Progressio development worker with imams in Yemen

As well as working with secular partner organisations, we work with a variety of faith-based partner organisations in our country programmes:

  • Partners which are official agencies or representatives of a faith group. For example, the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe is an official agency of the Catholic Church; the Ministry of Religious Guidance in Yemen (with whom we work closely on HIV issues) have an official role in Yemen to advise on religious and ethical issues.
  • Partners which consider themselves to have a faith basis, but are institutionally independent. For example, Contrasida in El Salvador (working on HIV) understands itself to be a Catholic organisation, but in terms of governance is independent of church structures.
  • Ecumenical and inter-faith partners: partners with some form of link to a different Christian denomination (ecumenical) or different faith tradition (inter-faith). For example, in Yemen we work with Abu Musa, an Islamic charitable organisation (see picture above, and photo caption at the bottom of this page).
  • Partners which do not consider themselves to have a faith basis, but have close links in practice - for example, a youth organisation which uses church or mosque premises for meetings.

Official or independent?

Depending on how strong their official links are, working with a faith-based partner organisation will have different opportunities or challenges.

An official church agency in Zimbabwe, for example, will carry with it the reputation, credibility and protection of the church as a whole. At the same time (especially when working in advocacy) it will need to remain within the boundaries of church policy – for example, if wishing to comment on a human rights issue.

By contrast, an independent faith-based agency may be able to take a more radical policy position, but may need to a greater extent to fight its own corner without the assumption of support from the faith hierarchy – and so can be an isolated or marginalised voice. 

Influencing international policy

Faith leaders and faith-based organisations are often important and credible advocates in international policy discussions. For example, a group of Zimbabwean Church leaders under the umbrella of the Ecumenical Zimbabwe Network (EZN), facilitated by Progressio and other agencies, meets regularly to prepare and present joint policy positions concerning Zimbabwe issues, which are then conveyed to decision-makers at the international level and within Zimbabwe.

Faith leaders from developing countries can similarly be powerful voices with the UK public on development or environmental issues, bringing an authenticity and the voices of their community with them.

The engagement of faith leaders with policy issues is likely to be driven by underlying faith values. For example, solidarity is an important concept in the Christian tradition. To respond in solidarity goes beyond a compassionate response, to the desire to act for justice alongside those in need. Its strength comes from the belief that all human beings are sisters/brothers in God. It’s a very powerful sense of connection – and inter-connectedness.

Meeting people's needs

Broadly, an organisation which identifies itself as faith-based will tend to have a natural level of access to and acceptance by communities. This can in turn lead to more effective planning and implementation of programmes which are meeting the real concerns of the people.

The role of faith leaders

Faith leaders frequently have a significant ability to advocate for positive change in situations of conflict or fragility. Their high status can mean that they can speak when it would not be safe for others to do so, both as “truth to power” within their own countries, and as advocates to international decision-makers. This can be in private or in public. High profile examples would include Monsignor Oscar Romero in El Salvador and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and this is a role played regularly by less well-known faith leaders.

Provision of services

On many other issues, faith leaders and communities can be vital providers of services, development and human rights initiatives. For example, there is often significant infrastructure (such as health facilities or schools) focused on development.

It is also common to see faith institutions acting as a focus for volunteering or community organisation. For example, the organising of volunteers providing care and support to people living with HIV, or the formation of active campaigning groups tackling local or national issues.

Their engagement can typically be focused on issues such as promoting peace and reconciliation and good governance, challenging abuses, and speaking to the ethical and values issues within a situation.

Shared values

Last but not least, faith-based agencies may naturally share the values that Progressio holds as an organisation, and this in turn can be a good basis for an effective and trusting partnership.

Avoiding proselytism

For Progressio, proselytism, or the intentional linkage of the provision of assistance with religious affiliation, is in direct contradiction to our understanding of Catholic Social Teaching and our professional standards. It is not the same as an organisation explaining its values or purpose. It should be noted that proselytism is rare, especially for mainstream faith-based organisations working in development or humanitarian assistance. It is by and large strongly challenged when it occurs, usually by the faith-based organisation itself, or if not then by peer agencies, donors or regulatory bodies.

Avoiding discrimination

It is however always necessary to check that one faith community is not being prioritised over another, even though this is likely to be accidental or unintended.

For example, churches may engage with concerns arising from their locality, where their faith community may be dominant, but not be as aware of concerns in other locations where the majority faith is different. Or religious premises may be used as a logical place to hold community meetings – without appreciating that this may be an intimidating venue for non-adherents.

Such risks can be mitigated by working with the faith-based partner organisation to build understanding and address any issues.

Assessing the political climate

Sometimes faith communities or faith leaders can be aligned politically, or co-opted by vested interests. In fragile states, political alignment may even mean alignment with parties to a conflict. It is therefore crucial to build up a good understanding of the political positioning of different religious communities and leaders and identify any significant concerns at an early stage.

Ethical tensions

Sometimes the ethical position of a faith community or faith leadership can come into tension with the concerns of development professionals. One commonly cited example is that of HIV, where concerns to uphold traditional sexual ethics on the part of some religious leaders can conflict with the concerns of health professionals to promote comprehensive prevention amongst high risk groups.

Work by Progressio and others shows that the approach of religious leaders to people living with or affected by HIV is critical to whether people with HIV are supported and assisted, or stigmatised and excluded (see, for example, our report Prayer alone is not enough).

There is also strong evidence that it is possible for faith leaders to change their own attitudes when supported to do so, and then become powerful multipliers of change.

Photo: Progressio development worker Prachanda Man Shrestha (centre) discussing activities for people living with HIV with Hatim Asamiry (left), an imam of Al Athnan mosque, and Abdo Ali Mansoob, director of Progressio partner organisation Abu Musa Al Ashary, outside the Arrhgman mosque in Hodeidah, Yemen. (Photo © Abdul Jalel Almarbashy/Progressio)