Introducing a New Toolkit on Engaging with Religious Leaders and Faith Communities

This blog post has previously appeared on Religion and Diplomacy

By Ruth Watson ~

A new toolkit published by ACT Alliance EU, Caritas Europa, EU-CORD and Islamic Relief Worldwide gives EU decision-makersand civil society a concise practical tool to encourage engagement with local religious leaders and faith communities in humanitarian, development and peace response. It has been produced in the context ofpandemic response and looks ahead to the post-recovery phase. Yet its considerations apply broadly across programming sectors: from addressing conflict and fragility to defence of civil liberties.

Why another resource on faith actors?

A large proportion of development and humanitarian assistance and peacebuilding programming sponsored by the EU and Member States’ focusses on countries and regions where faith and belief play a large part in shaping customs, practices and frameworks of well-being.

Global epidemics such as Zika and Ebola and the World Humanitarian Summit of 2016 inspired action to improve the quality of partnerships with and funding to local civil society and affected communities high on the agenda. The importance of engaging with religious leaders and faith communities specifically came into sharp relief when errors made by international NGOs in the West Africa Ebola crisis hit media headlines and brought the issue into the focus of humanitarians and leading academics. By failing to involve faith actors in the response, the epidemic mushroomed as unsafe burial and behavioural practices continued and hard to access communities remained out of reach of international efforts.

In recent years NGOs, the EU and agencies of multi-lateral organisations have made uneven progress. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF accelerated engagement with faith actors in the COVID-19 response by creating advisory bodies and written guidance recognising the central role of faith actors. While the EU has made strides in recent years in projects to engage on the issue of Freedom of Religion or Belief, and has piloted approaches for locally-led response, the EU response to COVID-19 lacked deliberate recognition of the role, support, recognition and involvement of religious leaders and faith communities.

Our new Toolkit aims to both raise awareness and expand traditional perceptions of the role played by religious leaders and communities of different faiths beyond the often-recognised history as key service providers for health and education: from defence of civil liberties in lockdown measures to protection of vulnerable groups including women, the disabled and the hard to reach.

Of increasing urgency in the context of pandemic crisis and ongoing global impacts of climate change are the contributions to resilience. We highlight a wealth of actions across faith groups including Buddhist networks and the Caritas network. Moreover, the holistic frameworks of resilience used by many religious leaders and faith communities provide valuable insights for policy makers and NGOs seeking to shift toward people and community-centred programming: that is, frameworks that capture factors such as socio-economic conditions an understanding of wellbeing, identity and belonging.

A maze with no exit?

While we value and raise awareness of these important aspects of the role played by faith actors, we recognise the highly complex and sensitive challenges in many operational contexts which betray simplistic engagement with faith actors. For many policy makers and in-country NGO programmers there is reluctance to engage religious leaders due to concerns that they are drivers of gender inequalities and abuses, have partisan affiliations which may compromise neutrality and impartiality, and in fragile contexts may be drivers of tensions along religious lines.

The Toolkit draws on programmes and research from contexts worldwide to provide positive ways to engage as well as considerations for addressing these challenges where appropriate. We consistently found that interviewees and research endorse regular dialogue, creation of committees inclusive and led by women and youth, and facilitation of peer-to-peer exchanges as important ways for actors to establish common ground, expectations, interests and limitations.

Literacy of the religious dynamics

We encourage policy stakeholders and agencies to also reflect internally on their own literacy of the frameworks of understanding, beliefs and values of the communities they seek to support and collaborate with. Civil society reporting highlighted in the toolkit demonstrates the possibility to address harmful practices which on the surface appear to be rooted in religion, but on closer analysis result from cultural customs and norms either developed recently or passed through generations. Being able to discern between culture and religion, which become tightly intertwined, can open avenues for dialogue and opportunities for common ground.

Expanding existing approaches

The ongoing dialogue, identification of appropriate actors and mapping exercises endorsed in the toolkit require time. For genuine partnership and collaboration with communities, trust is key. Giving religious leaders and communities a leading role in identifying and communicating their own needs and having a stake in response will entail flexible time frames and investment in developing those relations. In short, we must incorporate longer-term thinking into project-based approaches.