Are grassroots faith organizations better at advocacy/making change happen?

As part of thinking about how power operates in fragile/conflict states (for the LSE’s new Centre for Public Authoritybridging the gap cover in International Development, CPAID), I’m doing a bit more reading around the role of different kinds of ‘non state actors’. One of the most influential in many fragile/conflict settings are faith organizations, so I finally got round to reading ‘Bridging the Gap: The role of local churches in fostering local‑level social accountability and governance’ from Tearfund, which describes itself as a ‘Christian charity passionate about ending poverty’.

The report looks at Tearfund’s support for grassroots advocacy by its partner in Uganda, the Pentecostal Assemblies of God (PAG).This is part of a wider church and community mobilisation (CCM) process.

‘CCM approaches differ according to the context. However, they all involve the local church congregations participating in Bible studies and other interactive activities together, which catalyse them to work across denominations and with their local communities to identify and address the communities’ needs with their own resources.

As the first step, the church leaders at the denominational level are trained as CCM facilitators. The local church then goes through the ‘church awakening’ phase, which aims to change people’s attitudes to see themselves as all equal before God, to identify the resources they have and to build a vision for working together towards developing the community. The local church then liaises with community leaders and invites the wider community to come together to identify their needs, resources and skills. They then elect a Community Development Committee (CDC) which, with the help of the facilitator, maps community assets and key stakeholders, preparing a vision and action plan. The solutions vary across contexts – sometimes savings groups are formed – and in response to a variety of issues depending on the community’s most pressing needs, PAGlogo-1including food security, health, water and sanitation, or livelihoods.’

With a few tweaks of language, this could have been written by any secular NGO working on similar issues, but I was looking for the special sauce – what’s different about working through the Churches, compared to non-religious partners? Here’s what Tearfund says:

Local churches are trusted

CCM advocacy has proven that local churches are regarded with a high level of trust. They are trusted by their congregations, by the communities in which they are located and by local government.

The trust that the congregation and the majority of the community place in the church was a key driver in motivating participation in the CCM process, the advocacy training and also governance more generally. In Uganda, more than 80 per cent of people are Christian and it became apparent in the research that the church is a trusted authority figure, both by church members and by the wider community. This has led to an increase in citizen engagement in those communities who have completed the CCM and CCM advocacy training. This trust in the church enabled the CCM advocacy process to be established successfully in the community, with good engagement, and for the trainings to be taken on board quickly and effectively.

Participants’ responses revealed the main reason why the church is trusted. Firstly, as many in the community have embedded Christian values, trust derives from shared values. Many people consider the Bible an authority and therefore, where the CCM advocacy included references to the Bible, there was more engagement and take-up.

‘It would have not worked well with a secular NGO: the Bible has teachings, it encourages people to share, people fear God, they know it is God’s language and know they should listen!’ Woman from Arapai, where there was CCM and some advocacy

Secondly, as the church is established in the community and has a good reputation historically, people are willing to

Including changing local government, apparently. From the PAG website
Including changing local government, apparently. From the PAG website

be involved in its initiatives. Thirdly, linked to this is the way in which local church leaders and the church have existing relationships and links within the community. The process therefore did not require starting a new network or building new relationships. Finally, people felt safe to attend as it is a familiar environment for many. This meant that the church could become a ‘school for learning’ (to coin a phrase used in one community). Trust in the church allowed for this knowledge to be accepted and communities to use what they had learnt, as the knowledge had come from a trusted source.

Another key to the success of the engagement was the volunteerism encouraged by the church. Many groups explained that, whereas with NGO programmes the participants would expect handouts, the church is not expected to provide in the same way and people expect to volunteer their time at church. When discussing the motivation behind participating in CCM advocacy, more than 50 per cent of people referred to ‘my church’.

The training included biblical verses about advocacy: this encouraged community members to participate and understand that they have a right as citizens and a mandate to fight for justice, particularly on behalf of the marginalised such as widows and orphans. One hundred per cent of respondents who had had some of the advocacy training indicated that they had been encouraged by the church to attend government meetings, which they would never normally have been keen to do.

Government trusts the church

Ugandan local govtA key to ensuring increased good governance and accountability is the way in which the government sees the church and therefore the participating communities as trustworthy and honest. The government perceives the church as an important influencer in encouraging the community to obey the government and keep the peace. It is therefore willing to share information through the church, both about government programmes (eg immunisation schemes) and via sensitisation meetings (where government workers share learning on a particular topic, such as HIV prevention). The church is ‘faithful’ and embedded in the community, with a ready audience and an understanding of local issues.

‘We trust the church. We have so many organisations and individuals who come but, at the end, they disappear. But the church is there permanently. Even when there are changes in leadership, the church remains.’ Onya George, Regional District Councillor of Akonopeesa, Serere district’

Powerful and convincing stuff. The report acknowledges that things are not so easy when the community is less uni-faith, and that stirring it up with advocacy training might weaken its ‘trustworthiness’ in the eyes of government.

One thing I did wonder about was the use of ‘the Church’ in the singular. My experience of evangelical churches in Latin America is that they sometimes resemble ferrets in a sack, fighting for adherents, rather than cooperating – does that not complicate the effort to build an advocacy movement?

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I’m a lifelong atheist.

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11 Responses to “Are grassroots faith organizations better at advocacy/making change happen?”
  1. Paul

    Also an atheist but one of my best humanitarian responses was with Concern in Malawi when we gave money to nuns to expand the work they were already doing. That was while the aid system was sitting on its hands doing its best to ignore an unfolding crisis.

  2. Pete

    Thanks Duncan,

    I wish you had a ‘Like’ button for posts like these. This one puts into words my first experience with a poor community (in Catholic Ecuador).

    There, the local church had put in drinking water and set up a micro-credit bank, among others schemes. An advantage there was that the dynamic parish priest, from the UK, was more trusted as he was seen as less likely to be corrupt – he already had a wealthy retirement at home to look forward to and no need to steal from the local community. As a naive youngster I remember being shocked at how bad local corruption was there at the time.

    A second advantage was that he linked his Ecuadorian parish with his old home parish, which sent out money that got his various schemes started and no doubt educated his old parishioners in the process.

    Having said that, even at the time I thought it wrong that one individual had so much power (spiritual as well as managerial and financial) with very little supervision.

    (The days of a western Catholic priest going to the missions are probably over, there are far fewer priests getting ordained in the UK than in more traditionally religious countries.)

  3. Thank you for profiling our ‘Bridging the Gap’ report in this blog post today, Duncan. Although the report focuses on one church denomination in Uganda, at Tearfund we have found that other church denominations in other countries, such as Bolivia, Tanzania and Zambia, are having equally significant impact in their local level advocacy. Whatever the country context, the role that local churches play in bringing members of a community together, including those of other faiths and none, can be significant in shifting power dynamics. It’s this vital role that’s being given recognition through your blog post – thanks.

  4. Paul Nelson

    Thanks for this post, and for highlighting Tearfund’s good work. Religious authority and community are present in virtually every village and neighborhood, so it wouldn’t be surprising if faith-based groups have some advantages. I worked for several faith-based NGOs, and I have a hunch that the primary advantage faith-based groups have is one they share with other membership-based organizations: shared identity, trust, a strong base in communities. That is not to minimize the importance of religious belief and motivation (which I personally share), it’s to suggest that they may be good at mobilizing people largely for the reasons unions, ethnic associations, or well-organized women’s or professional groups are: membership, trust, identity, and (often) an institutional presence in communities.

    I would like to see international faith-based groups consistently take advantage of this shared identity and trust with their donors and constituents in the rich countries, and do more to mobilize those constituencies politically on global justice issues. I work in the United States, where some faith-based NGOs do this very well (American Jewish World Service is exemplary), and many could do much more. In our current political situation, that seems important.

  5. Claire

    I agree with a lot of this too. Yesterday someone asked why community members showed up to group discussions on gender-based violence that were part of a recent project in DRC – what was their *incentive?* It was hard to explain that they mostly came because of an intrinsic motivation to contribute to their community, closely linked to their faith. I think this faith-based intrinsic motivation is hard to represent in, say, a theory of change, but I suspect it underlies a lot of community mobilisation in religious places! The secular character of ‘international development’ as a sector – which is a huge strength in many ways – does make us a little blind to the reality of faith’s power (the good and bad aspects).

  6. Miguel Moreno

    Regardless of our own personal beliefs, there is evidence indicating that formal and informal partnerships with churches and other faith-based organizations often enable programmes to better respond to specific local development challenges and opportunities. Other than issues in the spiritual domain, these relationships are usually an effective way to influence local social norms. For instance, churches can be a positive force in promoting HIV prevention, care, and support. Also, community stakeholders can benefit when religious leaders support and join in meetings with government authorities to push for social justice (better services, etc.).

    With that said, not everything is always positive. Faith-based organizations can influence behaviors and values of community members and sometimes they may promote an attitude of resignation to adverse situations (issues like violence or SRHR) which is not necessarily a good cultural practice.

  7. The article makes some very valid points. Faith based organizations can play a very positive part in social transformation. One of the best examples of this is the role played by the Aga Khan Network in bringing change in the northern parts of Pakistan which is best expressed in the rising social indicators in the areas it works. This change is the result of long term commitment and bringing in vast resources and generally spending them well and the role played by volunteers on Boards to provide leadership for the efforts. But its certainly not all milk and honey with faith based organizations and they face serious challenges in fragile and conflict environments. Faith based organizations could be divisive where there are different communities with different beliefs living in their areas of work. In such environments faith based groups are viewed suspiciously and even if they are scrupulously non denominational they are viewed as promoting some agenda behind the façade of development and change. This is why they face a lot of resistance and have to spend considerable time building trust in communities , a relationship that remains fragile and easily broken despite their best efforts. One of the best examples I saw of this is where faith based groups cannot go to the mosque of a different communal group to announce their development activities in an area where despite their deep presence in the development sector or the case of one organization which had set up electricity in a village where people lived in light but prayed to God in darkness because the electricity generated by this organization would not be allowed in the mosque. The leadership and structure of faith based groups is also very important. How are feedbacks received by the organization and its Boards: whether its through professional management groups of the organization implementing its programmes or through religious channels which may be communicating things very differently with a religious tinge. Faith groups also face problems during communal tensions because staff of these organization even if from all the communities get divided on communal lines because in the evening staff have to move to their own communities where they only hear what their communities are saying. In many areas the faith based groups are linked to religious political parties which gets them involved in issues of power and posses which with the power they have at the communal level could be terribly abused.

  8. Catriona Dejean

    Thanks, Duncan for reviewing Bridging the Gap. If you want to read more, we have various other evidence reports that explore the role of faith in various contexts and for various approaches, many of which can be found on our Tearfund Learn site and often in collaboration with other faith organisations (Eg Keeping the Faith – The Role of Faith Leaders in the Ebola Response).

    We have just finished a piece of work with Professor James Copestake and Fiona Remnant at Bath Social Development Research (Univ of Bath), also in Uganda and independent to Bridging the Gap. We used their QUIP methodology, a blinded approach to data collection. The results showed a significant positive influence of local churches in the research areas on the well-being of local community members – I think this was a pleasant surprise to James and the team! It was encouraging to us, as we all went in with intrepidation about using the methodology for our church and community mobilisation work. With this research we were also able to explore the positive and negative drivers of change, which we are drawing upon for future work.

    If anyone is interested in exploring more about the role of faith in development and humanitarian space, there is a growing body of evidence and insights, and a number of discussions taking place via the Joint Learning Initiative on Local Faith Communities.

    Thanks for instigating this discussion, Duncan!

  9. Helen Derbyshire

    Thank Duncan for this thought provoking post and equally interesting responses.
    It’s made me think of the issue of public trust in relation to NGOs/CSOs. Broadly speaking in the west, NGOs/CSOs are generally fairly well thought of with high levels of public trust. But, my experience from working in different African counties, is that NGOs/CSOs are often not well thought of, and don’t necessarily have high levels of public trust. Interesting to reflect on why this is… – external funding? embeddedness? accountability? As your post says, at community level, with an NGO people expect hand-outs, but with a faith based group they don’t. In some places, NGOs/CSOs have come to be associated with money and personal gain, rather than with the kind of voluntarism/community spiritedness discussed in your post. This creates a major challenge – particularly when it comes to donor support to advocacy and influencing work. If donor funding starts going more to faith based organisations, is there a danger that this will start to undermine their integrity and high levels of trust? How can this be avoided?