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Are religion, economic growth friends or foes?

By XN Iraki | May 26th 2015 | 4 min read
By XN Iraki | May 26th 2015

Last Saturday, visitors from far and wide congregated in Nyeri to witness the beatification of Sister Irene Stefani, an Italian nun who served there in the early part of the 20th Century. Instructively, she was one of 12 children. Big families even in Europe, were common and it will not be long before the current size of families in Kenya reduce, just like in Italy. Big families are part of an economic growth trajectory.

Nyeri town got a big economic boost. The town is nestled on a hill overlooking the scenic Mt Kenya and Aberdares, which is slowing evolving into a major tourist attraction. Even the founder of Scouts movement, Baden Powell, is buried there.

Though there is no signboard anywhere to inform us that, such attractions hopefully, will dilute the stereotype that Nyeri wives beat husbands. The town has so many hills that driving through it, one often gets a feeling he is going round in circles. Enough digression, are religion and economic growth friends or foes? Religion has always played a central role in economies.

The Spanish converted natives of South America to Catholicism as they conquered. The Britons did the same in Kenya but they seem to have been less successful in India, where Hinduism and Islam are the dominant religions. Even today, the Queen of England heads the Anglican Church. Some countries have the national religion identified in the constitution. Every country in the world has some form of religion from Islam to Shintoism or Jainism. We often learn our religions when we are young and often follow the footsteps of our parents. Religion greatly shapes our world view including on economic issues - from profits, interest rates, charity, equality, taxation and so on.

 Economic activity

Religion and economics are inseparable. The better question would be, how do they interact? Have you noted how every bank in Kenya has something on Islamic finance?

Tithe might be supplementing government efforts to mop up excess liquidity. A lot of economic activity revolves around visits to holy sites such as the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Subukia, Namugongo or the Ganges River - a big boast to tourism and economic growth. Local and national economies benefit from such visits, just like Nyeri enjoyed last week and will in future.

About two million people visit Mecca annually, more than all the tourists visiting Kenya. About five million visit the Vatican every year. But it goes beyond religious pilgrimages. Most religions represented by churches, mosques, temples and so on have economic activities. They sell religious artefacts and own economic assets. In every country, churches own land, schools, hotels, offices and even companies from banks to insurance companies.

Another area where religion and economics meet is in writing regulations and laws. Most legal systems have a religious influence. The British or American laws are influenced by Protestantism while in places such as Spain, you can see the influence of Catholicism. Constitutions are written by people often influenced by religion.

Religion, needless to say, helps societies become cohesive and think long-term, even beyond our own mortality. This is positive for any economy. Investment is often long-term and entrepreneurs know that patience pays. One big problem we are facing today is that most people think short-term, only about their own lifespans.

No wonder corruption seems to thrive. Religion can at times hold views contrary to modern economic systems; some people have been taken to court in Kenya for refusing to go to hospital or vaccinate their kids. The Amish of Northern parts of the USA shy away from electric power preferring coal.

They prefer to use horses not cars, in the 21st century. Perhaps, the greatest contribution of religion to economic growth is on work ethics. Economic growth is built on productivity. Such attitudes are to a great extent influenced by religion.

The growth of the US and China has a lot to do with work ethics. For the US, it’s protestant work ethics, the belief that work is Godly.

 Greatest worry

In Kenya, however, we seem to think work is ungodly. Can we exceed expectations in your work place like Sister Irene? Today, the greatest worry for any employer is workers who do not want to work, but want to be paid. Maybe, if they were more religious, they would feel they are stealing. In addition to work ethics, religion aids economic growth by helping people build trust.

Trusted workers are rare, yet this cuts down the cost of doing business substantially. Imagine borrowing money without collateral, or doing business without worrying about your employee having two receipt books. Mistrust leads to legal battles that eat into profits or even destroy businesses. Economic players are religious in one way or the other, including being materialistic, which has slowly become another religion.

Religion and economic growth are not strange bedfellows, after all, everyone in Kenya seems to agree that our value system needs rebooting and religion could help us do that. One hopes that Sister Irene Nyaatha’s generous acts will inspire a change in our work ethics, so that more people reap from where they sowed. Such a change in attitude could be a greater economic stimulus than tax cuts or a fall in interest rates.

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