Development workers carry relief aid for distribution among marginalized people amid the COVID-19 pandemic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: UN Women Asia and the Pacific / CC BY-NC-ND

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the world, billions of people are united as never before. Not only by their fear and sadness, but by an intuitive sense that a better future cannot be erected on the same winner-take-all foundations that helped precipitate — and now exacerbate — this public health catastrophe.

In 1963, jailed for protesting segregation, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Today, struggling to overcome a modern plague, that has never been more true. But however tragic, the pandemic has helped spark a necessary and overdue reckoning on many fronts — economic, environmental, racial, and political — all of which are subtly intertwined.

Focus on: Faith and Development

This series illuminates the role faith actors and their communities play in strengthening global development outcomes.

Throughout history, inequality and injustice in all their ugly garbs have prevailed only until enough people — driven by their faith, humanitarian values, or unshakeable belief in the potential of human agency — insist that such cloaks of power be stripped from those who claim them and rewoven in more just, inclusive, and sustainable ways.

That is why we, as faith actors and social entrepreneurs, have a collective and catalytic role to play in asserting that deeper human values — not dollars, quarterly earnings, or gross domestic product — must inspire and inform systemic change in a post-COVID world.

For example, why did the U.S. government give airlines that typically treat most passengers poorly, bigger bailouts than those for preschools that teach children empathy, fairness, and right from wrong? Why are “essential” workers usually paid so little? And why is constant growth worshipped like a golden idol, even when it is often fueled by the destruction of our forests, pollution of our oceans, and irreversible damage to our life-sustaining atmosphere?

Overcoming conventional thinking

Shifting the establishment’s constricted, trickle-down mindset presents a challenge, however.

As noted in a recent report by Catalyst 2030, “One reason why crises are so often wasted is that resources tend to be mobilized to shore up existing failed systems rather than to build new systems that work better and more equitably. Leaders convince themselves that the most prudent course of action is to back the systems they know, even though those systems were responsible for the crisis or at least were incapable of stopping it. And they are either unaware of alternative systems or find them too risky or threatening to their own interests.”

Unfortunately, this conservatism is not only true among government and corporate leaders, but sometimes within the development community as well. When it comes to faith and social entrepreneurship, we need to start taking more risks and showing a greater willingness to make long-term investments in both — the results of which may be uncertain for years to come.

For individuals, organizations, and institutions, this will require moral courage because challenging prevailing wisdom — including that of people we like and respect — is never easy, especially when seeds of change are slow to sprout, but that patience is essential. To build back better, we must press ahead with creativity, confidence, and humility, letting our actions and results do the heavy lifting of persuasion.

Although it may be apocryphal, St. Francis of Assisi is credited with saying: “If you want to share the gospel, first listen, then act. If that doesn’t work, use words.” Some 15 centuries later, that wisdom still rings true as the most effective change agents have discovered.

At the same time, many faith groups have traditionally proven more comfortable articulating what they are against, rather than demonstrating what they are for — especially when it comes to their investment portfolios. This is now changing as they begin to recognize the significant influence they can exercise in traditionally secular arenas by aligning their investment assets with their deepest values.

According to research, major faith groups run half of the world’s schools, a quarter of its colleges and universities, and a third of its hospitals. Collectively, they feed people a half billion meals per day, own a tenth of the world’s forests, and control 14% of the world’s investment portfolio — in sum, trillions of dollars.

Steadily, with guidance from organizations such as FaithInvest — a foundation that helps faith groups to invest in line with their values — asset managers for major religious institutions and organizations are making more investments that affirmatively advance their faiths’ commitment to healthier people and a healthier planet, such as in renewable energy, sustainable agriculture, educational empowerment, and microloans for non-traditional entrepreneurs.

Simultaneously, the Vatican COVID-19 Commission — created at the express direction of Pope Francis — is working with urgency and creativity, building coalitions within and beyond the Roman Catholic Church to drive discussion about more integrated policies that will help people and planet alike to recover and flourish.

In concert, the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship is mobilizing its global network to advance and scale social innovation, most recently by coordinating the COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs to help underprivileged communities recover and to advance new models for systemic change.

This broad coalition — with a shared goal of resetting priorities and regenerating a healthy world — has the potential to make a tremendous impact by sharing and scaling up innovations that have already proven effective, whether that’s by expanding microfinance for women entrepreneurs, leapfrogging the grid with solar energy, or empowering children through financial literacy.

But first we need to overcome the silos that have traditionally constrained us, collaborating across boundaries, integrating our disparate networks, and aligning our investments to fully realize our potential as catalysts for change.

As with a church choir though, such harmony won’t just happen on its own; it will require us all to embrace the discipline of practice and a shared trust in the power of inspiration.

Escaping the trap of quantification

Aligning our investments with our values and inspiring other stakeholders to do the same is essential to igniting the radical and systemic change we seek. But also remember this: Attempting to quantify the qualitative — the value of love, empathy, hope, community, friendship, determination, resilience — is a fool’s errand. Because even in the age of big data, we remain a narrative species and nobody was ever converted by a pie chart.

As always, there is no better way to ignite someone’s righteous determination to affect change than through stories with a compelling moral. Indeed, every holy text consists of them.

In a final essay published posthumously, civil rights icon John Lewis reminded us that the “truth does not change, and that is why the answers worked out long ago can help you find solutions to the challenges of our time.”

Early in his lifetime pursuit of justice, he realized that the most powerful human values transcend any given religion, ethnicity, gender, religion, caste, class, and even time itself. Yet because the impulse to denigrate and exploit others also lies within the human condition, it falls to each generation to continue building what he called “the beloved community.”

So how will this chapter in history end?

In many ways that depends on us — people who believe in the possibility of a better future, and who draw upon our deepest sense of right and wrong to inform and pursue its construction. We must work better together, we must work better with those whom we have traditionally challenged or ignored, and we must continually engage new allies in what is truly a global struggle for a more hopeful, livable, and sustainable future.

As the Talmud reminds us, we cannot let ourselves be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief, nor expect to finish the work of healing it.

Nevertheless, it is our responsibility to do right while we can. In this time of great unraveling, the work of reweaving humanity’s single garment of destiny is ours to begin anew.

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the authors

  • Jeroo Billimoria

    Jeroo Billimoria is founder of multiple successful nonprofit organizations and co-founder of Catalyst 2030, a global network of social entrepreneurs aiming to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Francois Bonnici

    François Bonnici is director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship at the World Economic Forum. His experience spans over two decades of front-line work as a physician and progressive partnerships with public sector, multilaterals, civil society, businesses, and foundations.
  • Martin Palmer

    Martin Palmer is interim chief executive of FaithInvest, an international nonprofit organization that assists faith groups to invest in line with their beliefs and values.