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Delphic priestesses were 1st political risk consultants + Role 4 religion in Int-Dev? - Printable Version

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Delphic priestesses were 1st political risk consultants + Role 4 religion in Int-Dev? - C C - May 25, 2018

Delphic priestesses were the world’s first political risk consultants

EXCERPT: . . . Already, by 480 BCE, the Pythia of Delphi was an ancient institution. Now commonly known as the Oracle of Delphi – when, in ancient Greek, the oracles were the pronouncements that the Pythia dispensed – the Pythia were the senior priestesses of the Temple of Apollo, the Greek God of Prophecy. For more than 1,100 years (until 390 CE, when radical Christians chased the last Pythia out of Parnassus), they were viewed as the most authoritative soothsayers in Greece. Pilgrims descended from all over the ancient world to the temple on the slope of Mount Parnassus to have their questions about the future answered. From the small, enclosed chamber at the base of the shrine, the Pythia (there were three priestesses on call at any time) delivered her oracles in a frenzied state – the likely result of imbibing the hallucinogenic vapours rising from the clefts in the rock of Mount Parnassus, which we now know sits atop the intersection of two tectonic plates.

[...] But let’s look at the Pythia afresh, for I would argue that the Temple at Delphi was effectively the world’s first political risk-consulting firm. [...] The Pythia’s prognosticating advantages, not least her outsider status, curiously track the qualities that political risk firms look for in their best analysts today. [...] despite being isolated, the Pythia had limited but regular contact with the elites of the day who made the arduous trek to visit them. Over time, the priestesses at the Temple of Apollo came to understand what it was their clients wished to know, and how to provide exactly what they lacked; independent, outside, authoritative advice. It should be noted that the Pythia were chosen from a group of highly educated women, well-acquainted with the world. It is this strange and unique mix of special knowledge, education, distance from (and yet connection to) the centres of corruption and power, that describes the ideal CV for political risk analysts today...


Is there a role for religion in international development?

EXCERPT: The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom begins with a parable [...that...] illuminates the oft-tenuous relationship between material gain and having a life of value. Wealth is useful only if it gives a person freedom to pursue a life she values. Thus, social and economic policy should not focus only on increasing incomes or economic growth, but should be concerned equally with creating the conditions for people to enjoy varied freedoms and lead fulfilling lives. Freedom, in other words, must be the final destination of any endeavour aimed at making life better.

Working at the crossroads between philosophy and economics, Sen’s ideas have been influential, albeit not always easy to implement.

[...] For the most part, the development establishment has been suspicious of religion, a nervousness only exacerbated in recent years by the rise of religious extremism. Institutionalised religion carries dark associations – it can be authoritarian, offend reason, thwart progress towards social justice and, in its most egregious, illiberal expressions, it serves up a retrograde vision of the future. There’s also the real fear that development activities, especially when carried out by faith-based organisations, can easily become pretexts for proselytising. Then there are those who, against much evidence, cling to the belief that religions are irrelevant to modern societies; that modernisation means secularisation.

Yet religion does not appear to be going anywhere. It remains a potent force in public life, whether it be for peasants pressing for land reforms in Brazil or women mobilising en masse to end civil war in Liberia. And more crucially, for the majority of people in the world faced with suffering and the perennial uncertainties of life, religion can bring comfort, understanding and identity. In 2000, when the World Bank spoke to women and men from 60 countries about what really mattered to them, they said living in ‘harmony’ with the transcendent mattered to them. [...]

The moral base of a society also often finds its origin in religion. Heeding the limits set forth by this base can be a check against unrestrained economic growth that imperils human and other life. While Sen, a self-declared ‘godless scientist’, is averse to granting religion a role in development, his work, nevertheless, shifts development onto ethical grounds. Sen recognises the truth in Aristotle’s claim that ‘wealth is not the good we are seeking, for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else’.

Development, for Sen, should be first and foremost about ‘human’ beings, their lives, and what they can or cannot be or do. Until the 1990s [...] organisations pressed for an income-centred approach to poverty-reduction or meeting basic needs such as clothes, shelter and food. Sen provides an alternative view that has been influential on the work of these organisations. The UN Human Development Index now includes measures on income, education and health but no other aspects of wellbeing. Despite progress, some argue that, even today, income remains the ‘quintessential’ indicator of wellbeing.

Honed over the course of 25 years, Sen’s approach rests on the proposition that social arrangements should be appraised by how much they promote the freedoms that people value. Development means ‘expanding the real freedoms people enjoy’ – these include basic capabilities such as being able to read and write, agency over the decisions that affect one’s life, and participation in civic and political matters. The focus on substantive freedoms directs attention to the destination (human development) rather than the means of getting there (income).

[...] Can a moral or religious framework ever be applied to secular societies or institutions where there might be competing views of the good? Or do we always risk imposing one view of the good? Some economists have argued that even secular institutions can engage in a process of ethical reflection without compromising the pluralism of an institution or imposing a view of the good – the purpose of this reflection is simply to orient the project of development from poverty-alleviation more fundamentally towards human fulfilment.

These scholars argue that the idea that a life devoted only to material pursuits is insufficient is shared by faiths and non-religious philosophies alike. Other communities, religious or secular, are likely to share many Catholic views of human fulfilment, such as the importance of loving and serving others, the need to develop serenity and understanding in the face of suffering, an appreciation of solitude and reflection.

[...] By foregrounding the ethical, it recasts development as a moral project, requiring policymakers, institutions and everyone concerned with the enterprise of human fulfilment to reflect critically on their aims. It raises questions about the extent to which a programme or policy furthers ‘the good’. The process of reflection and critical deliberation is also key for Sen’s vision of development and human freedom.

Development must be fundamentally based on a ground-up conversation between people, wrestling about what matters: what non-material things matter, and in what balance with the material....