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Première partie | Religion et développement : concepts et pratiques

The Myth of Religious NGOs : Development Studies and the Return of Religion (abstract)

Philip Fountain
Le mythe des ONG religieuses : le retour de la religion dans les études du développement [fr]
أسطورة المنظمات اللاحكومية الدينية: عودة الدين في بحوث التنمية [ar]


In a remarkable about-turn, development studies has discovered religion and considerable attention is now dedicated to analysing religious non-governmental organisations (NGOs). how can we understand the concept of ‘religion’ that is now being so widely discussed? Through a close reading of key texts, this chapter examines how religion has been constructed and for what purposes. While development scholars have given little attention to definitional concerns, a default conceptualisation – substantivist, essentialised, ahistorical and universal – is nevertheless apparent. A pervasive secular-religious dichotomy is implicit within this conceptualisation, constructing development as located within the secular domain, set apart from religion. drawing upon critical scholars of religion, this chapter argues that development studies has perpetuated a ‘myth of religious NGOs’. This myth arbitrarily assigns to a diverse set of development actors the status of abnormal, if still potentially useful, religious other(s). The myth conceals the historical specificity and value-laden nature of mainstream development. The current vogue for abstracted discussions of religion should be replaced with closer attention to specific practices and particular traditions, including secular development. Studies should also show greater awareness of the political uses of ‘religion’.

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Editors' notes

Paperback edition reference : Fountain, P. (2013) "The Myth of Religious NGOs: Development Studies and the Return of Religion", in International Development Policy: Religion and Development, No.4, Geneva: Graduate Institute Publications, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 9-30

Cite this article

Electronic reference

Philip Fountain, “The Myth of Religious NGOs : Development Studies and the Return of Religion (abstract)”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 4 | 2013, Online since 12 November 2013, connection on 05 March 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Philip Fountain

Postdoctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore. He obtained his PhD in anthropology from Australian National University, writing an in-depth ethnography of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in Indonesia. His work on the MCC corresponds with his ongoing interest in Christian alternatives to mainstream development praxis and the articulation of an ethics/theology of service.

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Creative Commons License
International Development Policy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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