Keeping faith in development

Keeping faith in development.

Like Duncan Green I have just returned from a very enjoyable conference at WiltonPark, convened by Oxfam, DFID and Lambeth Palace, to discuss religion, change and development (old-style photo of all participants duly attached!)

Secular NGOs, UN bodies, governments and others are recognising that faith groups are important agents of change and have confessed that this is a blind spot for them – but acknowledge that working with faith groups is often hard.  This conference was an attempt to put some of the difficult topics on the table, and to build mutual understanding. It was slightly frustrating that there weren’t more concrete outcomes, but also refreshing to have a chance to talk into, rather than around, some of the key problems and to build genuine friendships with people from worlds different to our own.

One thing that many speakers raised was the importance of faith groups as the first port of call – and one of the agents of social cohesion – in a disaster.  This is something that Tearfund has recognised and supported for many years and our “Pastors in Disasters” report (more commonly know as Disasters and the Local Church) is being used with churches from Nepal to Niger to help them effectively prepare for, and respond to, disasters.

I’m still processing all that I heard but thought I’d share some of the key questions still buzzing around my head:

1. We say that we want more support for faith groups, but what about Hamas and Hezbollah?  We may assume there’s an obvious distinction between faith groups and political parties but in reality, aren’t all faith groups also political actors? Multiple examples were given of the complicated links between faith and politics – from the support given by the Catholic Church to leaders in Latin America to Bashir telling Imams what to preach in Sudan.  Are we naïve to think that asking donors to support faith groups isn’t going to draw them more deeply into a country’s politics and impact the neutrality of aid? Or is there still plenty of scope to support local faith groups working in the community?

2. Surely it is wrong to believe that faith-based organisations are the only ones in the development processes promoting a particular set of values or world view?  We acknowledged that all donors have their own set of values which may differ from those they are seeking to support.  Some spoke of people within the UN system who view the Declaration on Human Rights as a “sacred text”. While we might be critical of a pastor’s adherence to traditional medicines or idea of democracy, he might be critical of our excessive consumption and environmental footprint. How can all development actors enter into a genuine dialogue with different communities seeking what is really best for poor communities, and be willing to learn as well as to teach?

3. Duncan spoke about the need for NGOs to have red lines about the kind of support they will provide to a community.  He gave examples of community consultations which led to requests for a new mosque (provided, as it was used for many community projects), prayer mats, and knives to carry out female genital mutilation (not provided). He is right that NGOs need our own guidelines based on clear rationale, but what about donors?  If faith groups are seeking institutional money for their work, don’t they need to know what is appropriate to put into a proposal and what isn’t?

According to the Red Cross Code of Conduct, it is wrong for aid to be used for proselytisation – that is, for it to be provided subject to adherence to a particular faith.  So building a mosque was presumably something that Oxfam were comfortable with as long as the building was used to benefit Muslims and non-Muslims.  However, we know that many donors are generally mistrustful of the motives of faith groups, leading to odd requests (one example was given of a JCB provided with the clear stipulation that it shouldn’t be used for evangelism!) or a general tendency to avoid funding them altogether.

Wouldn’t clear guidelines for staff put everyone on a firmer footing, and make open conversation and partnership easier?  It was encouraging to hear that UNICEF are about to publish something which sounds helpful, and that DFID may be moving in this direction as well.

4. One for jargon lovers!  I learnt a new phrase at this conference: institutional isomorphism (the tendency for organisations to mimic other organisations).  It was suggested that if faith-based organisations are funded by secular donors, who set indicators and targets, they will morph into them and the very distinctive that they bring will be destroyed. But surely, if there is an open dialogue about what the overall objectives of the development intervention are, and if a robust faith identity can be met with donors who are confident about engaging with faith groups, then this could be overcome?

There was loads more that was discussed – and more reflections may follow!  But I’d love to hear what others think about these.



  1. It’s interesting that this dialogue is taking place and certainly a move in the right direction. I think one of the critical issues is the one you stated last – the distinctiveness of faith based responses and maintaining that whilst gaining funding.

    It is notoriously difficult to gain funding in some areas to address very foundational issues. For me this relates to gender & development. In my role at Tearfund I am called on to address the misinterpretation of the Bible that is used to justify the subjugation of women, even violence in some cases. Preventing violence from happening in the first place is a cost-effective solution. Addressing gender inequality (which is a cause and consequence of gender inequality in itself and also violence against women) in faiths can lead to sustained, cost-effective, behaviour change.
    It can be foundational for seeing a family and community flourish.

    It is a tough job. It’s unpopular and not always effectively supported. Additionally indicators for prevention are difficult to find as how do you accurately assess whether someone has indeed changed their attitude? Proxy indicators then come in as a result and are not entirely satisfactory.

    Addressing power dynamics and who holds and uses or abuses power is key to moving forward. We have the perfect example in Jesus who gave up his power and used his power to bring healing, restoration and empower others.

    The ‘Silent No More’ report looking at the untapped potential of the church in addressing sexual violence has a recommendation that governments and donors need to recognise the potential of the church and work together with them.

    The new Oxfam Book, Gender, Faith & Development includes a chapter written by Nigel Taylor and myself looking at some of the issues faced when working with the Church. What the chapter in the book doesn’t show is the work we did afterwards to address the situation. This can be read here in the Gender HIV and the Church case study

    I know that in addressing deeply held beliefs that people such as myself in faith organisations need all the support and encouragement they can get. It is lonely path at times.

    I also commented on Duncan Greens blog which can be seen here

    Mandy Marshall
    Programme Development Advisor – Gender, Tearfund
    Co-Director, Restored

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