Where is being faith based an asset in aid & development; where is it a liability?

For a lifelong atheist, I’ve been spending a startling amount of time recently rubbing shoulders with devout Christians and Muslims, discussing faith and development. Last week it was a panel organized by Tearfund, a Christian aid and development agency, to discuss a big internal review of its evolution over the 50 years since its foundation in 1968.

The conversations at the launch were fascinating – an ecosystem of faith based organizations, with far more in common with each other than with the secular aid world of logframes and targets. Islamic Relief and CAFOD planning a joint peace building exercise in Northern Nigeria; Muslims and Protestants borrowing from each other’s toolkits and faith based approaches. Everyone comfortable with notions of the divine and the sacred. It reminded me of that look of baffled pity I receive sometimes when I leave Europe and tell people I don’t have a faith – in much of the world, that is incomprehensible and sad.

SOUTH AFRICA/CAPE TOWN – 350 climate change protest march outside parlament, 24 October 2009

But back to the paper, which is great, but for the moment, an internal document (if you want a copy, contact publications@tearfund.org). The author, Dena Freeman identifies two periods in Tearfund’s history: For the first 25 years, evangelism largely ran in parallel, but separate to development work. Projects were pretty much along the same lines as the secular aid agencies, while faith was principally a motivator of staff and supporters.

From the early 90s, things got more interesting. Tearfund decided to try and devise a ‘faith-based approach (FBA) to development’. It turned out to be a difficult but important exercise, which is still going on.

Dena argues that an FBA makes some areas of work more effective, and others harder. Broadly, it can turbocharge work where attitudes and behaviours need to change. On more technical/material aspects (eg infrastructure, tools and seeds) not so much.

Which got me very excited, because many of the emerging issues that I talk about on this blog are precisely in that field of norms, attitudes, behaviours, psychology etc. Turns out that faith organizations got their first, and could have much to teach the rest of us. Some examples:

Leadership: Faith organizations often support and work through local leaders; everyone acknowledges the importance of preachers and visionaries. Big contrast to the discomfort in more secular aid agencies, which prefer to talk of class struggle (on the left), utility maximising individuals (on the right), or just obsess about tangible metrics and targets (everyone). How do you measure vision and leadership?

Localization: Faith organizations are everywhere, on the ground, legitimate, trusted. It is an almost universal research finding that the institutions trusted most by poor communities are first, their deity, and second, their faith leaders. Unsurprisingly, therefore, faith based agencies work through local partners as a matter of course, but in its FBA period, Tearfund has stepped this up with a Church and Community Mobilisation (CCM) programme, which has developed new faith-based methodologies to work with local congregations in poor countries to carry out specific faith-based programming with or for the community. It has got some amazing results. Top quote from one of the speakers: ‘Since coming to the Christian faith, I have discovered the unbelievable assets on the ground.’

Norms: Where to start? Faith organizations understand the central role of norms, beliefs, values. They are one of

Interfaith manel. Gender equity not always a strong point….

the principal shapers of those values. As aid organizations increasingly come to realize the importance of myth, narrative, and values, where better to look for advice?

The long term: no-one thinks long term like the faith organizations – ask the Vatican. If the aid sector is serious about long-term, generational shifts rather than nice, neat but ultimately inadequate 3 year project cycles, the faith groups have much to teach us – one example: the importance of early years’ education in shaping the values of future generations.

Fund-raising: a common feature of all faith organizations is that they are really good at raising money. I did my standard ‘fundraisers without borders’ pitch, and the reaction was enthusiastic. Faith organizations are already helping local communities tap into local funds, but they could do much, much more – and they seem interested in doing something about it.

Winning over the conservatives: Tearfund is operating almost entirely outside the echo chamber of Guardian readers. Many of their supporters have conservative views on sensitive issues like women’s rights. Ditto Islamic Relief. As one Tearfund staffer recalled of her first attempt to work with churches on HIV/AIDS ‘they were all about sin and damnation. It was a tough gig’, and yet by working through church structures and theology, she was able to achieve remarkable changes of heart among church leaders. Post Trump, post Brexit, faith organizations can build crucial bridges for social/attitudinal change.

What about the downsides? I think there are two. In her remarks at the seminar, Dena Freeman identified how much more problematic and potentially disastrous it is to adopt these kinds of approaches in communities of mixed faiths, or where the aid agency’s faith group is in a minority. There, inter-faith dialogue can be a big help, but marching in with other aspects of a faith-based approach can backfire badly.

The other downside is more fundamental, and I’m still chewing it over. All the above takes a purely instrumental approach to religion – being faith-based means you can get more impact, better results in a range of fairly conventional activities. But what about the more intrinsic aspects of faith? After all, Amartya Sen’s definition of development as the ‘freedoms to be and to do’ must surely include the freedom to believe in the God of your choice. So is belief itself a sign of development?

And following that down the rabbit-hole, are some faiths more ‘developmental’ than others? If conversion from one religion to another results in previously downtrodden groups experiencing an upsurge in ‘power within’ and starting to demand their rights, whether on issues of caste, sexuality or gender, is the act of conversion itself developmental?

Lots to chew on. And just to be crystal clear, these are my comments, not an expression of the views of Tearfund.

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6 Responses to “Where is being faith based an asset in aid & development; where is it a liability?”
  1. Jim Wagner

    Wow! Really great to hear your perspective. Steven Covey, in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, posed that in order to have effective communication one needs to seek to understand the other before pursuing being understood. As a person of faith (Jesus follower) with an interest in international development, I feel understood by what you have written, and I am encouraged when I see people with different perspectives and beliefs being “big” enough to dialogue, appreciate what is good and valuable, and respectfully and passionately disagree when appropriate. Maybe it is so striking because much of the public dialogue, at least in my world, is dominated by name calling and suspicion rather than collaboration for common good. Thanks!

  2. I was very impressed, Duncan, when you spoke to BBC Media Action when I was on staff there. So pleased you’ve read & are writing about this report. One can argue the biggest ‘aid’ agency in the world is the global Church (of all theological persuasions), so your questions are v. good ones, & certainly the global Church did ‘get there first’…

  3. Pamela White

    As another atheist, it was fascinating for me to see the huge impact different faiths had in Guatemala years back. For instance, hearing about the different sides that the different churches (and there were many types) had taken in the civil war. Also later, working with a rural development project – in some villages where Catholicism was the majority religion, the community worked well together, but there were seemingly more alcohol problems and economic poverty. In those where evangelical faiths reigned, people lead more sober and economically successful lives, but it was really difficult to get the community activities to function – it seemed that the evangelical faithful were more focused on getting their families ahead, rather than the greater community. Obviously these are gross generalisations taken from a snapshot of one project, but which religion you participated in did seem to make a big difference.

  4. Russ

    Thanks for an insightful “outsider” perspective on the role of faith in development. As a person of faith in the international development sector, it’s really helpful to see FBA from your perspective and with fresh eyes. Cheers.

  5. Very thought provoking and open piece Duncan. Our respective knowledge system/ faith (or not) perspective/ angle on how we think the world works definitely shapes our approaches and, ultimately, what is or is not possible collectively. We’ve been looking at this question too, and have put a few thoughts together in this learning brief, which might be of interest: http://www.miseancara.ie/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/LB2018-02-Faith-based-and-Missionary-Approach-to-Development.pdf
    Good to keep the discussions going as there is always a lot we can learn from each other and (hopefully) improve together.