Religious actors in development: Time to fix our blind spot

Religious actors are often able to give structure when the other institutions of a state collapse. However, their role and impact in development cooperation and international relations is routinely overlooked. When focusing on institutional multiplicity, one needs to acknowledge the contribution of religious actors to governance, peacebuilding and development. Like human rights organizations, the neutrality of religious actors can be problematic, as their actions are shaped by social and spiritual dimensions. Yet these are the exact same dimensions that ensure that religious actors have something to offer in times of fragility. 

International interventions in fragile states have long focused on top-down state-building; however, nowadays, international donors and development organizations are increasingly acknowledging the importance of a bottom-up or combined approach to the (re)construction of society in fragile states. In many of these fragile state contexts, religious and spiritual actors fulfil important social roles and are ever present in the public domain. Hence, it is crucial for external interveners working on stability in fragile states to understand the role of religion in the context of multiple institutional arrangements, and to realize how religious actors can shape governance and provide stability in fragile societies.

No private matter

In many Western contexts religion is a private matter; its public role is limited and it is usually deemed a matter of personal choice. However, in many parts of the world, religion is part of the everyday lives of people, the communities to which they belong, and broader social and political life. International Western development agencies often fail to grasp how in many countries, including fragile states, religion is in the public realm. Religion in such countries is intertwined with governance and development processes on local, national and international levels.

Box 1. Religious institutions and arrangements in fragile states

Fragile states can be characterized by a variety of institutional arrangements existing alongside each other. In these states, complex relationships exist between an array of non-state and state institutions that are constantly renegotiating their legitimacy and accountability. In this situation of institutional multiplicity, state actors – if present – share the governance landscape with traditional institutions, such as tribal or religious organizations, ‘parallel institutions’ formed by social political organizations, radical groups, aid agencies and citizen’s groups that emerge to meet the immediate need or emergency. Religious and faith-based organizations, networks, groups and agencies are among these non-state institutions and arrangements and perform particular functions that in Western contexts are often considered the responsibility of the formal state, including resource management, conflict resolution and even basic service delivery.

One example of how religion can play a role in governance processes is the involvement of religious actors in the reconstruction of a cercle (municipality) in the predominantly Muslim Timbuktu Region of northern Mali. In the 1990s, this region was affected by a large-scale conflict between the nomadic ‘white’ Tuareg and the sedentary ‘blacks’. The UN contracted the faith-based NGO Islamic Relief to facilitate the ‘reinsertion’ of people who had fled during the conflict into the administrative cercle Gourma Rharous. Islamic Relief was also asked to help improve living conditions and security in the area. 

Because of a lack of elected mayors in the region, Islamic Relief turned to local imams and chefs de village to engage the towns in this process. As they were able to involve religious and traditional actors in their cooperation with government officials, Islamic Relief created public and government support for their reconstruction programmes. After a successful conflict management intervention in Darfur, Islamic Relief realized that shared Islamic values were important in how local religious leaders were involved in conflict resolution and governance. As a result, the organization has recently developed a toolkit for conflict transformation, combining Islamic principles with community dialogue and practical action.

Box 2. Muslims and Catholics initiate dialogue and emergency aid in the Central African Republic

Another example of the involvement of religious actors in peacebuilding and reconstruction can be found in the Central African Republic (CAR). Here, rebels mobilized the Muslim North. In response, Christian groups, referred to as 'anti-Balaka', started attacking Muslims, who fled the country in great numbers. The devastating conflict that resulted is often perceived as a religious conflict. While it cannot be denied that religion played a role, the conflict was enflamed by political, economic and social instability.

Far less reported are the role that religious leaders in the Central African Republic have played in promoting peace and stability. It was the Grand Imam and the Archbishop of Bangui who started campaigning for peace on national radio and who initiated dialogue between Christian and Muslim youth. Other examples of the influence of religious actors include the Catholic Cathedral in Bossangoa, which has housed over 40,000 refugees since 2012, and the distribution of food and emergency aid through local churches. In June 2014, the Bishops Conference of the CAR stressed the importance of establishing peace from a faith perspective, criticized the reference to 'anti-Balaka' as a Christian group and called for an end to violence.

While the situation is still unstable, through faith-based networks such as Caritas Internationalis and the ACT Alliance (a global alliance of 130 churches and related organizations), displaced people are provided with humanitarian aid and supported to return home, work their lands and re-open their schools.

Box 3. Different types of religious actors

  • Religious leaders can play a vital role in peacebuilding and create stability in situations of fragility and conflict. A most famous example is, of course, Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was a role model for peace and reconciliation in post-Apartheid South Africa. Other examples are the religious leaders of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative in Northern Uganda.
  • Local religious structures, such as churches and mosques, are sometimes the only remaining structures in situations of fragility. The influence of these religious social institutions ranges from Catholic churches in the Democratic Republic of Congo providing shelter and basic services such as health care and education, to mosques in Mali encouraging dialogue on religious tolerance and acting as a peace brokers or mediators between conflicting parties.
  • Religious representative organizations and networks govern the faithful and represent them through engagement with the state and other actors. They are often active in development and social services. Examples include the National Council of Churches, Bishops Conferences and National Councils of Muslims found in countries worldwide, as well as international networks such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
  • Faith-based charitable or development organizations mobilize the faithful in support of the poor and other social groups, and fund or manage programmes aimed at tackling poverty and social exclusion. Examples of these organizations are World Vision and Islamic Relief.
  • Religious inspired social-political organizations include political parties and broad-based social movements such as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement (a self-governance movement with Buddhist roots in Sri Lanka), cultural organizations and secret societies.
  • Missionary organizations have been involved in development work for a long time and are historically closely related to many development initiatives and agencies. Contemporary missionary organizations, such as SIM (Serving in Mission), are still influential today.
  • Faith-based radical, illegal or terrorist organizations, such as Hamas or Hezbollah, are often seen solely as terrorist organizations, but can also be active in providing charity and in development.

Beyond the practical: the entanglement of the social with the spiritual

Religious actors are often the most visible in fragile states through the practical services and support they provide. However, for many religious actors the support they provide in times of fragility is part of a broader mission, that goes beyond the practical and the here and now. As they are part of communities, local religious actors are usually aware of what moves and motivates people on a social and spiritual level. Thus, they are well informed of the needs of the people, which is essential for successful intervention. Religious actors have the potential ability to give structure when other state institutions collapse. 

Box 4. The Catholic Church: the only remaining service provider during the Second Sudanese Civil War

A concrete example of religious actors remaining as the only service providers on the ground can be found in the role of the Catholic Church in Sudan during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983–2005). Catholic churches were the only institutions providing services such as health care, education, emergency relief, food, shelter, security and protection after the war. A functioning government was absent and, during the most severe periods of conflict, NGO’s evacuated their staff.

The role of the Catholic Church in providing structure and basic services in Sudan, when other structures were absent, went beyond the practical and was closely entangled with the spiritual. John Ashworth, former director of Church Ecumenical Action in Sudan, explains: “The Church provided for the material needs of the people when possible – food, medical care, education and employment – not as a social service programme, but because it is an obligation for the church to be in the midst of and care for the suffering.” These Catholic churches were, and still are, inspired by caritas (charity), a spiritual concept that resonates with the Biblical command to love your neighbour as you love yourself.

Engaging with religious actors

In exploring whether or not, and how, to engage with religious actors, it is important to carefully consider the opportunities and challenges involved, for example, with providing aid in Syria (see Box 5). The grass-roots roles of religious actors can 'help people help themselves' and their involvement may legitimize processes, but their involvement may also contribute to conflict and polarization, as in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. In addition, their involvement may promote missionary agendas, which can hamper their ability to address the community as a whole. On the other hand, faith-based development organizations can also serve as mediators and act as bridges between secular development donors and local religious organizations.

Box 5. Religious actors, neutrality and aid in Syria

When providing humanitarian aid in Syria, NGOs are cautious not to be perceived as taking sides in the conflict. In a meeting on religion and humanitarian aid organized by the Knowledge Centre on Religion and Development, director Mustapha Bouchalick of Islamic Relief, the Netherlands, explains that the Muslim identity of Islamic Relief gives the organization credibility, but its identity can also easily be politicized. In Syria, with its patchwork of religious and ethnic groups, the organization carefully chooses to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and with local partners that have Sunni, Shia and Christian roots. “You have to show in your own organization and through the partners you are working with that you are a peacemaker,” says Bouchalick. “And that is a real challenge.” Feije Duim from Kerk in Actie (Churches in Action) the Netherlands confirms that his organization faces the same dilemma. Although the Christian NGO, just like Islamic Relief, endorses the principle of neutrality and helps people regardless of their ethnicity, religion or sex, it must walk on eggshells to avoid being accused of partiality when providing aid in Syria. A careful analysis of the context is crucial, as is awareness among donors in the home country that support is provided to both Christians and Muslims. To illustrate this point Duim explains: “We make situations worse in Syria if we support only Christians, and, by the way, our Syrian Christian partners can often reach out more easily to Muslims than to their fellow Christians.”

Box 6. Risks and opportunities when involving religious actors

Grassroots roles: Given the grassroots roles that religious actors often play, engaging with local religious actors may be a much-desired step towards empowerment. As Gemma van der Haar argues on her blog, it may “help people to help themselves”.

Legitimizing power: Religious actors have legitimizing power that people rely on. Their involvement in processes of peacebuilding, reconciliation and (re-)building governance structures can lend credibility and a sense of moral authority to these processes. Emeritus Archbishop Desmond Tutu is probably the most famous example of how religious authority can sustain processes of political reconciliation.

Contributing to conflict and polarization: Of course, working with traditional grassroots actors, including religious actors, is not necessarily a recipe for success and may even contribute to conflict and polarization. Clear examples are the involvement of religious leaders and Catholic and Protestant churches during the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Missionary endeavours: Religious actors may combine social service delivery and peacebuilding efforts with more missionary endeavours, including proselytism. Suspicions about a potential missionary agenda can hamper the ability of religious actors to address the community as a whole, particularly in communities where inter-faith relations are sensitive or polarized.

Mediating organization: When a thorough context analysis and actor-mapping indicate that working with religious organizations is important, but working with them directly is sensitive or problematic, faith-based development organizations can serve as mediating organizations. These organizations are often part of religious representative organizations and networks such as Caritas Internationalis and the ACT Alliance, and have partnerships with local churches. Faith-based development organizations have the potential to serve as bridges between secular development donors and local religious organizations.

Impact on both parties

When engaging with religious actors, it is important to realize that this engagement – either through intermediaries or directly – has an impact on both the religious actor and the international organization engaging with it. International organizations, in particular, may be uncomfortable engaging with organizations whose neutrality is contested. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the neutrality of human rights organizations is equally problematic, although less contested in international debate. Likewise, religious actors run the risk of becoming an NGO through their engagement with formal state actors and international organizations. This so-called 'NGO-ization' can result in clergy and church workers becoming local elites and losing touch with their spirituality, which in turn impacts on their credibility in the broader community.

 Fragile, handle with care!

The presence of religious actors is a reality in fragile states, and they are often part of the existing governance institutions and arrangements. It is, therefore, time to get rid of our ‘blind spot’ regarding religious actors in efforts to reconstruct stability in fragile states. Acknowledging religious actors’ actual or potential contribution to governance, peacebuilding and development is a necessary step in approaches that focus on institutional multiplicity. This requires, first and foremost, an assessment of religion and the role of religious actors as part of a broader context analysis. 

Box 7. Assessment of religion and the role of religious actors

Without claiming to be exhaustive, such an analysis should include:

  • Questions regarding religion in society, such as: Which religions are present in the given society and how do they relate to each other? What are the power structures in the region or country, and where does religion come in? How are the religious communities organized?
  • Questions regarding the role of religious actors: How much authority do the religious leaders have? Are these religious actors part of a larger network or do they operate independently? How do these actors handle public responsibility and power? How do the religious actors acquire and spend their funds and how does it measure up when compared to their performance? Are they positively contributing to reducing the community’s insecurity and vulnerability? What is their involvement in conflict and peacebuilding? What are their additional aims or agenda’s, e.g., do they aim to proselytize?
  • Questions regarding religious actors’ relations with local communities: Do people turn to religious organizations if they have problems with livelihood, security, resources etc.? How do religious actors address and take into account local communities: Are they inclusive? Do they promote non-discrimination or focus only on certain groups?

Religious actors need to be handled with care. Like other actors in contexts of fragility, their role and involvement in processes of development and governance requires careful analysis. More specifically, many religious actors perceive and shape their role in society based on a close entanglement of the social and spiritual dimensions. Perhaps it is not despite this, but because of this, that religious actors have something to offer in times of fragility.

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Merel van Meerkerk

Merel van Meerkerk is a junior researcher for the Knowledge Centre on Religion and Development at...

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Brenda Bartelink

Brenda Bartelink is a programme advisor for the Knowledge Centre on Religion and Development at O...

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