Not-So-Harmonic Convergence: Do Obama and Warren Agree on Development?

In the world of words and phrases, we sometimes get so accustomed to hearing certain things, we don’t even listen anymore.  And in not listening, we forget to question.

This was my reaction to the talking points circulated by President-Elect Obama’s inaugural team on Huffington Post articulating the reasons why Obama differs on some issues and agrees on others with Pastor Rick Warren.  

The President-elect disagrees with Pastor Warren on issues that affect
the LGBT community. They disagree on other issues as well.

That much is clear.  However, the talking points go on to say that:

Pastor Rick Warren has a long history of activism on behalf of the
disadvantaged and the downtrodden. He’s devoted his life to performing
good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in
addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis. In fact, the President-elect
recently addressed Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum on Global
Health to salute Warren’s leadership in the struggle against HIV/AIDS
and pledge his support to the effort in the years ahead.

Without impugning motives, and without taking away from Warren or anyone else the fact that expanding access to treatment for AIDS-related illnesses is an important effort, simply repeating over and over that Rick Warren has a long history working on behalf of the "disadvantaged and downtrodden," irks me in two ways.  First, it paints people who are living in poverty solely as victims, as flat characters in a story told by others, not as multi-dimensional people who might, if given the opportunity, create more effective and sustainable responses to their own problems than we could from here.  This sentiment is expressed in the satirical writing by Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina speaking in Granta magazine about how he sees the West portraying Africa:


Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your
book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47,
prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an
African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and
dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin
people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people
who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.
Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too
busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book.
The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and
many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep
your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

His point is not to say that people living throughout Africa are not facing crises, but that these crises should not and can not be the only lenses through which we see and define people, because in his words:

I don’t know how many times those pervasive pictures of starving children have discouraged productive investment in Africa, and in doing so, limited solutions to some of these problems.

The second reason this point about Warren irks me is that I simply don’t think we have a shared vision of what "development" is or whether human rights–including women’s rights, the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, or the rights of other marginalized groups–are part of how Rick Warren and his colleagues carry out their work.  If in working on poverty, we are simply promoting the evangelical christian ideal as defined by Warren and others, then I am concerned to hear that Barack Obama "agrees."  For me, development and poverty are as much linked to the issues of rights and agency, which include (but are not limited to) women’s ability to make choices about marriage, sex, and reproduction, their rights to own land, their rights to divorce and leave an abusive marriage.  I do know that in those policy arenas in which Warren has been active internationally, such as in global AIDS policy, he and others who agree with his world view have sought to limit choices in prevention funding, limit access to contraception and limit definitions of "relationships" that mirror his advocacy on domestic LGBT issues.  Are these two spheres separable?  Did we expect his worldview on international development to be dramatically different than that of his domestic agenda?

And if we get to debates on foreign aid reform, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and other forthcoming international debates and suddenly find out that the Obama Administration’s definitions of "helping the poor and the downtrodden" are in accord with Rick Warren’s approaches, I am deeply concerned.  In fact, I am concerned that the unexamined declaration of being in accord on these issues legitimizes Warren’s views on development in ways that should worry all of us.

Let’s examine this language.  I am all in favor of communication, clarity and collaboration where goals are clearly discussed and values clearly examined.  I am in favor of honest dialogue with Warren and others.  I applaud Barack Obama’s ability to reach out and work with others, to have friendships and collaborations that supercede ideology.  But at the end of the day there are core values at stake, and I am dismayed to learn that Obama espouses unexamined accord with Warren in these areas, if that is the case. And if it is not, let’s get it clear.

Indeed, as Wainaina states on a recent episode of Speaking of Faith:

It’s not the idea that aid is bad or  tand that people that are doing aid are bad.  There are social entrepeneurs, economic entrepeneurs [doing good things].  But we need a lot more transparency and a lot more clarity [in what people are doing].

We all want to end poverty, we all want to encourage sustainable livelihoods, many of us want to address climate change and other threats to security well beyond traditional notions of what makes us "secure."  But the vision of the world created in this process is in my mind vastly different than what I understood to be espoused by Warren.  Let’s examine what we mean when we say we agree on issues of poverty, development and human rights.  And let’s not let language make us lazy.

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  • invalid-0

    Do we know how Rick Warren conducts his development though? This article is pre-supposing a lot, no offence. For all we know he uses a people centred development approach in carrying out these things. If he pushes social issues to the side in America its reasonable to think that he may in Africa as well. While I agree with you that the press release certainly portrays the disadvantaged as flat issues, it is a press release, and thus will always be short.

    Trying to summarize a dominant development ideology, be it modernism, dependencia, person centred, business centred, or whatever Obama’s favourite development school is, will be hard in a single sentence. Remember that its the P.R. person’s job to make things look attractive rather than deep.

    Additionally, having a plurality of development practices going on can be helpful as it means an increased field of ideas to developed the inevitable next school of development thought from(not that I’m excusing the poorer one’s such as SAPs.)

    It can be really dangerous to typify the failure of a development programme on something like religious pressures. During the 90s, many blamed low condom use in Rwanda on the Catholic Church, and focus and resources was put on countering this. As the importance of the body in social theories began to emerge, epidemiological/anthropological studies showed that indigenous medical theories and conceptions of the bodies were the true reason for low condom use in [stable] relationships. For example, the idea of blocking a natural body flow (semen) was seen as a detriment to health.

    Rick Warren has large resources, through encouragement, if he is not using them optimally, they can be retooled in the right direction. Before that, an exploration of his charity work is needed. Looking at the information Warren has put out, it seems that he preaches sort of a hybrid approach with an optimal ‘Christian way’ and a suboptimal ‘Other way.’ I’m not too sure how to handle that to be honest, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that at least he means well.

  • invalid-0

    Hi Jodi,

    Greetings. We met in March 1997 at the Rio IWHM. I hope you are doing well.

    I recently tried to reach you at CHANGE and they did not have a forwarding email address for you. Found your blog through Google. Very interesting issues and insights – but will respond another time.

    I’m finishing up a discussion paper that has implications for women sex workers in sub-Saharan Africa. Your work at CHANGE was cited a few times in the literature I reviewed, and I found that CHANGE had been on of the very few strong advocates for this group of women.

    Would you please consider giving me your email address/



    Nalini Visvanathan
    617 512-2248
    301 920-1960

  • jodi-jacobson

    Thank you for your comment.  I think there is no one "optimal way" to promote development.  Instead I think it is about the values we seek to promote.  If we believe in human rights and self-determination balanced by social responsibility, then we have to create policies that promote those values.  If we believe in promoting global health and providing the opportunity for all people to live healthy lives (to the extent possible) then we have to ensure our policies promote those values.  My first point was not solely about Warren, but about the way we talk, write, think about, and engage development issues writ large.  I agree on one hand that a press release is supposed to be short and to the point.  However, I think language is important and the overwhelming picture painted of Africa in our own culture is one of desperation and poverty.  We need to think differently about the circumstances and the people in them….not just as victims but as individuals with aspriations, ideas, a desire to be free to think, act, live and fulfill their own dreams; people who want to plan their familes on their own terms, educate their kids, live in a clean environment.  On that plane, we can become partners with people in promoting global development that is sustainable, not just about "saving the destitute and downtrodden."  When we see people only as victims we treat them as such.  I have seen this in the discourse about sex workers, who often are portrayed as victims, but in fact are individuals who make rational choices given their circumstances, who often form groups that organize themselves, and which in turn have often in come up with the best solutions in their circumstances to trafficking, HIV prevention, violence and abuse, among other things.  But we talk about them only as victims–not as human beings with human rights and agency–and our policies follow on to treat them only as victims..and we create restrictions in law that further victimize and marginalize them, and all the while bemoan the fate of those "poor sex workers."  Language matters.  People’s own priorities matter. We can’t just keep talking about things this way.


    My second point is based both on my own experience of what the far right (incuding but not limited to Warren) has done in global AIDS policy, on reproductive health, on women’s rights….and goes to my first point.  If we are interested in promoting human rights, sustainable development, equity, opportunity, great.  If instead we are interested in molding the world only in our image, one based not on science, evidence, self-determination, participation….then you are "aiding victims" on your own terms. We can no longer talk in our foreign policy discourse about women’s human rights, about sex and reproduction, about discrimination and violence against gay, lesbian, and transgender people because these "hot-button" issues might cause a stir on the right.  It might upset the so-called "bi-partisan balance."   So the form of development we arrive at is about one set of values and morals and a debate devoid of anything outside it.  We achieve that "balance" by trading off people’s lives for ideology. 

    Obama ostensibly stood for/stands for core values of human rights, self-determination, women’s rights, among many other things.  Warren does not.  These are profoundly different views of the world and it is no longer ok just to say "we agree on helping the poor and downtrodden"….cause I want to know what that means.

    Again, thanks for the comment and the discussion.  Jodi