Can religion play a role in evidence-obsessed governance strategies? Lessons from Tanzania

Next up in the Twaweza series, Aikande Clement Kwayu reflects on the development sector’s blind spot with Aikande-Clement-Kwayu-2-webpagereligion

When it comes to social change, religion is a double-edged sword. It can be both a force for good and/or for bad. The world-wide positive contribution by religious organisations in providing public services such as health and education is undisputed.  The role of religion in areas of human rights, democracy, accountability and governance has been inconsistent. However, that does not reduce the role that religious organisations and leaders have played in demanding and promoting good governance, including defending human rights, democratic ideals, and civic space for citizen participation. Religious groups and leaders often possess moral authority to speak out against injustice.  Religion often incubates and facilitates some of the strongest civil society arrangements in many developing countries.

So why has it been so difficult to incorporate the positive role of religion into the mainstream development agenda?  My PhD research (2012), which analyzed the relationship between DFID and Faith Groups, found that DFID treated faith groups as exactly the same as other NGOs and/or charities. Any relationship was based purely on a pragmatic rationale, just like with any other development NGO. There was no special consideration given to religious organisations’ unique ability to reach sensitive areas that many NGOs could not access, such as in the 2011 famine crisis in Somalia. Theories of modernisation and the promotion of secularism in development discourses rendered religion a sensitive and private, perhaps even slightly embarrassing, matter, unsuitable for discussion in ‘grown-up’ aid circles.

Religion as a driver of change (sorry, couldn't resist).
Religion as a driver of change (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Occasional efforts to change this by the International Development Industry have been half-hearted and short-lived.  In early and mid-2000s, the World Bank tried to bring religion onto the development agenda through the creation of the World Faith Development Dialogue. Yet the momentum did not last.  The growing appreciation of religion as a civil society actor and subsequent academic interest in the same did not soften development partners’ rigidity in engaging with (or failing to) religious institutions. The question remains, why?

Could the budding obsession with evidence- and results-based programming partly explain the persistent reluctance to involve religion in governance and other development agendas?

Two weeks ago, at the Twaweza Ideas and Evidence conference, there was a rich discussion on what counts as evidence in governance. There were questions and debates on the role of Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) and to what extent such research can help in bringing change.  The various research presentations and discussions underlined the evidence-obsessed ambience in the international development space.  The unfortunate thing is, evidence is often equated with numbers. Quantified evidence seemed to be more revered than the qualitative variety.

This matters because one of the barriers that development partners find in working with religion is the difficulty ofscience-and-religion measuring impact.  The impact of religion in influencing people’s thinking and actions, for example, is profound yet hard to measure. So are the roles of religious leaders in influencing change.  Development organisations that are evidence–obsessed may find it difficult to work with religion out of an unconscious fear of dealing with something that is considered sensitive, private and that cannot always be evaluated on the basis of numbers.  Yet there is an adequate literature that has shown the role of religion in influencing and shaping norms around political ideas and economic attitudes. Norms shaped by religion have also been shown to be persistent over time and can play a role in economic and development performance. In the real world, ‘faith-based policy making’ may be more common than the evidence-based variety, but that is neither recognized nor discussed in the aid and development bubble.

In Tanzania, religious institutions have done great work on several crucial areas of governance.  An interfaith committee carried out effective advocacy against unfair tax regimes. In Chapter 12 of this recent book, I analysed the efficiency of the interfaith committee advocacy strategy on extractive industry with its two groundbreaking publications in 2008 and 2012.  The voices of religious leaders in calming the situation in the 2013 protests in Mtwara in relations to gas and new gas pipeline should also be recognized.  Of late, religious leaders have been outspoken against the diminishing civic space in the country.  Yet we still do not see active incorporation of religious groups as key governance stakeholders and strong civil society representatives by development partners in the country.

In these testing times for democracy and shrinking civic space, it is high time for development partners to rethink their strategies and find ways through which the strengths and potentials of religious organisations and leaders can be marshaled for the common change we all want to see.

Previous Posts in this series:

When does Tech → Innovation? Here’s what 178 projects tell us

Which Citizens? Which Services? Unpacking Demand for Improved Health, Education, Roads, Water etc

How can researchers and activists influence African governments? Advice from an insider

Can Evidence-based Activism still bring about change? The view from East Africa

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4 Responses to “Can religion play a role in evidence-obsessed governance strategies? Lessons from Tanzania”
  1. Allan Moolman

    Some very interesting examples out of South Africa – most visible possibly being the work done by the South African Council of Churches in the anti-apartheid movement. In the post-apartheid years we have also seen some very good work done by faith-based organisations on a range of social justice issues – especially in the economic justice space – The Economic Justice Network, KZN Christian Council, Diakonia Council of Churches, PACSA, ESSET and many others. Faith-based organisations and faith leaders have also been instrumental in the HIV/AIDS struggles (Oxfam partner KwaZulu Regional Christian Council for example) and well as, increasingly in the rights space for the LGBTI community (Oxfam partners the Inner Circle and Triangle Project being two very recent examples). We are also seeing very strong FBO action in eth tax justice, corporate transparency and extractives spaces, with much of the community organising being done through churches and other faith-based structures.

  2. Jayakumar Christian

    Fully affirm Aikande Clement Kwayu call to development partners to rethink strategies on the role of religious (faith-based) organisations and leaders as forces for good. Like she mentions religion is a double-edged sword. It can be both a force for good and/or for bad. Religion as a force for bad is often because people in power have hijacked religion for their political purposes; not the problem of religion. Like Jim Wallis mentions it is time to mobilise the ‘best of faith to undo the damage caused by the worst of religion.’ Aikande Clement Kwayu affirms faith leaders and communities often possess moral authority to speak out against injustice strengthening civil societies. A classic example is the work of World Vision with Ebola crisis restoring dignity to the dead and the powerful ways in which Channels of Hope programmes have been used to mobilise faith and faith leaders to address social issues. Theories of modernisation, promotion of secularism and obsession with particular types of evidence and measurements have made any religious discourse in development sector a ‘suspect’ and a force to be carefully monitored for its motives.

    My only addition to this excellent piece would be that the causes of poverty embedded in people’s behaviour, worldview, broken relationships, beliefs, spirituality and spiritual practices demand engagement at faith levels. We are not doing faith a favour; poverty demands a faith response. The socio-political-economic aspects of poverty are rooted in these underlying spiritual causes. Therefore, any claim of sustainable solutions to chronic poverty by the development sector that does not engage faith and faith leaders, is a bluff. Secular frames in development sector appear sadly impoverished.

  3. Catriona Dejean

    Thank you Duncan and Aikande for this post. It was interesting to read; I would like to suggest that faith based organisations are actually much more engaged with the evidence agenda! But perhaps we need to do more and/or be given more opportunity to share and highlight what is going on. There is a lot of work within the faith based organisations on building credible evidence on the role of faith within the development and humanitarian ecosystems. One of the key and growing networks helping to bring together those of faith and non-faith, (practioners, academics and policy makers) is the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities ( Tearfund is a founding member, along with many other faith organisations. It is precisely focused around building evidence on faith across the following areas: Anti-Trafficking & Modern Slavery; Ending Violence Against Children; Gender-based Violence; Mobilisation of Local Faith Communities; Peace & Conflict; and Refugees. If you have a look at the site you will see that there is a raft of qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods all being used. There is a growing recognition among faith groups that it is possible to be faith and evidence led. We are also in on-going discussions on the use of RCTs versus other methods, considering the ethics of approaches and how this works with locally driven development models. There is a very interesting study that has just been published by an organisation in the Philippines, ICM, along with IPA at Yale, that has used an RCT to look at the difference faith makes

    At Tearfund we are strategically looking at the evidence that we are building across key areas, and exploring mixed methods that can bring more robust evidence but at the same allow us to stay true to our models and approaches. We are also looking at ways to support communities and churches themselves to learn and evaluate their own success so that they can adapt in real time and be part of the process.

    Duncan, you did a brilliant job at promoting our work several months ago, Bridging the Gap, which looks at the role of the church and local communities in Uganda to engage in advocacy activities! We will be building on this work in other countries.
    We’ve also recently published a study we have done in Uganda in conjunction with Bath Social Development Research Ltd based at the University of Bath. You can see the study here There was an overwhelming contribution of the role of church to positive change reported by community members. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the partner involved with this study and have some great action plans coming out of the findings. We are commissioning 4 more QuiP studies in other countries to enable us to explore impact in different context using the same methodology.
    We’ve also got done various research studies around the role of faith leaders in changing social norms in particular in relation to sexual and gender based violence which is informing our programmatic work.

    Oxfam commissioned a piece of research with the Harvard Divinity School on the role of faith LOCAL HUMANITARIAN LEADERSHIP AND RELIGIOUS LITERACY Engaging with Religion, Faith, and Faith Actors. I facilitated a webinar for the Joint Learning Initiative on this research with one of your colleagues from Oxfam US.
    Faith literacy is a growing area of discussion as understanding the faith dimension to people’s lives is critical. The study that Jayakumar mentions above on Ebola is a case in point. Tearfund along with Christian aid, CAFOD and Islamic relief also commissioned a study looking at the role of faith during the Ebola crisis.

    Responding to the last point on the blog: In these testing times for democracy and shrinking civic space, it is high time for development partners to rethink their strategies and find ways through which the strengths and potentials of religious organisations and leaders can be marshaled for the common change we all want to see
    we would be more than happy to chat further with you and others to explore this and share more of what is working and not working.

  4. Nigel Taylor

    Aikande and Duncan – you raise an important point! As the other commentators demonstrate the evidence is clear that faith, and faith leaders, have critical influence in the global South (for better and for worse). What interests me is how development partners might come around to take up the concluding call and seek to engage with faith leaders, faith groups and faith-inspired organisations for the common good? I wonder what insights Aikande may have from her PhD analysing the relationship between DFID and faith groups? My own observations are that DFID has been the most interested when its political leadership had an intuitive sense of the role of faith. This was the case in the early years with Clare Short, and again in 2009, when DFID consulted with faith groups over the fourth White Paper and to initiate the development of internal guidance on engaging with faith. For the latter, both the Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) and Secretary of State (Douglas Alexander) were ‘sons of the manse’. Also, I wonder if part of the challenge for development partners is that faith doesn’t fit with their favoured MO – it doesn’t conform with a log-frame approach nor with a contract-driven relationship, because its raison d’etre is otherwise. And with this, faith leaders and groups are themselves wary of engagement. Time for adaptive management that appreciates, and is sympathetic to, faith’s distinctives?

    (Although written long ago, this paper: ‘Working together?’, may be helpful: