It's awkward to discuss. Religion is tied enormously to development work; it often motivates international organizations, catalyzes fundraising and plays a huge role in the lives of the poor.
But religion, spirituality and superstition can also stand in the way of preventative health behavior, education, financial savings and can serve as a pretentious vehicle of exploitation.
Narendra Dabholkar, a "fighter against superstition" was killed in Maharashtra, India in September. His obituary in the Economist is inspiring.
Yet over three decades, ever since he had decided to switch his work from curing bodies to curing deluded minds, he had become famous. The organisation he had founded in 1989, the Committee for Eradication of Blind Faith (MANS in its Marathi acronym), had 180 branches in the state. In village after village he and his activists would confront the babas, sadhus and other “godmen” who preyed on the poor and simple, challenging their claims and reporting them to the police. He investigated and demystified cases of black magic and possession by ghosts; he campaigned against animal sacrifice, the prodigious waste of drinking water and good food during religious festivities, and the pollution of local rivers during Ganesha’s birthday festival by the immersion of thousands of idols made of plaster of Paris.
Prior to the influx of community family planning workers in my little research district in Tanzania, most people were seeking their reproductive healthcare from the witch doctor. I occasionally refer to him as "traditional medicine healer," in a weak effort to be respectful, but my Tanzanian colleagues are insistent that the correct translation is witch doctor. It's a fair, he did try to sell me love potion.
People like Dabholkar are fighting an underestimated battle in favor of education, rationality and welfare improving decisions. As an American, its awkward for me to address this abroad without a lot of cultural (and religious?) imperialism. It's much easier to talk about innocent reasons for poverty: lack of good schools, insufficient healthcare, limited labor markets, but what if the poor are just making bad superstitious decisions?
Uninformed opinions affect household decisions every day, and counter the central economic tenant of rational decision-making. It's unexpected and awkward, but so is the fact that I ask complete strangers about their sexual behaviors.
What is the impact of superstition on poverty? Worth more research.