The difference faith makes (Fall 2016)

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

What difference does faith make in disaster relief, community development and peacebuilding? In this issue of Intersections authors answer this question from multiple perspectives and contexts. This framing question could also be stated thus: do faith-based organizations and local faith communities bring distinctive strengths to food security initiatives, conflict prevention efforts, maternal and child health and nutrition projects and more?

The term faith-based organization, or FBO, refers here to organizations with a predominant or exclusive focus on disaster relief, development and/or peacebuilding and with varying degrees of religious self-identification and rootedness in faith communities: some, like MCC, are international, while others, like the Comisión de Acción Social Menonita (CASM) in Honduras, are country-specific. In his article, Ray Vander Zaag sketches a typology of FBOs in the development sphere, introducing readers to the different types of actors grouped under the label. The term local faith communities, or LFCs, in contrast, points to groupings like congregations, synagogues and communities around mosques.

From its inception, MCC has been committed to partnerships with Anabaptist and other churches. Some actors in the international development sphere, however, raise a variety of skeptical concerns about FBOs and LFCs. A study commissioned in 2014 by Lutheran World Relief of senior development professionals working for USAID and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) regarding their perceptions of FBOs found ambivalent attitudes. On the one hand, respondents generally affirmed FBOs as a positive force in international development efforts, thanks to their connectedness to local networks and their responsiveness to beneficiaries. At the same time, respondents voiced multiple concerns. Some of these worries revolved around the effectiveness of FBO efforts: respondents rated FBOs lower than non-faith-based NGOs and for-profit development contractors regarding responsiveness to governmental donors, ability to implement and scale-up quickly and relative levels of professionalism and technical expertise. A significant number of respondents also expressed concerns about FBOs tying their services to religious identification and to proselytizing efforts: in this issue, Bruce Guenther discusses humanitarian principles of independence and impartiality and examines how FBOs like MCC work with such principles.

Recognizing the negative perceptions some development actors hold of FBOs, several organizations (including Christian Aid, Islamic World Relief and Tearfund) have formed the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLIFLC) to promote and share evidence-based assessments of the positive difference FBOs and LFCs make in disaster relief, development and peacebuilding. In its evidence briefs, the JLIFLC echoes points made by other development actors and scholars (e.g.,GiZ, 2015; Barnett and Stein, 2012) about the particular strengths and contributions FBOs and LFCs bring to humanitarian efforts. The points include the following:

  • FBOs have networks of connection and partnership with LFCs that give initiatives carried out by FBOs and their LFC partners greater geographical reach (offering access to remote areas) and longer-term sustainability.
  • LFCs are often a source of volunteers who are highly motivated to care for their
    neighbors and who can ensure the durable impact of particular initiatives. The care groups described by Beth Good in her article are composed of such church based
    volunteers, volunteers who promote vaccination, breastfeeding and other health behaviors among pregnant and new mothers in order to improve maternal and child health and nutrition outcomes.
  • In contexts in which government institutions are weak and lack popular legitimacy, religious leaders and institutions often retain authority and trust within targeted communities. Working with LFCs is thus often essential to the success of project interventions.
  • Churches, mosques and other LFCs are often best positioned to be first responders in times of disaster or other crises, investing their own resources in such responses, and can be mobilized as part of larger, longer-term disaster preparedness and risk reduction efforts.
  • LFCs foster hope and resilience in communities devastated by disaster and violent conflict (Ager, 2015).
  • Trusted religious leaders are often better placed than governmental or other actors to help shape and change community norms. So, for example, pastors, imams and other religious leaders can play essential roles in campaigns against gender-based violence by articulating religious arguments for why violence against women is wrong and why respecting the dignity of women is theologically mandated (Le Roux, 2011). Similarly, religiously-grounded arguments can often prove more persuasive in local communities than arguments made in supposedly universalist language. In this issue Vurayayi Pugeni and Dan Wiens offer an example of this dynamic in their article analyzing how presenting conservation agriculture practices as “farming God’s way” helps overcome farmer resistance to adopting non-traditional, labor intensive methods.
  • While religion is often deployed as a frame to justify various types of conflict, religious leaders can, as Wade Snowdon and Mark Tymm explore in their articles, prove essential to conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts. At the same time, as Lindsey Frye shows in her article, practical efforts like kitchen garden promotion that bring members of different religious groups together around concrete projects can foster and strengthen bonds across religious divides, in turn contributing to longer-term conflict prevention.

Does faith make a difference? As an organization that has served for nearly a century “in the name of Christ,” MCC is convinced that the answer to the question is yes. The articles below reflect ongoing attempts by MCC and other FBOs to reflect on and articulate the what and the how of that difference.

Alain Epp Weaver directs strategic planning and learning for MCC.

Learn more:

Ager, Joey, et al. “Local Faith Communities and the Promotion of Resilience in Contexts of
Humanitarian Crisis.” Journal of Refugee Studies 28/2 (2015); 202-221.

Barnett, Michael and Janice Gross Stein. Sacred Aid: Faith and Humanitarianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

GiZ. More than Anything: The Contribution of Religious Communities to Sustainable
Development. Bonn: Deutsche Gesellschaft für internationale Zusammenarbeit, 2015. Available at https://www.giz.de/expertise/downloads/giz2016-en-religion-contributiondevelopment.pdf.

JLIFLC. Evidence for Religious Groups’ Contributions to Humanitarian Response. Evidence Briefs Submitted to the World Humanitarian Summit, May 2016, by the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities. Available at http://jliflc.com/resources/key-messages-evidencereligious-groups-contributionshumanitarian-response/.

Le Roux, Elisabet. Silent No More: The Untapped Potential of the Church in Addressing Sexual Violence. Teddington, UK: Tearfund, 2011. Available at http://files.unaids.org/en/media/unaids/contentassets/documents/document/2011/20110321_Silent_no_more.pdf.

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