The Bible and International Development

by Geoffrey Clarfield (October 2013)

I spent close to two decades of my adult life living and working in East Africa, mostly in Kenya & Tanzania but my work also took me to Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. I began as a field anthropologist living among and studying the Rendille tribe in northern Kenya. This eventually led me to training my African colleagues how to do ethnography as Richard Leakey and his team had called me to join the National Museums of Kenya. 

After this period I began working on the side of the “donors” as a project manager and policy consultant for a variety of employers – NGOs, the UN, the Rockefeller Foundation as well as the governments of Norway, Switzerland, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom, to name a few. Throughout my career in international development I have followed the exponential growth of literature on “development” with a specific interest in the development of Africa. Much of it implies that it is the ultimate expression of 18th century enlightenment values, as in Jeremy Bentham’s exhortation that, “it is the greatest good to the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong.”

In this piece I disagree with my colleagues for I believe that there is a deeper Biblical framework of values that underlies international development work and which occasionally can be discerned in programs and projects.

There is an ideological continuum among thinkers in international development. On the left are the Marxists and radical feminists who blame the West for all of Africa and the developing world’s ills (Chomsky, Butler, Gunder-Frank, Amin, Achebe, etc..). On the right are rugged individualists (such as Zambian feminist Dambiso Moyo) who argue that what is holding back the development of African in particular, is a pre-industrial, tribal loyalty to the collective, that prevents meritocracy and at worse, unwinds into various forms of big man politics and “presidents for life.”

Whether on the left or the right, experts agree that you can measure societal development (Google ‘HDI-Human Development Indicators’ to see what I mean) and there is a general consensus that there are numerous issues to be solved (HIV, education, clean running water, etc..). Nevertheless, when I was working in the field implementing development projects, my colleagues would confront me with the following question, “What are/should be the values that underlie international development and the future of Africa?”  My answer had much to do my own Jewish values and those of the Hebrew Bible.

Although there were periods where my work kept me in the capital cities, such as Nairobi, or Dar es Salaam where I lived with my wife and two children, there were times where for weeks, if not months on end, I was alone out in the bush working on various projects.

Before 9/11 I did worry about the fact of being not hide the fact that I was Jewish and that I had lived and worked in Israel and that my brother had moved there from Montreal just under fifteen years ago. What I quickly discovered was that when I discussed the values that should underlie development in Africa my colleagues and Africans as well, automatically assumed that I was the spokesperson for the Jewish people. It was as if I was back in the Middle Ages defending myself against medieval religious authorities and had to answer their critical questions before I could make more “universal” arguments.

Because of this I spent many hours talking about development, Jews, Judaism, Jewish history, the rise of Israel and its right to exist among mixed groups of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, animists and atheists of different kinds. Eventually I realized that the questions they asked me repeated themselves again and again. And, their questions always started from immediate concerns as seen in the media, and, as they asked more and more questions we got closer and closer to the revelation at Sinai and the experience of the first patriarchs, Abraham Isaac and Jacob and their continuing legacy. 

  1. Their first question was always, “do you support the State of Israel”:

This question would immediately put me into the Allan Dershowitz mode and I would patiently expound on why Israel has a right to exist as a State. I would point out that the Jewish people were a majority in the land for more than a thousand years. It was in the land of Israel that they developed their national epic the Bible and their collective identity and where they defended against ancient imperialists such as the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was there that they fought the Romans and were partially expelled by them after their defeat. I would ask my friends if they had a choice to live in ancient Rome or Judea which would they choose? Their answer was, inevitably, Judea.

I would patiently explain that although the Romans killed and expelled many Jews they were still a strong community in the Galilee until the Arab conquest during the rise of Islam. I would point out that both Islam and Christianity never accepted the Jews as legal equals and that the democracies of Europe could not protect them from the Holocaust even after they had granted the Jews citizenship during the mid 1800s. After I had literally summarized seven tenths of Abba Eban's documentary program Heritage, which none of my questioners had ever seen I was asked about “the conflict in the middle east” (as if there is only one!).

  1. ‘What about the Palestinians’ they would then ask?

I would then summarize Philip Hitti and Bernard Lewis’s histories of the Arabs and the Middle East, giving due credence to the “relative” toleration of the Islam of the middle ages toward the Jews compared to what they experienced in Catholic Europe. I would then explain that the British were given the Palestine Mandate in the early twenties by the League of Nations after defeating the Ottoman Empire during WWI (it was the Ottoman’s “secular” successors who perpetrated the Armenian genocide). They then promised part of Mandated Palestine as a National Home for the Jewish people. A few years after the famous Balfour Declaration they then took eastern Palestine and created the State of Jordan. They gave that state to their defeated clients the Hashemi Beduin of the Hejaz to rule and who had fought with Lawrence of Arabia and, who had been expelled by the conquering Saudi tribe in the early nineteen twenties.  

I would point out that Jordan is 95% Arab Palestinian and that when you read Palestinian political pamphlets, or the Arabic speeches of Palestinian politicians (across all factions) they agree, except that they believe that their first conquest should be the state of Israel whereas for tactical reasons their second should comprise a revolt in “Jordan” in what they have always claimed as their Palestinian homeland.

I would point out that I had some reservations about the establishment of a second Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza since that would give the Arabs of Palestine three states (including Gaza) as that would create the conditions for a Palestinian Arab civil war that would resemble present day Iraq.  I tried persuading them that all the evidence showed that this would not satisfy the present Palestinian leadership as it is today constituted (again in its various factions) and they would still prefer that the State of Israel would relocate itself in the coastal waters off Tel Aviv.  Nevertheless, I told them that this second state may come to pass, but for the Palestinians sake, they would be better off in a Jordanian federation that they control.

  1. They would then ask me “why should Israel be a Jewish State?”:

Why not a state where religion is not important, at best a refuge for Jews, but not a Jewish State. Here is where it started to get sensitive but I managed to make the following argument. It is an argument that I put together from many discussions and working meetings with the late Dr. Emil Fackenheim with whom it was my privilege to work with over a period of a few years when I was an undergraduate.

I would point out that for two thousand years the Catholic Church in its various forms argued that Christianity was a dramatic moral improvement over Judaism (this is what Christian theologians call Supersessionism).  During the Middle Ages to make that point Jews were accused of a host of imaginary crimes such as child sacrifice and the poisoning of wells during epidemics. This theme in Western cultural history is now called anti-Semitism. During the nineteenth century it morphed into the accusation that Jews were bad not because they were falsely accused of having killed Christ but, because they were stateless. When they got a state that state then took on the ire of anti-Semites who now try to portray Israel as a criminal among nations (which theologically is closer to the medieval notion that the Jews were accursed “Christ killers”).

Nevertheless by now my colleagues had often been won over to my way of thinking and I would point out that after the Holocaust, enlightened Christian theologians were coming to the humbling realization that Christian virtue was at best no better than that of the Jews, and that bearing that in mind, a modern democracy based on Jewish biblical values was just as valid as one based on Christian biblical values and perhaps they actually both derived from common Biblical values.

These arguments and discussions that I conducted were based on what psychologists like to call “cognitive dissonance.” The reason I had a captive audience (I was actually the captive audience), often over months and years was that in my colleagues eyes I had dedicated my life to helping make the world better for Africa, so I could not be accused of “particularism” on a continent where suffering and insecurity is practically universal and daily. I did not fit any of their classical Jewish stereotypes. I was neither a doctor nor a lawyer. I was not a businessman or finance type, nor was I in the media.

My family has been in Canada for over one hundred years so I sound like any other Canadian. I read the same papers, drink the same beer and had almost lost my Toronto accent (perceptive European and American friends would jokingly ask me to repeat the words “about” and “spout” just to be sure I was not fabricating my Canadian identity). So because I did not fit into any of their traditional Jewish stereotypes I could speak openly and as effectively as I could about the role of Jews, Judaism and the State of Israel in the world and why, it was important for them to understand how Biblical Jewish values are the ones that should inform the development process, especially on the tragic continent of Africa. You may find that a shocking thing to read but please bear with me and I hope you will see the merit in this argument.

I explained that there are ten principles that Judaism gave to Christianity and to any modern who does not believe in cultural relativism (which, surprisingly, are most people who work in the field of international development). They are well described in Cahill’s book called The Gifts of the Jews and I summarize them below as one must distill them from a careful reading of his book.

When I got into these kinds of discussion I pointed out that the word development means movement and by implication improvement and that is also its popular meaning. It is not the clarion call for cultural relativism. I argued that these ten principles have always informed the Jewish worldview and most importantly the Jewish desire to help humanity through tseddakah (charity) and mitzvoth (good deeds). I argued that without them the cause of the Jewish people as well, will not be seen as just because without these principles only might will be right. And, I argued that it follows logically that in order to effectively alleviate suffering in Africa all development projects and programs must be measured by these values and against them.

This is what I explained to them it meant to me to bring a Biblical consciousness to international development. Here they are. Conveniently they comprise ten principles that resonate with the Ten Commandments. In each case I will show how they are relevant to the development predicament, specifically in Africa.

  1. In the ancient world time was cyclical, what was will return. The present is just an example of the past. In this worldview every event has already been enacted, is enacted and will be enacted perpetually. The same individuals have appeared, appear and will appear at every turn in the cycle.

The Jewish Bible moved against this cyclical theory of history. The Bible changed history by literally creating history. The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle. Thus gave rise to the Jewish notions of time, history, future, vocation, faith, freedom, justice and hope.

There are many development workers who fall into the old idolatry by saying Africa does not have a future. By saying that they do not know that they have done so. For if all is a circle and there is no history, then nothing we do matters, none of us matter, life does not matter. However all of our actions do matter and we can influence the future. The future is a Jewish contribution to human thought and development is based on the idea of a better future. That is why when we read the Bible and we read the boring list of begats or what anthropologists call lineage tables, we must remember, the Jews valued every individual. There is no parallel in the literature of the ancient world.

  1. The second idea is of course about God, not that he or she or it exists, but unlike the Gods of the ancient world, God cannot be manipulated. It means there is a God and not many Gods, and whose will is one and whose justice is one. This gives the Jewish moral vision its unity. As it is said in Hebrew, Shema Israel adonei alohenu adonia echad (Hear Oh Israel the Lord our God the Lord is One). One God guarantees justice and no double standards.

When you look at the genocide in Rwanda and ask yourself why no one did anything, part of the answer rests among those who said “who are we to interfere in their affairs – they are another culture with another morality.” This is a clear example of polytheistic thinking although it is completely unconscious.

  1. The third idea is the story of the Exodus. You do not have to be a fan of Bob Marley to realize that this story is one of the greatest inspirations of freedom that humans have ever imagined or described. When the God of Israel defeats the self proclaimed God king called Pharaoh, in one fell swoop this subversive narrative delegitimizes all the political structures of tyranny and one man rule.

Africa has seen and continues to see many one party states with a “President for life” welcomed in the capitals of Europe and North America (and now China and the Middle East). These men live lives of ease and their citizens work for them in a variety of capacities including public works, which often do little for the people. These men are Pharaonic in character and style. Their lineage is ancient and moral opposition to these kinds of leaders was first elaborated in the Book of Exodus.

  1. The Bible has given the world two notions of freedom. The first is the principled rejection of slavery in the book of Exodus and the second is the freedom that comes from not believing in a cyclical existence. When time after time simple Africans overthrow their dictators and try to create regimes that allow for personal freedom they free up markets and give choice to the people. For those of you familiar with Tanzania you may well remember the shortages and agricultural underproduction that was the result of a one party regime until the fall of the Berlin wall in 1990 and the Tanzanian decision to adopt a market economy.

When Tanzania opted for democracy agriculture boomed and production rose. For the first time in 25 years the simple peasant had the freedom to grow what he wanted and sell what he wanted. Donors are now promoting new business models of poverty alleviation. Although they are not yet widely adopted, I have seen them work among the poorest of the poor. Not surprisingly it is the Swiss who are at the forefront of this kind of innovation.

  1. The Ten Commandments, whether you believe in them literally or not, are absolute. They do not apply to one culture only. Without them the murders in Rwanda are just culturally different behavior. The Biblical concept of a universal morality is what has given African democracy activists hope for the future. They have not made their arguments on the basis of tribe or ethnicity or even history. The simplest African street dweller knows injustice when he sees it and mob justice is often the result. This is because Pharaoh is still in power. When Pharaoh is not in power, such as in the enlightened African democracy of Botswana, the average citizen is a about as free and fearless as you or I.


  1. The Jews gave the world a day of rest, the Sabbath. When you look at the rulings of all the labor organizations around the world; child labor, women’s labor, sweat shops, and the slavery that never disappeared  in the Sudan and parts of West Africa we must remember that the Sabbath is one of the many Jewish contributions to development. In Africa it is honored in the breach and many organizations are advocating its adoption. Let me remind you that we are talking about the year 2013, probably three thousand years after the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.


  1. Why are Jews so smart my friend would say to me? My answer was usually “If you look at the bank accounts of my friends, men and women from all walks of life who live lives of constant activism and tsedakkah you will change your mind on that one.” But that was not what they were getting at. Jews are probably no smarter than anyone else but they believed in universal male and now universal male and female literacy long before it became fashionable. In fact it is the Jews and the Bible who have made it fashionable and universal literacy is the campaign cry of most organizations that work in Africa.


  1. The Hebrew bible has a bias for the underdog. This is shown even in the non-canonical books like such as Maccabees One and Two. That bias is behind the constant refrain of development organizations that argue that we must never forget the poorest of the poor. It is a Jewish idea.


  1. The unity of God. No, the Jews did not invent modern science and, as my brother once said to me, the Jewish people are very lucky that Darwin was not Jewish. However, it was the fierce monotheism and deism of the founders of modern science that have provided us with the ability to make sure that millions of people can have clean water, that they can be vaccinated and that we can use science and technology to solve the problems of poverty. The teaching of science is one of the lynchpins of sustainable development, for the Pharaonic leaders of one party regimes are usually the enemies of science and prefer to build presidential mansions rather than universities or technical institutes. They also usually choose to die in western hospitals since they have under funded their own. The origins of science are strongly correlated with the crypto Jewish monotheism of such giants like Isaac Newton.


  1. Finally none of the previous nine principles emerged from themselves. They emerged from the Jewish idea of spirit or the spiritual, or putting it differently these values and principles emerged from what one modern Rabbi has called  “man’s search for God.” That search as we know it first began in Iraq (ancient Sumer) where Abraham heard a voice, that of the God of his fathers, calling him to go to a land which he would show him and whose descendants wrote the books, stories and prayers which constitute the Bible. It is a story of one on one, of one man wrestling with his own conscience and in Africa, every development worker must wrestle’s with Abraham’s problem “Should I work with this project or program even if they are useless and corrupt or, should I try and find a project whose values those that I share?”

So I am sitting by the fire in the deserts of Northern Kenya, the camels at my research site are grumbling contentedly, the Rendille warriors are singing their songs in the distance, I sip my tea and my European colleague looks at me and says,

“Let me see if I get you right.

You believe that Israel has a right to exist, however one defines Palestinian nationalism and that this new nationalism cannot be allowed to threaten that right of Israel to share Palestine with too many Arab states in a state of peace. You believe that after the Christian failure of the Holocaust Israel can be a Jewish as opposed to radically secular state in some way. You then go on and say Jewish values have affected Christian and secular values in ten ways and that these ten ways or values must be and usually are the moral blueprint for the development of Africa or the third world for that matter.

You say that these values are that: life is linear not cyclical, this is guaranteed by the existence of God or a supreme being, Exodus is the primary narrative of human freedom, morality cannot be relative, the Sabbath is a universal good, learning is for everyone, we are obliged to favor the underdog, God is one and by being one underwrites both science and all moral principles so far, and finally humans are spiritual beings which means they search for the good.”

My European or African friend would then say, “What about the atheists who have the same values as you do?”

My answer to him has not changed. Atheists who share these values got them from somewhere, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens included. They got them from the Bible, from their church or from their parents or from the Synagogue or a reading Jewish history or the Biblically inspired histories of the English (and Dutch) speaking democracies, or from the very Biblically inspired air that English speakers breathe.

Whether they believe these values are man made or God given, they agree with me that they are the values which drive development and which we must use to judge the development process until such time that Africans can do so without outside assistance. They are acting in what I like to describe as a Crypto Jewish way but are not conscious of it. Such is the power of Western culture that even when it is no longer taught in the universities and colleges of the West, the values of the Bible can still hold sway when we are forced to judge right from wrong. Any other scenario is moral multiculturalism.

I have not read all of the literature on the values that underlie international development but, I am convinced that they are Biblical. Perhaps one day the World Bank and other organizations like it will recognize that this is indeed the case. Such a discovery may actually cause them to design better policies and programs; a Biblically inspired World Bank – consider that!


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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