Is Pentecostalism Doing More for Africa’s Poor than International NGOs?

Review originally published at the LSE Africa Blog. Reposted with permission.

Gregory Deacon of Oxford University says that the book Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa (edited by Dena Freeman) provides some compelling answers regarding Pentecostalism and development.

With its noisy churches and high profile media presence, Pentecostalism is religion writ large and exciting. Dramatic claims are made – for example that it is ‘redrawing the religious map of the world’.[1] Dena Freeman’s edited volume tackles head on whether this is good or bad for development. This is done in the context of 30 years of neoliberalism and an explosion in numbers of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as Pentecostal churches. The role of both in alleviating poverty and improving living conditions for Africans is considered.

Over the past three decades, Pentecostal Christianity has exploded across Africa. At the same time many secular development agencies, including the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), have been struggling to incorporate religion and faith based organisations into their policies and processes. As a research fellow at the University of Oxford looking at religion and development, I have similarly found Pentecostalism impossible to ignore.

Success is a dominant theme for many Pentecostals and discussion of wealth is widespread. There is, therefore, a temptation to consider Pentecostalism in materialistic or instrumentalist terms. This can downplay its experiential nature and spiritual emphasis upon being saved or born again. Equally, manifestations of the holy spirit such as speaking in tongues can be subject to some exotic accounts. In this volume, the importance of what is called the faith or prosperity gospel is noted. What is stressed though, is the exploration of unexpected or inadvertent outcomes of faith – as with Max Weber’s description of the Protestant work ethic. Indeed, his concepts feed much of the discussion.

Freeman’s introductory chapter clearly and concisely sets out the positivist position on Pentecostalism: “Pentecostal churches are often rather more effective change agents than are development NGOs…they are exceptionally effective at bringing about personal transformation and empowerment, they provide the moral legitimacy for a set of behaviour changes that would otherwise clash with local values, and they radically reconstruct families and communities to support these new values and new behaviours. Without these types of social change…it is difficult for economic change and development to take place” (p3). This is the context in which the book is framed. A major challenge is the apparent simplicity of this position.

Jean Comaroff raises the huge variations in socioeconomic conditions in modern Africa. Päivi Hasu utilises her chapter to stress the difference between a congregation of “winners” from deregulation and free enterprise in Tanzania, versus adherents who remain “underprivileged [and] are on the verge of losing all hope for a better future” (p68). Rijk van Dijk is concerned with migrant communities. Charles Piot and James H Smith focus on the complex dialectics between different churches and development actors. Smith also addresses the practicality of religion in Africa, which means that individuals use varied religious institutions at different times, for different purposes. Freeman sees positive interplay between church and NGOs in Ethiopia. Ben Jones explores renewal of faith and culture in post-conflict Uganda. Damaris Parsitau gives us an overview of organisations purportedly working for female empowerment in Kenya – both NGOs and churches.

The authors acknowledge that circumstances in Africa today are different from those described by Weber regarding industrialising Europe. Importantly though, Weber also argued that “religious affiliation is not a cause of… economic conditions, but to a certain extent appears to be a result of them”.[2] Ghanaian immigrants in Botswana, for example, are portrayed in the book as being inspired to risk-taking by Pentecostalism. It might well be argued though that an immigrant community by its very nature is likely to be made up of those predisposed to risk-taking.

The businesses of that community are also seen here as being dynamic wealth creators. However, grocers, hair dressers and vehicle repair shops would seem more to represent enterprises that take advantage of economic growth created by others, rather than bringing about development. This timely and valuable volume provides some compelling answers regarding Pentecostalism and development. However, reassessing the question casts much of this in a different light.

Dr. Gregory Deacon is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, Oxford University.

Buy the book: Pentecostalism and Development: Churches, NGOs and Social Change in Africa (Palgrave Macmillan).


[1] ‘Christianity Reborn,’ The Economist, London, 19th December 2006.

[2] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Routledge, 2006, 3.

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