforts with its sacred places named after Buddhist women with prominent female statues. The Buddhist nuns also take the sanctity of the monastery on visits to the detention centre or prison, or on alms rounds to share sacredness beyond any designated religious place.

The Jewish group “Stand Up” teaches Muslim Sudanese women in a Uniting Church in my home city of Melbourne. Participants say the multi-faith context adds to the sense of equality and richness of the program.

These kinds of groups are worthwhile looking towards and learning from as obvious allies for ADF Gender Advisers in promoting and protecting the UN Security Council Resolution on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and other related human rights ‘cross-cutting themes’.

The Muslim Minhaj-ul-Quran International offers strong teaching refuting Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorist ideology, and a unique retreat centre offering food, shelter, charity, and education – especially during Ramadan. Among the best allies for counter-terrorism may be relationships and initiatives alongside religious leaders within the community that radicalisation emerges from, and this chapter illustrates the high commitment to peace and respectful international relations that many Muslims hold.

The Kalani retreat centre and intentional community in Hawaii revolves around nature, wellness, and local culture. Its vision is to foster a new heaven and new earth, starting with and learning from Hawaiian sacred places, self-development, yoga, permaculture, and a liberating approach to architecture that supports sustainable development.

All five cases illustrate that religious places often house, as well as provide a religious imperative for educational, disaster relief, environmental awareness, and gender equality programs. It is helpful to understand the value places of worship bring to community development. It is also insightful to consider more broadly how contexts as diverse as religious schools, yoga studios, permaculture gardens, and virtual spaces can enhance locally appropriate initiatives for promoting neighbourhood wellbeing and advocacy for justice.

Religion and Development in the Asia-Pacific is most obviously valuable reading for development scholars and practitioners to help enhance understanding of the importance of religion and religious places in development. But it is also suggestive for military commanders, CIMIC staff, and chaplains to help be attentive to key religious leader engagement that fosters peace-making and neighbourhood wellbeing, especially for our multi-faith Asia-Pacific region.


An earlier version of this review without military implications was originally published in Pacific Journal of Baptist Studies (May 2017), 66-68.