The Role of Faith in Development Work

The role of faith-based organizations(FBOs) in development is frequently controversial in secular development organizations but both parties in the field want essentially the same thing – equity in the world and justice for the poor.

Address given by Fr. John K. Guiney SJ at the Faith in Development Conference, All Hallows College, Dublin, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM), Ireland.

The role of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in development is frequently controversial in secular development organizations. Both parties in the field are often hypercritical of one another, maintaining the higher moral ground rather than sharing the common ground of their work. It is vitally important that the dialogue continues since both groups want essentially the same thing – equity in the world and justice for the poor.

In this paper I will offer a number of perspectives from the faith world that may help the conversation on the relationship between the faith world and the development world.

I want to say from the outset:

a) That the faith and development worlds need one another

b) That the faith world, (peoples of the major religions) and development world (international aid agencies, UN institutions, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Community based organizations (CBOs) and civil society groups) need to network and act together in creative ways, locally and internationally, to address the three great scourges of our time which Julius Nyerere once called ignorance, poverty and disease. In this 21st century they are encapsulated in the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

c) That given the changing demography of missionaries working in the
South and East, issues of legacy and handover of development projects,
can be  enabled by more focussed reflection and funding.

From 1991 to 1997 I worked in a slum parish on the outskirts of Nairobi.  When I arrived there it had a population of over 60,000, 6 years later it was almost 90,000.
It was a settlement of temporary dwellings that had begun as a kind of dormitory town for workers from upcountry looking for work in the industrial centres.  It was a typical slum; access to electricity and basic sanitation was limited and the level of unemployment and violence was high. The parish was the development hub of the slum, it ran schools, medical centres, women’s projects, leadership and vocational training centres and was the biggest employer because of its services and building programs.
Over the years I witnessed the standard of living of many people actually getting worse in spite of a large influx of aid from abroad. This came about for a number of reasons:

- Firstly due to internal political conflict;  tribal clashes broke out in different parts of the country during and after the first democratic elections in 1992. We received hundreds of traumatised families into the slum from upcountry and they found shelter with relatives, friends, in Church halls or on the side of the road.

- Secondly, due to external political conflict in other countries. There was an   influx of refugees from neighbouring countries engaged in violent conflicts, for instance, the Rwandan genocide in 1994, war in Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia, which produced thousands of refugees. The refugee population throughout Kenya had moved from 16,000 to 330,000 in just a few years.

- Thirdly, due to the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Program (SAP); school feeding programs ceased, school fees were introduced, with the result that hundreds of children from our slums dropped out of school and ended up on the streets.  The word Chokoras (street child or vagabond) entered the Swahili vocabulary and almost 40,000 children in Nairobi appeared on the streets within a few years. Medical fees were introduced in Government clinics and mothers were forced back to traditional medicine; the level of child mortality spiralled in the slums and a new poverty of hunger drove both women and children onto the streets and exposed them to all the scourges of urban poverty including exposure to the HIV virus. It was an experience at times of bewilderment and powerlessness as new waves of poverty and suffering emerged.

The phenomenon of the increase of poverty in this slum was just a microcosm of what was happening in most African cities in the 1990s and the story illustrates how internal and external factors affect the lives of poor people and over which they have no control. It also illustrates the tragic consequences of economic policies that are drawn up and implemented without reference to poor people or consultation with the people who work with them and for them.

What can Faith Based Groups (FBOs) offer to the conversation on Development?

I suggest at least 6 different perspectives that faith based groups bring to the table of conversation on development:

1. The first perspective is the walking with or the accompaniment perspective:

Faith groups are often present at the frontiers of poverty, division and conflict. They are inserted and immersed in communities for long periods and know first hand the changing living standards of the people. They witness the effects on the poor of corruption, bribery, the developing culture of negligence and greed of local political leadership and bad governance.  These factors affect the lives of the people at every level from getting a job to getting even a driving licence.
Indeed, in many slum situations only the local faith based organizations remain on to keep a consoling presence and basic services going there when Government and other agencies disappear. They sustain communities in their most trying moments and carry on the basic development tasks of education and medical care.

2. Relationship with the people

The next perspective that comes from my own experience over many years is the benefit of a relationship of trust and openness with the people.  Religious leaders generally enjoy the trust of the people, for better or for worse; they have access to information on some of the real effects of economic policies made at home and abroad, they understand how conflicts among groups can be incited for political and other reasons and through their networks of small communities they may hold keys to negotiation, conflict resolution and healing.
All this is to say that major agencies of development need to hear the voice of the poor, and those closest to the poor, as they draw up their plans for intervention and implement their projects to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty. However, faith groups need to learn to articulate the voice, issues and concerns of the poor in fora that can make a difference to policy. They need to learn to create networks so they can make people aware of the effects of policies on poor communities. An example of this type of networking was our contact with Embassies and Heads of Development agencies in Nairobi. I was always consoled when EU Embassy people sent their visiting overseas aid staff to meet with our community leaders and talk to the local people about their lives and their problems of securing a livelihood in Kenya.  This kind of networking at a local level can be very effective in putting people at the centre of the development agenda and helping outside partners to understand that people do not get developed but they develop themselves.

3. Development expertise rooted in reality

The third perspective comes from the experience of being involved in frontline services to poor people for many years.  This development expertise is noted by Misean Cara in their Strategic Plan document  and draws on the Irish AID White paper of 2006 .
Some secular agencies see faith as primarily about Sunday, Friday, and Saturday-days set aside for worship - or funerals, marriages, baptisms, and other rituals. They relegate sacristy roles and singing Alleluia or Salaam to agents of faith and religion.  However, in reality the work and roles of religious groups are extended far beyond these pastoral activities, important as they are.  More and more development experts like Katherine Marshall of the World Bank  recognize that it is difficult to estimate the number of hospitals, schools and faith institutions these groups operate, the many acres of forests and watersheds they protect, or the numbers of handicapped children and orphans they care for.

Given the primary focus of the MDGs and the development agendas on health and education, dialogue and sharing of common ground and engagement between major development agencies and FBOs seems critical in all these areas. Disagreements on some issues should not be an obstacle for real collaboration and working together. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is a good example here and has special importance. Marshall noted recently in an article on Faith and Development that “Faith institutions, leaders, and communities play major roles in both accentuating and defeating stigma - a primary vector of the disease - and are vital to devising viable strategies to combat it”.   This view was again confirmed by Mark Dybul (US Global AIDS Coordinator) on his trip to Zambia some time ago when he noted that 40-50% of health care is provided in Africa by faith based groups ”not just orphan care and palliative care. It is also the actual clinical care; if you do not engage them (the FBOs) you are not going to tackle the problem”.

Some development organizations have issues with Church organizations and needless to say, Church organizations also have issues with some development organizations.  Some UN funded groups/NGOs arrive in African countries, for example, and begin to implement programs devised in Washington or Brussels for tackling problems without sensitivity or understanding of the local culture or without consultation with other organizations that have been in the field before them   They have big budgets and staff full of zeal with little experience of the country or culture. They have short contracts and want to fix problems that local people and others working with them have struggled with for years. When these development tourists have moved on or when the budget has run out it is often the local organizations and the Churches who have to pick up the pieces and the people.

This issue of working together, building up networks and moving beyond some of the stereotypes, suspicions and fears we have of one another is important for the alleviation of suffering and poverty.  Faith groups need to move off their moral high ground at times and recognize not only the limitations of foreign development agents but also the gifts of their research, analysis, strategies and objectivity, not to speak of their access to resources which, when well used, can bring about real change. 
Lindsay Morgan, who works for the Centre for Global Development put it well when she says,  “everyone in development, every group and every government imparts values of some kind in their work” . Secular development organizations are as saturated with beliefs as faith organizations.  Whenever a group of people goes to a land far away to help others, the visitors risk being blinded by the supposed superiority of their methods of research or practices and thus stomping all over the locals and mucking things up. So constructive criticism and reflection should be directed towards all groups. While faith based groups may criticise secular aid agency personnel for their short-term commitments, secular development agencies can be critical of the lack of an exit strategy and the personalization of projects by faith groups. Faith based groups are usually full of heart and compassion but can lack any real project planning or thought about sustainability and/or handover.
This reflection of what we do and especially how we do things is crucial for missionary groups involved in development as well as for secular agents of development; this analytical, evaluative and self critical dimension can sometimes be lacking in faith based organizations.

4. The next perspective on Faith in development is from the emergency and post - conflict reconstruction world.

Having worked with refugees and displaced people for the past number of years it is my experience that in many conflict-affected countries and regions, faith based groups are often the only surviving institutions. They run schools and hospitals even when the bombs are dropping.  They follow the refugees across borders or the displaced to another part of the country.  They are often the only institutions working on both sides of the border in conflict. They run educational programs that are gender sensitive, and have an ability to find funding for education up to tertiary level and thus prepare a new generation for nation building. They help to rebuild in post - conflict situations and after calamities (witness their key role after the December 2004 tsunami and at present in South Sudan). Whether individually or together, faith communities also contribute to peace-making activities, and their voice, the consolation of their presence and moral leadership promotes healing.

The experience of FBOs working in forced migration situations either in refugee and displaced camps, in urban refugee situations, in detention centres and prisons underlines the role of advocacy in changing how refugees are perceived and treated by Governments around the world.   The most effective intervention made in Nairobi to stop the expulsion of non - documented people from Kenya in 2005 was when we organized the leaders of all the major religions in Kenya (Muslims, Hindus, Christians of different denominations) to meet with the Minister of Justice and Immigration. This contact and work of advocacy not only stopped their expulsion but also encouraged the passing of a Refugee Act that gives refugees an opportunity to work under certain conditions in Kenya. Recently a group of us linked with Jesuit Refugee service (JRS) working in Brussels spoke with MEPs, heads of U|N agencies and some Ambassadors on the need to move the issue of forced migration and the problem of protracted refugee situations from the emergency departments and budget of Governments to the development sectors/budgets of Governments so that refugees and migrants are seen as a resource rather than as a burden on a state. 

It also seems important to FBOs working in the field of emergency education that the funding of secondary and focussed tertiary education should be included in criteria for funding of projects by UNHCR and other agencies.  Primary school education is not sufficient for re-building broken nations.

In post conflict reconstruction where the international community is pouring in millions of Euro, it is paramount that Churches, civil society, local and district Government administration work together to at least avoid duplication of services, to monitor leakage and wastage of funds. Ideally, they would collaborate and provide services together or individually in the most forgotten rural areas of returnees.

5.  The fifth perspective offered from the faith world is the contribution to ethics and values to the development discussion

Faith institutions and religious leaders often emerge as courageous people who stand up and stand out against oppressive regimes even to giving their lives.   They can help to bring moral values and ethics to difficult transitions as witnessed by the role of Archbishop Desmond Tutu in fighting apartheid in South Africa and his role in the TRC (truth and reconciliation commission), witness also the present role and resistance of the Buddhist monks in Burma . The work of faith groups in dealing with child soldiers, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, and the work on environmental issues inspired by the different charisms and vocations is remarkable. Thinking deeply about such issues is central to the calling of religious leaders, and they rely on centuries-old traditions to do so while catholic social teaching continues to contribute to profound reflection about development.  For example, Pope Paul V1 wrote a document in 1967 that is as relevant today as it was then.  He noted:
“Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete, integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every person and of the whole person. As an eminent specialist (Jacques Lebret) has very rightly and emphatically declared: “We do not believe in separating the economic from the human, nor development from the civilizations in which it exists. What we hold important is the person, each person and each group of people, and we even include the whole of humanity".

6. The perspective of solidarity FBOs offer.

The word solidarity has been a key word in Catholic social teaching; often described not as a feeling of vague compassion at misfortunes of so many people both near and far but a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself for the common good. That is to say, “the good of all and of each individual because we are all really responsible for all”.   A great example of that solidarity and support for bringing about change has been the Jubilee 2000 campaign, which relied on an ancient Biblical concept to mobilize a coalition of diverse people including workers, mothers, students, unions, business, and congregations to reorient a highly technical debate about debt relief for poor countries and bring about real action by the international community.  This kind of solidarity is necessary and needed to form coalitions among the great religions of the world while remaining allied to the development community.

Legacy and hand over issues.

The third point in this conversation is related to handover issues and legacy by missionaries and how this can be helped by more focussed funding. Misean Cara is an organization that provides financial and operational support for the faith based approach to development of missionaries engaged in front-line work throughout the developing world. In its Strategic Plan 2009-2012  it sets out a very important objective called legacy and localisation which has a number of targets designed to help local leaderships to manage relationships with Misean Cara and other donors when Irish personnel have moved on or over.
In order that the legacy of development work begun by Irish missionaries be sustained and carried on effectively I suggest that a number of areas need priority.
1. The formation of leaders and managers. Africa (as well as the rest of the world) needs heroic leadership if it is to develop itself 

2. Advocacy and networking skills and strategies need to be a part of that formation.  Skills for working together with other Churches, different religious traditions and civil society groups also need to be developed.

Active dialogue between institutions of faith and development agencies shows that there are enormous areas of overlap, common ground and even convergence. We share a deep concern and knowledge and a core common purpose. Dialogue and alliances are far from easy. However if we enter into dialogue with an openness to learn from one another then this can be mutually beneficial for the greater good of the people we are called to serve. 
The faith-based worlds bring an enormous tradition of caring, compassion, solidarity and global networks as well as a capacity to motivate people to do exceptional things. The development world brings research, strategies and skills not to speak of financial resources.  Together working in a spirit of humility and openness to learn, real change can be effected with the people we work with on the ground.

Daniel G. Groody in his wonderful book Globalization, Spirituality and Justice  speaks in chapter 5 of “A common humanity and a different creed”. He writes of the Parliament of World religions working together to develop a new global ethic that can help a new global order, and he finishes this excellent chapter by saying if we do not come to the table even with our differences we will self-destruct. He quotes the lines of Martin Luther King when he preached in his own inimitable way “now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers and sisters or we are all going to perish together as fools”
The same can be said of the Faith and development worlds as was said about the necessity for world religions to join together, we need to work together with our differences to save our world from the horrors it endures.   

John K. Guiney SJ
Irish Jesuit Mission Office.   
23rd October 2009

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