Religion and human development in latin america: religious institutions, documents, practices and social influences

Deneulin, Severine (2018). 'Religion and human development in Latin America: Religious institutions, documents, practices and social influences' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


From a neglected subject in development studies at the turn of the millennium, researching the role of religion in development processes has now become a subject on its own (for a review of the literature on the subject, see, among others, Deneulin and Zampini-Davies 2017, Swart and Nell 2016). The influence of religion in human development has been approached through several perspectives.

First, one can research the influence of religion on valuable capability expansion either through direct provision or right claims, such as the provision of health or educational services, or through involvement in political processes to guarantee human rights, and participation in collective action. Examples of research in that first perspective include the role of faith-based organisations in health provision (see e.g. Ullauri 2017 for the case of Ecuador), or the role of the Catholic Church in the landless worker movement in Brazil (see e.g. Pinto 2015).

Second, one can research how religion shapes what people ‘have reason to choose and value’, and how religion shapes the democratic process and outcomes regarding the provision of some ‘valuable’ beings and doings. Giving people the opportunity to marry a person from the same sex, or giving women the opportunity to use contraception or to have control over their bodies, has been one area that has particularly received media attention. In the academic literature, there is a burgeoning literature on indigenous peoples and their religious cosmologies and how these are influencing what counts as ‘development’ and the ‘beings and doings’ of people that are judged important to promote (see e.g. Vanhulst and Beling 2014).

Third, when examining the relation between religion and human development, whether at the instrumental level (how religion influences pre-determined development goals) or intrinsic level (how religion shapes what it is to develop well and flourish as a human being), there are multiple approaches to apprehending ‘religion’. One can concentrate on beliefs about right living which derive from belief in the existence of God, or one can examine the role of religious organisations, such as congregations of nuns or Catholic parishes in fostering agency among women and the poorest. One can also focus on the teachings and official documents written by one religious organisation, such as documents from the Latin American conference of Catholic bishops, papal documents or the writings of theologians, and their influences on social actors (see e.g. Arellano-Yanguas 2014).

This panel on religion and human development in Latin America takes a multi-perspective on ‘religion’ and discusses some influences on dimensions of human development. Ana Lourdes Suárez’s presentation will concentrate on Catholic women religious congregations and their insertion in marginalized areas in Latin America. Her paper discusses how religious communities have understood the ‘preferential option for the poor’, which came out of the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the writings of various theologians, and the implications of this option on gender equality and empowerment. Séverine Deneulin’s presentation will bring Amartya Sen’s conceptualisation of development as capability expansion and non-ideal and comparative approach to justice with that of the Catholic social tradition, and explore areas of mutual enrichment. Catalina Romero’s presentation will focus on the process of religious diversification that has taken place in Latin America over the last decades, and examine the role of reasoning and choice in how people live their religion. She will discuss the implications of this increase in religious diversity for human development processes in Latin America.


Arellano-Yanguas, J. (2014). ‘Religion and resistance to extraction in rural Peru: Is the Catholic Church following the people?’. Latin American Research Review, 49(S), 61-80.

Deneulin, S. and A. Zampini-Davies 2017. ‘Engaging Development with Religion: Methodological Groundings’, World Development, 99: 110-121,

Pinto, L.H. (2015), ‘La influencia de la Comisión Pastoral de la Tierra (CPT) en la formación del Movimiento de los Trabajadores Rurales Sin Tierra (MST)’, Revista de Estudios Sociales, 51:76-88, DOI 10.7440/res51.2015.06

Swart, Ignatius and Elsabé Nell (2016), ‘Religion and development: The rise of a bibliography’, HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, 72(4), doi: 10.4102/hts.v72i4.3862

Ullauri, A. and J. Olivier (2017), ‘The historical contribution of faith-based health providers in the Ecuadorian health system’, Development in Practice, 27: 670-683,

Vanhulst, J. and A. Beling (2014), ‘Buen vivir: Emergent discourse within or beyond sustainable development?’, Ecological Economics,101:54-63

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